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!
In case you missed it, there was a recent story about a TSA agent who snapped and assaulted a coworker after being humiliated for a year over the alleged size of his manhood. As part of routine training this agent passed through the new millimeter wave body scanner while his coworkers saw his genitals in sufficient detail on their monitor to form opinions.
The issue reminded me of the bizarre disparity between how physical and emotional assaults are viewed. I think too many have bought into the nonsense of the saying, "Sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you.
While I am entirely against any sort of physical aggression against another person, I think it's completely wrong to view physical actions as automatically more serious than emotional ones. And because the impact of emotional abuse is often so minimized by society, the people suffering it are often expected to simply tolerate or ignore it, which can lead to explosive physical responses. And I don't think we should blame the victim twice.
Quite frankly, if the story is true as it's reported, I think the humiliated man in this case showed great restraint in tolerating his coworkers jabs for a year. I don't condone this man's demanding an apology from his coworker under threat of a baton beating, nor the beating he gave when he didn't get it, but I understand it. And I think society and the courts should understand it. I think the courts should be able to say to the beaten man, in effect, "You brought this on yourself. We're not getting involved." As I understand it, there is a principle in the law where legal remedies are not available to resolve an illegal transaction; if person A buys illegal drugs from person B, and the drugs turn out to be powdered sugar, the law will not help person A recover his money. I believe a similar view should be taken of this situation. The victimizer is engaging in an illegal harassment of the victim, and thus he shouldn't be able to seek a legal remedy in the courts for the beating he ultimately receives as a direct result. The humiliated man should not have been arrested and should not be prosecuted. Or, perhaps an alternative that seems also fairer than the current one, the courts could prosecute both people, but they must view the emotionally abusive person as the more serious crime (based on the actual "damage" done).
Society and the courts need to recognize that things said are often far more destructive than things done, and that the damage often lasts far longer. We cannot as humans be reasonably expected to respond otherwise. I still cringingly remember awful and unfortunate things said to me when I was a kid, but a few fights with and bruises from school yard bullies? I remember them without any emotional pain at all.
Domestic abuse needs to be viewed in this light as well. Neither physical nor emotional abuse should be tolerated, and both should be considered abuse. The courts seem to feel even the most horrific verbal insult should just be ignored by the intended recipient while any physical contact in response (even literally a slap in the face) is criminal. (At least if what I've seen on TV in news and on Cops is to be believed.) This makes no sense. Acts should be deemed criminal based on the level of damage that act would cause to a reasonable person.