During a safety seminar for law students at York University in Toronto, Constable Michael Sanguinetti reportedly said, “Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” Outrage ensued and the SlutWalk movement was born. In various cities around the world women are marching to protest any suggestion that a woman's attire or choices can have anything to do with their victimization.
I really struggle to understand how feminism can vociferously refuse to acknowledge the role female victims of rape and sexual assault can play in increasing the likelihood of their victimization. Such an admission would not mean no crime had been committed, nor does it stop the victim from being a victim. It simply acknowledges the undeniable fact that choices we make impact the risks we face, which is the key message of a safety seminar. Constable Sanguinetti's word choice may have been poor, but it's not the words people are upset about, I've seen enough debates about this topic to realize it's the concept that offends, not so much the words.
In every other realm these same SlutWalk participants acknowledge the relationship between victim action and victimization. They surely would acknowledge that leaving a purse unattended on a car's front seat with the windows rolled down is not wise. They surely would acknowledge that wearing flashy jewelry in the worst part of town is not wise. They surely would acknowledge that going to bed with their home's windows open and doors unlocked is not wise. If a crime occurred in any of these other situations a crime was still committed, laws were still broken, rights violated; the victim is still a victim. So why the refusal to acknowledge the victim's potential for altering their risk factor when it comes to dress and behavior?
Women should be able to wear whatever they want wherever they want without being sexually assaulted. Absolutely. Throw anyone in jail who fails to understand this. But just because they can doesn't mean they should, no more than I should walk around the bad streets of my town flashing bling.
Don't doom more people to victimization by discouraging the recognition of the deeply offensive reality within perpetrators everywhere.
Or am I missing something?
P.S. - Some clarifications and further thoughts follow, encouraged by the thoughtful arguments and perspectives of those who commented. I'll include some pieces of my responses to them here:
...Every time I’ve tried to discuss this topic with a friend on the other side they seem to become very upset very quickly, seeming to respond emotionally rather than rationally. While I emotionally understand the strong desire to insist that a victim has no influence on their victimization, it seems logically flawed to start from that premise and attempt to build a logic outwards from it, which seems to be what is done. Blaming an actual victim after the fact is thoroughly reprehensible and wholly unproductive, but that humanitarian prohibition cannot be used as an argument against proactive prevention of victimization.
Victims should never be blamed for being victimized. There is no disagreement here. I reject the idea, though, offered by some that this tendency is in any way peculiar to the crime of rape, or peculiar to women. I’ve been robbed and had people say, “What were you doing living in that part of town?” And you know, statistically they were right. But they were being assholes for saying it. That’s where I could afford to live. And the crime was no less a crime just because of choices I had to make to live. The criminals (had they been caught) were no less guilty of a crime. I’ve got Crohn’s disease, an auto-immune disease of the intestines, and the first thing I’ve heard from many medically uninformed friends and relatives is, “Well, what did you think would happen with your diet (vegetarian, but light on vegetables)?” Anyway, I could go on, and on. It is fundamental to human nature that people want to restore a feeling of security when presented with someone else’s tragedy, and they achieve this by explaining to themselves how that outcome (rape, robbery, illness, etc.) couldn’t happen to them or their loved ones. They (friends, family, police, government, etc.) are assholes saying such things to any victim, and court system rightfully shouldn’t allow in such things as it has no relevance on the crime committed (with possible limited exceptions related to severity of punishment, I am not sure I agree with it, but the punishments our justice system establishes are based on things like premeditation versus crimes of opportunity and victim impact).
