How Not To Date A Feminist
This summer I went on a really bad date.
It started off well. Granted, at this stage in life being asked on a date at all was something of a sociological miracle. Why date when you can text someone, “you up?” at 2am? Instant sexual gratification sans commitment. 9/10 econ majors agree it’s the best bang for your buck.
We arrived at the restaurant. It’s warm, we sit outside. A river runs beside us and string lights glow lazily overhead. I have a glass of wine. Still warm I take off my jacket, revealing the sundress I’d bought the week before. For a moment, I feel beautiful.
I’m now going to describe said sundress –a romper to be precise, because if you keep reading you will soon be dying to know. It was a blue-green pattern, empire waist and flowy from the hips down. The straps were approximately one inch thick and crossed in the back. It was not low cut, but had a thin keyhole cutout beneath the crewneck neckline. It fell low under my arms, exposing a bit of my ribcage on either side.
When I put it on, I liked the shape. I liked that it was soft and wasn’t tight. I liked that the blue color matched my eyes and that the cut on the sides allowed me to show off the tattoo I have on my side. I liked that the shorts meant I wouldn’t have to worry about a skirt riding up.
And that’s it. That’s all I was thinking when I put it on.
Which is why I was caught off guard when my date asked if I knew the effect that a piece like this had on men. He explained that it was clearly made to garner male attention, and that I could hardly walk around town in something like that and NOT expect sexual advances. That in a sense, I deserved them because, after all, no one forced me to wear that dress. I should take it as a compliment.
This is the part where you might be dying to know what the dress looked like, had I not already explained it. I know that because I would be dying to know. I’d be wondering, as you might be, whether the piece was actually as provocative, as – dare I say – slutty as his comment might have implied. Because that would change my opinion on the situation. Because that calculation still matters.
I felt blood rush to my face at his words – the same type of hot, sickly, shameful feeling I felt in 6th grade whenever a female classmate was pulled down to the principal’s office to change into oversized sweatpants that would hide her offensive too-thin strap or too-short skirt.
I pushed back. “So you’re saying I look good enough to rape?” I asked “Good enough that I could reasonably expect it? Good enough that I might not mind?”
“No, no!” He back peddles. Rape is a crime. Rape has consequences…sometimes. He explained that, of course, he does not condone rape, just that, ya know, when women wear stuff like that you can kinda understand how guys get into sticky situations. It’s a two-way street.
A woman’s choice of clothing being used to justify sexual assault, advance or even objectification is about as much of a “two-way street” as a Mac Truck running over a puppy.
Statements like this – stigmas like this – make it that much harder for women who are assaulted to come forward. And what’s worse is that they make it that much easier for women to accept the blame. To believe that their short skirt or high heel could be reasonably confused for consent.
There is no “perfect victim” when it comes to sexual assault. The perfect victim of sexual violence is no victims at all.
Now I have to be honest and say that young man who sat across from me on this “really bad date” is not a bad guy. I do not think that now and I honestly did not think it than. After we finished (see: mutually fled) our ill-fated attempt at romance, he followed up by sending me a link to Deborah Tannen’s (a Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University) piece There Is No Unmarked Woman, saying that it was something he looked up, read and thought I might like.
In this piece Tannen coins the term the “marked” woman, or, more specifically, the non-existent “unmarked women”. She describes sitting at a conference meeting, evaluating the minute fashion decisions of each of her three female counterparts and suddenly realizing that it seemed unnatural to place the men at the table under the same scrutiny. She explains,
“Each woman at the conference had to make decisions about hair, clothing, makeup and accessories, and each decision carried meaning. Every style available to us was marked. The men in our group had made decisions, too, but the range from which they chose was incomparably narrower. Men can choose styles that are marked, but they don’t have to, and in this group none did. Unlike the woman, they had the option of being unmarked”.
The central cog of Tannen’s argument is that, while women have an incomprehensible array of ways in which they might present themselves, there is no presentation that allows a woman to simply go about her day unevaluated. This assumed intentionality, especially when it manifests as assumed sexuality, becomes a slippery slope into assumed consent.
I’ve made this argument largely as it pertains to women. With 91% of rape victims being female, the issue of clothing choice being used to justify sexual assault seems overwhelmingly relevant to women. That being said, I feel that it is important for me to add that if the same assumption of consent was made from a man’s outfit that would also be wrong, regardless of the gender of the perpetrator. So please do not discount this argument because I am a women arguing for women. The funny thing about feminism that people seem to forget is that feminists are not advocating for preferential treatment for women - we are fighting for equality. But when the scales are this tipped, simply righting the balance can seem like an outlandish request.
At the end of the day, my “really bad date” could have been a whole lot worse. In too many cases, rhetoric like this facilitates a whole lot worse. Mine was, for all intents and purposes, an everyday moment. A heartbreaking norm. Regardless of who says it, and regardless of who it is said to, there is no excuse for clothing to justify sexual violence. Sex is a privilege not a right, and you cannot assume your way into someone else’s body.