It’s not what she’s wearing, it’s what you’re saying

By Nadine Jassat

We had a recent submission on our blog this month from an Edinburgh woman who sent out a special message to the victim blamers of this world:

To all the folk who try to tell women that they only get harassed because they are out at a time/ in a place/in an outfit that somehow provokes it, you’re dead wrong. I was walking down a residential road, at 8.45am, wearing a knee length dress, leggings, ankle boots, scarf and denim jacket,  [and] hardly any make up.

Her post is engaging directly with the prevalent myth that a woman’s choice of clothing and location is somehow correlative to her own complicity in whatever violence may be acted against her. This feat of victim blaming, otherwise known as ‘asking for it’, is perpetuated by those who are either a) misogynists, or b) those who in their ignorance either choose to blame the victim as a way of denying the – admittedly terrifying – reality of sexual violence and society’s facilitative role in this (a.k.a, rape culture), or who simply have not thought about the issue at length, and are regurgitating what they see and hear elsewhere.  The division between these two categories is a simple one of Hate VS Ignorance. Of course, misogynists inhale ignorance like they do fresh air, but it festers in their lungs and transforms into an exhalation that is pure hatred.

There have been some excellent campaigns here in Scotland which have challenged such myths. Despite this, when it comes to street harassment, I still hear people saying: ‘but what did she expect dressed like that?’, or, ‘if she didn’t want people to comment on her appearance, she shouldn’t put so much effort into looking good’. When society at large tends to dismiss the cat calling and uninvited touching which women experience on a daily basis as everything ranging from a ‘compliment’ to ‘banter’, it can be hard to challenge these attitudes.

To all those who would cry the two statements above, and excuse street harassment based on how a woman looks, I say this. Firstly, as my opening quote shows, women get harassed no matter where they go, what they are doing, or what they are wearing. Further, harassment can vary from harassers telling women how ‘beautiful’ they think they are, to how ‘ugly’, and everything in between. It is naive to think that it is always issued and received as complimentary. Using this knowledge, it is basic common sense that the cause of  harassment cannot lie with the victim, but must instead lie with the perpetrator, and the attitudes which make him feel he is entitled to act in such a manner.  To argue against this is to claim that women invite harassment simply by existing, which puts the claimant into the misogynist category, and nobody likes a hater.

Secondly,Victim Blamer, why don’t you try wearing a track suit and getting into a nice restaurant for a celebratory meal, a cool bar for the tastiest mojitos in town, or a fun club to dance the night away. Let me know how that works out for you – and how it feels to know that your liberty to do what you want is restricted by what you’re wearing. Consider the pressure women are constantly under to look good. Turn on your TV and count the adverts aimed at telling women how they can have thinner bodies, longer lashes, shinier hair, clearer skin. Read children’s magazines, and watch children’s TV, to understand how as a society from an early age we raise our daughters in a culture which says their value lies in their physical appearance. We give them pacifiers in the shape of red pouting lips, sexualise and glamorise the female TV characters they may look up, and sell them jumpers with the slogan ‘I’m too pretty to do homework’. A 2005 survey found that 63% of girls would like to be glamour models. With this in mind, which seems more logical: that even the very young dress to invite sexual attention, or that we live in a society which tells them that beauty is success.

This isn’t to say that we as human beings aren’t allowed to take pride in our appearance: there’s nothing wrong with wearing something which makes you feel amazing, or with seeing a multi-coloured manicure as a work of art. The problem lies when this goes from a choice to a compulsion; where makeup and fashion is something men cannot participate in, and something which women must. Where you make choices regarding your physical appearance out of obligation rather than enjoyment. Given the context outlined above, ask our hypothetical victim blamer to consider how a woman must feel, pressured for as long as she can remember into maximising her physical appearance, only to find that she is then to blame should she be attacked, intimidated, or simply exhausted by street harassers on account of it. When you say ‘what did she expect dressed like that’, consider, is that really the question you should be asking?

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