I think issues like this one become overly polarized, gender, color of skin, etc. shouldn’t define our response or interpretation. Why can't we take the gender out of it? Isn't that what we're struggling as a society to do? Is it really relevant in this topic, to the point that we alter our logic completely? It seems fair to say that while sex crimes are committed far more against adult females than adult males, in youth the victim gender divide is far less extreme. In absolutely all cases everyone should be able to agree that the children are completely innocent. So let’s imagine instead of women we were talking about children, would all the same empowerment arguments still work? Women should be able to go wherever they like alone, should be able to wear whatever they like, should be able to be anywhere at any hour, and should be able to associated with whoever they like. They have an absolute legal right to do all those things (as men do). Similarly, children should be able to roam anywhere within their neighborhoods they like, alone, without being assaulted or abducted, they should be allowed to wear whatever they like without being an object of a perverted individual’s lusts, they should be able to stay out until dark without the cover of night becoming an invitation to a crime, and they should be able to hang out with older children or adults without being taken advantage of or sexually groomed. But find me any parent who wants their child to exercise those rights, let alone one who wants to participate in a parade denouncing these basic precautionary tenets. Women are not children, obviously, but I’m not sure how that makes the advice any less valid. We all remain vulnerable, of whatever gender. There are tons of places in my city I shouldn’t walk, and things I shouldn’t wear (e.g., bling) or carry (e.g., laptop) in other neighborhoods. Is the solution for me to flaunt these common sense rules and exercise my rights anyway? I could, but it seems rather self defeating. And if I do the very first thing people might say to me would be, “What were you doing walking through that part of town with your laptop?” And if they do they are assholes, whether or not statistics back them up.
Rape is evil. I just hate that the message SlutWalk telegraphs is not that rape is evil but that modifying your behavior to reduce your odds of being victimized is anti-woman. Even if attire/behavior were shown to be a risk factor for assault this doesn't mean women can't freely choose to exercise these rights, and if they chose they could always offset additional risk factors by taking additional precautions. Why can't we discuss this topic and prove or disprove the correlation, instead of just declaring it a myth without any solid proof, that I can find, and plenty of logic to suggest otherwise. (I argue my version of that logic in this post about how provocative clothing/behavior must correlate to higher incidence of sexual assault.) I certainly applaud all efforts to educate salvageable men and court systems about proper views of women. I just don’t want more people victimized, and certainly not to have the problem made worse by the stubborn refusal to acknowledge that certain horrible men have fixed ideas.
Some discussions I've had with people on this topic have surprised me by seeming to imply that people who suspect a correlation between attire/behavior and sexual assault mean that all sexual assaults result from that attire/behavior. And, aside from some monstrous news stories coming out of third-world countries, I've never heard that simplistic argument being expressed or that view held. If there is a correlation between sexual assault and victim attire/behavior it is slight. The vast, vast majority of sexual assaults are committed without any regard to any such things. But just because it is much, much less significant doesn't mean it is not significant to those women whose assaults might have been avoided if there was a risk and we educated them about it so they could make more informed decisions.
The politically correct party line seems to be that:
- No suggestion of association between dress/behavior and likelihood of becoming a victim can ever be made because it erodes the legal status/protections of victims
- No suggestion of association between dress/behavior and likelihood of becoming a victim can ever be made because it erodes the personal choice freedoms of women
I disagree with these as I see neither necessarily being harmed by allowing women to be made aware of the specific risks that might be associated with these situations/assaulters.
On the first point, I do not see that such an erosion must occur. In every other area of law the courts are able to recognize that someone making a crime more likely to occur does not mean they were not victimized. Someone forgetting to lock their car does not mean they gave tacit permission to a thief to reach in and steal their laptop; the criminal if caught is still arrested and prosecuted. While the courts have behaved monstrously in the past regarding rape (and still do in many places in the world) they have improved considerably and are continuing to do so. I do not believe that their continued improvement requires women refuse to acknowledge the corrupted, disgusting, evil preferences of rapists.
On the second point, I do not see that the mere recommendation regarding modification of one’s attire is an attack on women’s rights. Each gender is subjected to various social, cultural, religious, and safety rules related to dress, and we are (varyingly) free to flaunt them all. It would be recommended that I not wear bling in a bad neighborhood. It would be recommended that I not wear gang colors in some neighborhoods. It would be recommended that I not carry a laptop bag in some neighborhoods. I could flaunt these or other rules, and sometimes may intentionally and unintentionally. But if someone wants to point them out to me in an effort to help make me aware of my increased level of danger, I don’t see harm in that. And let me make clear I am not suggesting women should ever be told, “Do not wear short skirts.” But it would seem not unreasonable to me if a college safety class for example said, “Wearing a short skirt may put you at greater risk under certain circumstances, you may wish to modify your behavior in those cases and walk with friends, wear a long coat, or otherwise exercise additional precautions.” It would be similar to how someone might advise me to cover up a fancy watch by rolling down my sleeves, put my laptop inside a non-laptop bag, etc.
