Saturday, February 8, 2014

Nothing But A Bunch of Boobs

I pretty routinely take heat in online discussions for suggesting pro-active things women can do to try to deter sexual harassment, unwanted male attention and so on. I am fairly often accused of "victim blaming" and called a "rape apologist" or similar while people paint the guy in question as clearly a creep though they usually don't personally know him and only have the woman's (obviously biased) side of the story for how things went down. I don't like fighting with people to begin with and in some settings it simply results in my comments being deleted anyway.

So, one day, when I was frustrated and annoyed about that kind of thing, I wrote the following (edited) blog rant. Because I have an opinion. And a blog. That's why.


Women are still, by and large, de facto second class citizens. When they run into trouble at work or elsewhere with some man, it is common for the man to be in a position of strength relative to them. Men have the high ground, not morally but in terms of "women are fighting an uphill battle".

This battle is not terribly different from the battle for equal rights waged by blacks in the U.S. In fact, historically, women's rights activists and civil rights activists have frequently paired up because their interests were not terribly different and their needs and tactics overlapped substantially. I grew up in The Deep South surrounded by racism and learned a lot about prejudice of that sort firsthand. I like taking lessons from the civil rights movement in part because it removes the question of sexuality from the equation and this helps make it clearer to me which strategies are logically supportable.

Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player to be signed to a white team, was signed only after a lengthy meeting in which it was clearly spelled out that he had to face the inevitable verbal abuse with aplomb and not fight back. (Supporting Wikipedia article) Rosa Parks became a spearhead for desegregation of public transit in part because she was beyond reproach. An earlier case was dropped because the black girl in question turned out to be an unwed pregnant teen. (Claudette Colvin)

So one of the lessons I have taken from black history is that if you are going to fight an uphill battle socially, you better counterbalance that by taking the moral high ground. And I don't mean you should be preachy. I mean you should make every effort to be beyond reproach.

One of the things I get strongly criticized for saying is that if you are the target of unwanted male attention, it is in your best interest to dress conservatively and make sure no one can construe your manner of dress or demeanor as provocative or inviting such attention. This inevitably gets called "victim blaming" and I am inevitably rebuked for it and advised that creepy men will be creepy, nothing you can do about it and it is not her fault.

Yes, some men really are creepy jerks and will behave aggressively and inappropriately towards women no matter how they look or behave. That is absolutely true. But when your personal situation has to be judged by other people, whether in a court of law or a review by the HR department at work, it is irrelevant.

Right or wrong, people will factor your dress style and behavior into their judgement of exactly what went down and whether or not the man is in the wrong. Given that the odds are against you, it is in your best interest to try to be beyond reproach. It is in your best interest to dress and behave in a manner that convinces other people you were not flirting, you were not "asking for it", and you were not sending signals he could misconstrue.

The reality is that since the social norm is that men are supposed to ask and women are supposed to say "yes" or "no", it is a social norm that willing women typically signal invitation to pursuit passively, primarily by dressing provocatively, getting all dolled up (in terms of hair and makeup), and being warm and friendly. Please don't pretend you didn't know this. If you don't want to be accused of "asking for it", position yourself as simply not sending those signals. That way, when Creepy McCreepster does act like a jerk, other people will be more likely to side with you instead of him.

Furthermore, this really isn't as one-sided as people act like it is. Men tend to smile less than women and when they do smile at women, it gets routinely read as a come-on rather than friendliness. In other words, being very warm and friendly is typically read as sexual interest, regardless of your gender. So if you want to be treated like the equal of a man, you might try behaving like men do and turning down the warmth. Plus a lot of clothes that conservative corporate dress codes say are acceptable on a woman would not be acceptable on a man. For example, men generally do not wear anything sleeveless and, even though they have no breasts, their chest is typically covered up to the neck.

The fact that anyone thinks it is "victim blaming" to suggest a woman not display her cleavage or otherwise have excess skin showing only casts light on the degree to which we take it as a social norm that women are, in fact, nothing but sex objects and should dress accordingly at all times. I can't tell you how hard it was to find clothes for my corporate job which adequately covered my cleavage and neckline and thus met dress code. Most women's clothes is apparently optimized for showing off the boobs, not covering them up.
However, just like women in low cut shirts are viewed as displaying themselves as sex objects, so are men in muscle shirts. Maybe you hadn't noticed, but muscle shirts are not acceptable attire in your typical office setting. When men can go to work with their chests on display, then you can whine to me about how it is "victim blaming" to say "If you don't want to be treated like a sex object, then cover that shit up." when talking about a woman's chest. It isn't actually hypocritical to say that to a woman. The only sexism here is the fact that it goes without saying that a man will cover it up if he is trying to dress professionally.

Maybe in the future I can figure out how to keep my big mouth shut and let women continue to wear their Daisy Dukes with ass cleavage hanging out the bottom etc. while they loudly proclaim themselves helpless victims and pawns in a world where only men have power and while they equally loudly proclaim that all men are unrestrained asshats who can't keep their eyes, words, or hands to themselves. But, seriously, that simply doesn't jibe with my experience at all.
My experience is that if you want power, you have to take it, not wait for someone to grant it to you. If you are going to try to take power, you best start with acting upon whatever piece of it you have some control over (hint: that would primarily be you and your choices, not the inappropriate behavior of other people). My experience is also that not all men are creeps.  I have found that it very much helps if you start with an assumption of innocence on their part. I have also found that how I dress and behave does, in fact, influence their behavior towards me (influence, not control -- yes some men are just creepy but, hello, they are human and respond to outside stimuli as well).
But I am rather tired of trying to be helpful and getting pissed on for it. So go ahead and enjoy your professional victim status, if you so wish. Y'all feel free to just position yourselves as nothing but a bunch of boobs (of both kinds: physical and intellectual).

Bonus points: It happens to be Black History Month and I took inspiration from Black history for my analysis.

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