Last weekend, I sat on the subway, thumbing through a magazine and grumbling about how the train is so slow. As I sat there, more and more people got on the train. Then two pairs of feet caught my attention — one was manicured with bright red polish and strapped into a sky high silver sandals, the other was in electric blue stilettos. Both pairs of ankles were attached to long bare legs, as their owners awkwardly sat down across from me. They were wearing skirts so short that I could almost see their underwear. It seemed like any moment, one — or maybe both — of them would open her knees a little too wide and I’d be forced to catch a glimpse of her baby-maker. “What are you looking at?” one of them snapped at a man who leered at them.
These girls were tarted up. It was only 8 p.m.
Watching them attempt to cross their legs, and then try to just squeeze their knees together, I felt adrenaline rush through me. I felt like I should do something. But what? Throw a pair of sweatpants at them? These are adults. They’re just having fun, I thought. They can take care of themselves.
But then another part of me thought: how naive.
No good was going to come to these two women that night. Best case scenario: one of them would walk above a subway grate and the world would see what kind of bikini wax she was rocking, and her stiletto would inevitably catch (those subway grates are a real bitch on skinny heels) and she’d twist her ankle and end up in the emergency room. Worst case scenario: Some a-hole would take one look at them and sense an easy target.
The more I think about sluttly clothing and its relationship to sexual assault, the more I am convinced that mini-skirts are a feminist issue—one that young women in the U.S. need to think about in addition to more obvious issues like equal pay for equal work, better access to gynecological care, and the need for more women representing us in government. Extremely revealing clothing —the kind we see on “Jersey Shore,” the kind we know women wear on college campuses all across the country, the kind we see around us in bars on weekend nights, the kind that fueled “Charlie’s Angels,” the kind that inspires all those “last night, I looked so hot” stories that people like to tell—regularly puts women in danger in the name of a good time.
In an ideal world, rape wouldn’t exist. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t matter how much a woman had to drink, what she was wearing, or what overtures she had given—no man would ever consider sex without explicit consent and would recognize that a short skirt isn’t an invitation to rape. But we don’t live in that world. Unfortunately, short of some Herculean sensitivity raising effort, we do not have control over what men, drunk or sober, will do when presented with our bare legs. What we do have control over is our side of the equation — how much we decide to show.
So right about now you’re probably like, Hold up. Did I get lost on the internet, because this is some bullshit right here. And you would be right! That is some bullshit right there. It’s exactly the kind of bullshit that’s currently being crapped out in this post, “Why Being Drunk is a Feminist Issue” (I would suggest skipping the comments, which appear to be a gathering place for the Least Intelligent People on the Internet). The piece is basically word for word what I wrote above, except about drinking instead of mini-skirts. And it’s Feminist, of course, because it’s about Helping Women.
This is how victim-blaming works: You point to something a victim of assault did wrong, and you imply (or just say) that if she hadn’t made X choice, she wouldn’t have ended up raped. You say, of course no one is to blame but the rapist! But I’m talking about prevention! Except rape isn’t a drunken miscommunication. It’s not a gray area. If you’re blacked out and a dude takes your clothes off and penetrates you, I promise it’s not because he was under the impression you consented. It’s because he’s a rapist.
I have been drunk a lot of times. I have been in bed with other drunk women and also men a lot of times. You know why I didn’t get raped? Because I wasn’t in the same room as a rapist. Seriously, think this through: If you’re in bed with someone and they’re drunk, and maybe you’re drunk too, but they clearly can’t tell up from down or maybe they’re passed out, do you start fondling them or doing things that they don’t appear to be enjoying or have no reaction to? Of course you don’t. (Or maybe you do, in which case, stop it and get help). It’s really easy to talk about “gray rape” and “not-quite rape” in the abstract, and to kind of feel bad for the poor guys who didn’t realize you didn’t want to have sex when you were so drunk you couldn’t remember your own name. But I find it helpful to think about real life, and how this stuff actually plays out. There isn’t really that much gray area if you think of sex as something that both partners (or more, whatever!) do with each other and that all parties are fully consenting participants in, instead of something that one person does to someone else.
Is getting really drunk a healthy idea? No. It’s bad for your liver and it gives you a hell of a hangover the next day. Mini-skirts mean that your bare thighs are touching the subway seats, and I don’t even want to think about what touched those seats before me. We all take risks! But also? People have been figuring out ways to mentally alter themselves for a few thousand years now. The “best case scenario” of getting too drunk is not, as the author suggests, that you lose your wallet and end up in the emergency room, and the “worst case scenario” is not that some dude sees you as a target. In fact, the best case scenario is that you have an awesome time. The worst case scenario? You die. But that’s pretty much true of anything in life — “If I get in this elevator, the best thing that could happen is that I have an awesome time. Worst thing? I die.” “If I hit the Shift key right now, the best thing that could happen is that I have an awesome time. Worst thing? I die.” Etc etc, risks vs. rewards, you get me.
And yes, there have always been predatory people who seek out those they deem vulnerable. But the problem is with the predators.
Last night I was part of a reading where we talked about our liberal beginnings, and in the beginning of her essay, the brilliant Sady Doyle said something to the effect of, she’s always had liberal beliefs — she thinks we should treat people fairly, and that we shouldn’t make the poor fight lions in the public square for our entertainment. When I read folks say things like, “I’m not blaming the victim because of course it’s the rapist’s fault for raping, but women shouldn’t get so drunk” I wonder if, in another context, they would say, “I’m not blaming the victim because of course it’s the lion’s fault for eating that guy, but people shouldn’t be so obviously poor.”
Probably not, because who would say that? That is a ridiculous thing to say! But you can point out, well, look — lions will be lions. There will always be predators. People have to protect themselves. Poor people are vulnerable to lions in a culture that throws the poor into a lion pit. And I would say, but why are we, as a society, breeding lions to be as aggressive as possible, throwing people to the predators for sport, pretending like we’re horrified and then making ourselves feel better because we wouldn’t be so stupid as to wear a picklebarrel and broadcast our poorness and it’s really too bad they didn’t make better choices?
Sady might also have just said something about making poor people fight each other for sport. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure I’m making up the lion thing. But you get my point and my strained, very imperfect analogy.
And also? Human beings aren’t lions. Human beings don’t rape out of instinct. We live in a culture that enables sexual assault, partly by pinning the blame even just a little bit on what the victim could have done better.
And also? We’ve been telling women to stop drinking / stop wearing that / stop going there / stop doing that for a really long time. We have put a lot of time and effort into policing what women do. “Women shouldn’t drink so much” is not exactly a novel argument — it is, in fact, an argument that has gotten a lot of rapists off the hook, in court and in their communities.
And yet look at that, even with all the finger-wagging at What Women Should Do Differently, sexual assault is still really common! So weird, I wonder why that is?