But I find it difficult, without proof to the contrary, to disbelieve that the odds of a certain type of opportunistic rape occurring by a certain kind of rapist is not potentially altered by victim attire. I have searched the interwebs numerous times and found nothing substantial. I’ve found lots of studies related to jury impressions/perceptions, to victim impact, to case outcomes, but nothing that says anything like, “In a study of 10,000 rapes it was found that rapists used clothing as a selection criteria in 0 cases.” Obviously a study would come to a far more scientific conclusion, but I could find nothing to sink my teeth into, just lots of studies about how people believed this myth, but nothing saying, here is proof that this is a myth. The best I can find is responses similar to yours which say most rapes are committed by people known to them, most rapes are not about sex, most rapes are… And I understand all that, but I am trying to understand if dress has an impact in any rapes. Obviously if it has an impact in 1 in 100 rapes that is useful to know.
Now the reason I find it hard to believe a “normally” dressed woman has a slightly higher chance of being unassaulted is because of my own casual, disgusted observation of men. Men (though it is entirely and completely wrong) do react differently to a woman who is dressed conservatively versus provocatively. You see this everywhere. Here’s a stupid minor example, I was just somewhere two nights ago sitting outside at a cafe when a stranger next to me, who I’d earlier asked about the wifi password, prods me and says, “Look at that ass.” directing my attention to a provocatively dressed woman passing by. Several hundred women must have passed in the time I’d sat there and he’d said nothing (it’s down the street from a popular bar). Yet he felt comfortable pointing this one woman, and this one feature out to me, a complete stranger, because the woman was dressed that way. I ignored him, because quite frankly I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to say to something like that; I don’t personally think of women on the street in those terms. I’ve certainly seen drunk guys in clubs/bars behaving as though a woman’s provocative dress was an invitation to be more amorous than I suspect they would if she was dressed “normally”. Given all this, I find it incredibly hard to believe, without proof and probably even a little with weak proof, that the likelihood of some class of rape (e.g., opportunistic, post bar/club, with neanderthal intoxicated male) is not impacted at all by provocative attire. It would be a vastly more interesting reality, I would like what you say to be true, to imagine that men could seem cruder to women dressed provocatively, could seem more amorous with them, could seem more aggressive with them, and yet were no less observant of sexual permission boundaries; that would be far more fascinating.
The horrible case of 8 year-old Leiby Kletzky lost on a seven block walk to meet his mother, kidnapped and murdered by a stranger he'd asked for directions, has prompted various forms of outrage and advice. One thing I've seen quite a few places is the recommendation that children be instructed not to ask men for help, on the basis that men are more likely than women to exploit a child. And I can't help but wonder if that's really the advice we should be giving?
How much harm does it do children to make them afraid of men, to be given the not so subtle message that men are by nature dangerous? I can't help but think that childhood lesson produces a lasting impact that is very real, but also hard to quantify. And is the damage done by that lesson given to all children truly less than the impact of the assaults/killings/abuses directed at a minority of children? We can easily say that protecting even one child from abuse is worth just about anything, but that would be a lie. While it's hard to compare these things, as a society we clearly do... All parents could escort their children everywhere they go until they are 18, to ensure their safe passage, but society has decided that the children's mental health requires the risk of them being given independence, accepting the horrible things that could happen when they exercise it. So is a society tainted by the fear that men are likely to abuse them worth the reduced harm to some children? I'm not sure.
And separate from that, does the warning to avoid men when in need not cross (or at least come infinitely close to crossing) a very sexist, stereotyping line? What makes me uncomfortable is that you could use a similar logic to explain to a young daughter that she should stay away from black boys. Statistically they are more likely to commit crimes. This advice would make her "safer". But that would be a horrible message to send a child; I can't imagine any decent parent doing it. It's offensiveness is obvious, the fact is black people aren't genetically more likely to commit crimes, the increased crime rate is explained by socioeconomic factors. And so now we turn to the advice for daughters regarding men. Are men more likely to commit crimes because of genetic/hormones or is it because of other factors (environment, education, culture, etc.)? If it is not genetics/hormones then it would seem wholly "unfair" to discriminate on that basis, just as it would be to warn whites about black people when the root danger is socioeconomic, not race. Presumably one would argue that crime is more common among males for genetic/hormonal reasons, and I'd probably agree that there is some truth to that. But I'm not sure even that is enough to make it an acceptable form of discrimination, when every individual male is being judged with comparison to the aberrant males.
