Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Dress to... what?

Here's a starting point. Please, please read that post. It's one of the most lucid and telling things I've ever seen on the subject of rape, rape culture, Steubenville and gender perceptions generally. When I first read it, I was deeply frightened that people - particularly young people - could think that way as a normal matter of course. But, introspective as I am, I realised that, somewhere at the bottom of my mind where things are primitive and atavistic, I have that thought too. I hope I'm human enough to rise above it - at very least, I think I have been so far, but eternal vigilance is required in all such matters, and I don't think I'll ever consider myself able to assume that part of my brain forever silenced.

We're dealing with a huge topic here, and one that I'm underqualified to talk about most of, but there is one thing I've noticed as a writer which led me to some interesting thoughts on one particular common justification rapists and their advocates use - the 'look at the way she dresses' argument (actually 'argument' is giving it too much credit, but I'm not sure I can think of a better term right now).

As writers, we tend to deal with characters' choices about clothing only when the choices are unusual or special in some way - the necklace that was left in Grandma's will, the lucky underpants, the wedding dress and so on. It's pretty rare for us to have a character stood in front of his/her wardrobe in the morning thinking about what balance between comfort and presentation is appropriate for the day, what they feel like wearing, etc.

But those ordinary choices are interesting, or at least they can be. What factors affect our sartorial decisions? Comfort is obviously one, but anyone who's been into a city centre on Saturday night in January, with snow on the ground and bare arms on almost everyone of both genders, can see it's not the only one. There are practical motives - safety equipment, work uniforms - but while the design of these is an interesting topic, it's not one I know anything like enough about tailoring, safety or uniforms to talk about.

There's definitely something else at work, though. Let me start with a non-contentious example, one I'm fully-qualified to discuss: myself. You will almost never see me not wearing a shirt, despite the fact that I find shirt collars uncomfortable, buttoned cuffs irritatingly restrictive, and my build (slender, but long-bodied and thick-necked) is awkward enough that most shirts fit me quite badly. Why? And why, within the handful of shirts I own that I'm happy to be seen in, can it take me so long sometimes to work out which I want to wear on a given day?

There's an element of comfort, since the shirts I own have a clear hierarchy of irritation and unpleasantness factor, and an element of smartness, since the more comfortable ones get worn more often and therefore look a bit more worn-out. But mainly, it's to do with constructing a self-image. It's something I do to make myself feel a bit more professional and grown-up when I'm sat at my desk writing, blogging, networking, promoting and so on.

As somebody working part-time and generating a very low income yearly, while spending so much of my time on my creative activities, I feel a hefty tension with society's idea of a respectable adult. Dressing smart while I work makes it feel like work, not slobbing around in my flat wasting my life. It ameliorates at least some of that tension.

What I'm getting at is that we're self-absorbed creatures. Our decisions and judgements are about ourselves, and wherever possible they are about the world that revolves around us.

Let's take that principle and apply it to a more contentious case, then: so-called 'provocative' clothing. I hate that term - it's probably one of the most entrenched linguistic mechanisms of rape culture. The argument I'm going to make is that clothing is never 'provocative' because when women make decisions about how they want to dress, those decisions aren't directed towards others, towards men they are 'trying to provoke'; they're self-directed decisions.

I can obviously speak from no personal experience of being a woman choosing what clothes to wear (the one time I wore drag, my outfit was selected for me, and the whole evening was a tragicomic disaster). I can only speak from the experience of being someone who worries a lot about my personal image and the way society views me. What follows is speculation, and by all means correct me if I'm wrong - as a philosopher I'm interested, but as a writer this is something I feel I need to know and understand if I am to do my job.

So, why might, for example, a young woman dressing for a night out or a party wear a short skirt or a low-cut top? Apply the principle that our decisions are mostly self-absorbed; what social constructs does this woman stand in relationship to? Most obviously, the set of arbitrary and somewhat unrealistic standards of beauty which modern culture has set up. Well, we can all understand wanting to feel beautiful/attractive/handsome, can't we?

But think about the times when you've wanted to look good. My guess is that, unless you were targeting some particular person, had someone specific in mind that you were trying to attract, it was your own idea of beauty that you were trying to recreate. Not necessarily your own idea of what you find attractive, but your own idea of how society's templates apply to you. You might ask a friend for advice, but most of your decisions are going to be made looking in a mirror or imagining looking in a mirror in some way.