And of course all this relates somewhat to my earlier discussions about SlutWalk and whether or not women advising women to take precautions in situations where their behavior and/or dress could put them at elevated risk constitutes sexism. In that case my argument was that it's not sexist (against women) to make women aware of the risk of assault and mention precautions they could take to improve their odds, as long as those precautions outlined do not necessitate women being restricted in how they dress or where they go, and so long as society does not see those who flout these precautions as no longer being victims, should an assault occur. In this situation with children, I see a few key difference. There is in this case the prejudgment that all men may be potential kidnappers/pedophiles/murderers. In this case the solution is to avoid asking all men for help, and it is the blanket nature of the warning that I think makes it so sexist. If the advice given to children was instead, ask any adult woman or any adult man in some degree of authority wearing an employee's uniform engaged in his duties (e.g., grocery store manager, postal worker, city construction worker, etc.) then I would feel the advice less sexist and more reasonable; I do not know what the right selection criteria would be for men equally unlikely to violate children as the average woman, but I'm sure there are some.
Why provocative female attire/behavior must correlate to a higher incidence of rape and sexual assault…
Let me make it clear, I am in no way suggesting that provocative attire/behavior is a factor in the vast, vast majority of sexual assault. What I am going to try and argue is that it must logically be a factor in a non-insignificant minority of sexual assault, perhaps assault fitting one or several specific profiles (e.g., late night post bar outing sexual assault by an intoxicated male). While I have no studies to back up what I'm saying, neither can I find any studies backing up the opposing position (that provocative attire/behavior has zero correlation to any kinds of sexual assault). What I have found is lots of groups proclaiming this idea is a misogynistic myth, despite offering no evidence. If those groups claiming it is a myth mean that clothing/behavior is not a factor in most assaults, then obviously they are absolutely right, but that seems a straw man argument; I am unaware of any such claims by even moderately sensible people. Most rapes are committed by someone the person knows, are premeditated, and are driven by things which have nothing whatsoever to do with any factor the victim could reasonably influence. Let me also make clear, a victim is a victim. No victim behavior makes them deserving of assault. The purpose of my discussing this topic is that I am trying to explore what I think is misdirected energy against warning women that their clothing and behavior may elevate their risk for sexual assault (see the my discussion of SlutWalk marches), and that they may wish to take additional precautions as a result when they exercise their absolute right to wear and be as they wish. If you have studies to counter anything I'm saying or have alternative logical arguments, please share them. If I am wrong here I eagerly want to know the errors. I would love nothing more than to believe I am entirely wrong, that would be a far more interesting reality; discovering you are wrong is terribly exciting, as new worlds of understanding open up before you.
Here are the reasons I believe provocative female attire must correlate to a higher incidence of rape. I do not agree that the following is desirable or proper, I am merely stating what my observations have been (detailed explanations follow):
- Male behavior around provocatively dressed females (relative to context) is observed to be markedly different than male behavior towards normally dressed females.
- Aroused humans behave more dangerously than unaroused humans.
- Provocative attire puts females in greater contact with males, with those interactions tending to be less bonding and more sexual in nature.
- Men who look for provocatively dressed women are more dangerous.
- The self-fulfilling prophecy of the provocative behavior/attire myth.
If some things are different, their sum is unlikely to be the same. If we can logically establish that provocative female attire and/or behavior significantly alters male behavior, especially related to sexuality and aggression, then it seems unlikely to imagine there is no impact upon the incidence of sexual assaults committed by men. How much of an impact is probably impossible to logically argue, but with over 230,000 sexual assaults against women in US every year, any impact would be significant.
Male Behavior Around Provocatively Dressed Women
Surely everyone has seen men leering at, approaching, commenting about provocatively dressed women in a way they do not with more normally dressed women. I relate this story elsewhere, but a couple of days ago I'm sitting at a cafe when a stranger next to me, who I’d earlier asked about the wifi password, prods me and says, “Look at that ass.” directing my attention to a provocatively dressed woman passing by. Several hundred women must have passed in the time I’d sat there and he’d said nothing (it’s down the street from a popular bar). Yet he felt comfortable pointing this one woman, and this one feature out to me, a complete stranger, because the woman was dressed that way. I ignored him, because quite frankly I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to say to something like that; I don’t personally think of women on the street in those terms. In the few times I've been to bars or clubs (and even out on the streets) I’ve certainly seen guys behaving as though a woman’s provocative dress was an invitation to be more amorous than I suspect they would if she was dressed less provocatively. I do not agree with this behavior, I do not engage in this behavior, but neither can I deny it exists. If you have observed behavior like this as well, how can you not agree that such social aggression (which moves into the areas of sexual aggression) is more likely to approach and cross over a line of sexual assault than would more staid interactions?
Aroused Humans Behave Differently
Very closely related to the first point, aroused humans behave differently than unaroused humans. Aroused humans are notorious for forgoing condoms and the risk of pregnancy, ignoring the risks of disease, detaching from vows they have made to wives/partners, turning away from the disruption that may result in their family unit (and their relationships with their children), disregarding risk to their job, etc. Many are willing to hurt others (or risk hurting others) for selfish sexual gratification. The vast majority of humans are not amoral pigs and are able to recognize and respect the consent (or lack thereof) of a partner, but clearly some small and hideous minority do not. While rape is not usually driven by a desire for sexual gratification, clearly some rape is, and unaroused males must therefore be safer than aroused males.
Provocative Attire Puts One in Greater Contact with Males
Time and time again I've seen women who dress provocatively get more attention from guys; and by that I mean more attention from more guys, and the attention is of a nature which is more superficial, more sexual, and less likely to create an emotional bond which might discourage some types of male sexual aggression.
On a pure numbers basis, a woman normally dressed sitting alone at the bar is going to get fewer guys interacting with her than were she sitting alone and provocatively dressed. If we assume that some fixed percentage of men are dangerous, more visibility to and interaction with more random men would seem to put one at elevated risk. Every day we queue up in grocery store and bank lines behind people who must occasionally be muggers, rapists, pedophiles, drug dealers, but the slight nature of our interactions afford us protection. The nature of the interactions is key. And I would posit that the nature of the interactions between a provocatively dressed woman and a random man who approached her based on attire is going to be more superficial and less protective than a similar interaction without the provocative attire. While an emotional bond is only protective in some cases, we hear it routinely cited as the reason why some victims of kidnap, rape, and other crimes ultimately survive, because their assailant came to see them not merely as an object.
It's important to note that my take on this could be backwards. It could be that while it might diminish some classes of rapes it might elevate others. Perhaps women would be less likely to be assaulted from these sorts of men and more likely to be by other sorts of men (the types they might meet in more significant contexts and develop more emotional bonds with). I suspect that's not the case, but I can't deny it might be.
Men Who Look for Provocatively Dressed Women are More Dangerous
The men who are attracted to superficial qualities like provocative dress (to the point that they initiate interaction) seem less likely to be currently in, or have been in, significant, emotionally deep relationships. As such, they seem less likely to be empathetic towards women, and more likely to objectify them, ultimately seeing them as a disposable means to an end. I can't shake the feeling that those men pose more of a danger to women statistically than a guy who initiates interaction because of some more significant and instructive quality about her (e.g., the esoteric topic of a book she's reading). I see this focus on more substantive qualities as being a quality more likely found in a well-governed male, one who has chosen (or been genetically/environmentally predisposed) to cast off some of his baser urges.
There is a possibility that the opposite is true, in as much as sexually aggressive males could be less likely to commit sexual assault because they know how easily they can find another woman to engage in sexual relations with. I doubt it, though, since I think the "self-governance" aspect is the key point.