So you're either dressing for some specific person, or for your own nebulous concept of beauty. Your decision was never about sending any kind of signal to the rest of the species that you were ready for mating. Our hypothetical young lady isn't thinking 'what will make all the actual men who will see me dressed like this lust for me?', she's thinking about 'what kind of person do I want to look like?'

And that applies even if the person she wants to look like is a sex icon known to be lusted after by all the boys.

So far, so good. But I noticed that something interesting, something deeply troubling, happens if you apply the same principle of self-absorption to a male looking at such a lady. Before I explain further, let me stress: I don't think any of what follows justifies the attitude that sometimes results. I don't believe there's such a thing as 'asking for it'. I offer the explanation I'm about to offer in the hope that it contains some suggestions as to how we might better educate young men to not be rapists.

Our male sees our hypothetical young lady and makes two subconscious assumptions - that she's heterosexual (and even according to the most generous estimates of the prevalence of homosexuality, at 10-20%, this assumption is more or less justified), and that she dressed the way she did, as we have already discussed, because she wanted to feel beautiful (for want of a better short way of putting it).

But while the woman's decision to dress to feel beautiful was self-directed, the man's interpretation of that decision is also self-directed. That is, his interpretation of her concept of beauty is as relating to him, not as relating to her. And beauty as relating to the beholder is an attractive power.

The thought process that follows is something like this: beauty is about attracting people, this woman is looking to attract men, I am a man, therefore she is looking to attract me - I am a member of the group she is trying to attract. It's a small step from that to the assumption of consent that those schoolkids in the article I linked to above seem to be making.

And the perception of that step as short is part of the essence of rape culture and victim-blaming. So often in the unenlightened parts of culture (and no, I'm not going to pull punches - if you blame rape victims, you are unenlightened, and you are an inferior human being. No buts), we see men portrayed as incapable of resisting taking that step when it is that short. It becomes the woman's task to make that step as long as possible if she wants to avoid being raped.

But the actual problem with the male attitude is much deeper. It's in the self-absorptive psychological mechanism that turns a woman's relationship to societal standards of beauty (an already-problematic phenomenon) into 'dressing to seduce'. The self-absorption itself is, of course, a gender-neutral, species-wide problem that interferes with all sorts of other human social behaviours, and we have to get better at training people to be less self-absorbed in general - let this be one more argument on that point.

Ultimately, what I'm getting at is this: discussions of clothing have no place whatsoever in the discourse about rape. If your solution to rape is anything to do with what women wear at all, you are on the wrong track.


  1. As a philosopher and rhetoritician, you've fallen victim to one of the classic no-no's: The erroneously absolute statement. "Your decision was never about sending any kind of signal to the rest of the species that you were ready for mating."

    Horse pucky.

    People dress with the explicit intent to get laid all the damn time. Even implicitly, by your own argument - dressing to feel beautiful and attractive - is a condition of confidence and desirability. You put on your "work" clothes to slip into a professional or writerly mein... and your deeper motivations for that are.....? (I suppose I could claim that Freud may have had a point, with sex being the ultimate motivator behind everything, but that's a facile argument.)

    People may decide to dress in ways that flatter or disguise their body, to reflect their mood to garner or dissuade attention, or "flag" in any number of ways. We are, for better or worse, bunch of people with an interest in sex and visual stimuli.

    But none of those sartorial choices imply consent [1]. They may simply have been made to display intent or potential interest (or disinclination, or a desperate need to do laundry).

    Unless one is getting dressed in the actual presence of one's lover and in the context of "we are going to be having sex" as a negotiated, consensual act, whether immediately or "as soon as we get out of the restaurant/movie theater/dentist's office/whatever, I'm going to fuck you cross-eyed"... clothing is never consent. Consent is consent.

    So, small quibble with a rhetorical stumble aside, I more or less agree with you.

    [1] I have had a GF who owned a pair of underthings that state, overtly, "when i got dressed, i was thinking about having sex with you" ... and even seeing those, the appropriate behavior is "... and do you want to have some *now*?"

  2. You could also argue in the societal notions of beauty category that both sexes dress to seek the approval or admiration of the same sex, namely their friends and contemporaries. Choosing what to wear and getting ready to go out is often seen as an important social ritual between friends. Although in recent history this has become specific to women, this used to be common among men as well (e.g Dandyism). So what might be seen as an attempt to attract a partner might also be a signal for acceptance within a social group or to impress any potential rivals.