The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of the Provocative Behavior/Attire Myth
The horribly sad fact about humans is, many will do what they think they can get away with. We hear stories of societies all around the world which still (wrongly) believe that provocatively attired/acting women are "fair game" for unwanted sexual advances and assault. If prosecution occur at all the men claim they were provoked and juries far too often agree, leaving the woman further victimized, stigmatized, and sometimes even punished criminally. I find it very hard to imagine that this atmosphere would not greatly encourage some men to sexually assault women, with many specifically targeting women who they and the courts see as "fair game". In South Africa, for example, 25% of men admit to having raped a woman (and half of those to having raped more than one). Even the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, was tried for rape. He was acquitted, after his mounting a defense based on her supposedly provoking him by wearing a particular outfit. His "innocence" and the apparent acceptance of his excuse (in the minds of those listening to the abstract of the case, if not the details) surely makes many South African males feel ever more that their monstrous treatment of women is justified, is acceptable, and is unlikely to be punished, so long as they only rape the ones who "deserved it". But the answer to this problem is not to hide from women the fact that many horrible people in South Africa feel safe abusing provocatively dressed/acting women, it is to challenge the ridiculous public and legal notion that such behavior is anything less than evilly felonious, while simultaneously alerting women to the disgusting erroneous views of many of their men.
Imagine your daughter was going to South Africa on a semester abroad from college, wouldn't you want campus police or trip organizers to warn females participating in the program that sexual crimes against their gender is so alarmingly common and that the attitudes of the legal system and the general public likely mean that a shocking number of South African males feel justified in their assault on provocatively dressed/acting women? Would you not want the women to know this and be encouraged to reduce their likelihood of victimization, mentioning ways they could optionally choose to minimize their risk, including modifying their attire, traveling in groups, reducing alcohol intake, carrying mace, etc.? That seems like a reasonable, intelligent response, one likely to protect students while letting them exercise their freedom to choose whatever remedy they wished. But this solution would appear to be one that the supporters of the SlutWalk marches would feel is inappropriate, if I am correctly interpreting their position. And while the United States and Canada are far more advanced on gender and sexual equality than once they were, I'd argue that social attitudes are not so improved that we can claim women here do not deserve a warning not unlike one might give to a daughter heading off to South Africa; numerous jury-related studies prove the point that in the minds of many North Americans provocative attire/behavior is still a partial justification for sexual assault.
The incident that touched off the SlutWalk protests was offensive, the constable who warned women not to dress like sluts made an overly broad statement that implied, or could have been interpreted as supporting, the absurd notion that women had primary control over whether or not they were victimized. But rather than attack one constable's specifically terrible wording the SlutWalk protests seem to promote the idea that women have almost zero ability to alter their risk factors, which simply cannot be true. Some risks are inescapable, other risks could theoretically be reduced but practically speaking shouldn't be if one wants to lead a normal life, but other risks could be reduced without giving up precious freedoms.
Warnings about negative attitudes do not usually aide and abet those negative attitudes. Warning women about the corrupted minds of a minority of men and how they might avoid those situations does not provide safe harbor to those men, nor does it encourage others to become corrupted. Our society warns potential victims about the nature of potential criminals all the time without sanctioning or emboldening those criminals; safety seminars teach people about everything from securing your home, to avoiding internet scams, to safely traversing dark mall parking lots.
What to do about it?
If what I'm suggesting is in fact true then I'm not suggesting the remedy requires suggesting women be encouraged to cover up or stop behaving as they wish. I am simply arguing that we should not be afraid to tell women about the risks as they are, not as we might wish them to be. What is being done now smacks of politically correct censorship to me; we can’t openly discuss this possible risk because some people fear it will be misunderstood by the masses as tacit permission to assault women (rather than as a targeted message to reduce specific correlated assaults). I can't think of any other topic where this sort of logic is argued. Quite to the contrary, society is seen as smart enough to understand the message that we shouldn’t let our young children wander off alone in a mall, without thinking such a warning emboldens pedophiles to abuse our kids. Why then do some insist an advisory to women emboldens abusive males?
The solution to the problem would not necessitate alterations in provocative dress or provocative behavior. For example, advice might sound like the following, "Women who dress or act provocatively are suspected to be victimized somewhat more often than average women. Any additional risk can me eliminated by traveling in pairs and reducing alcohol consumption in those circumstances." Obviously I'm not sure what the real advice might be, that would require study, but something along those lines which makes it clear to women that they can choose their options for reduced risk.
And finally, let me just re-iterate, nothing I've said alters the absolute necessity that we continue educating society and revising legal systems to ensure that everyone well understands that assault of any form against anyone is wrong. I just don't see how we are served by a hypocritical refusal to seriously discuss or at least disprove the correlation between provocative attire/behavior and some sexual assaults.
And if my argument is flawed, please let me know how and why!