Monday, July 10, 2006

Confusion Over Clothing: normative/positive "shoulds" and overlapping responsibility

There’s another discussion of women dressed in “attractive/provocative/inappropriate” clothing over at Hugo’s, and the same tired arguments are being rehashed in the comments section.

In every discussion of sexual aggression against women—whether a prominent rape case, a diatribe against street harassment, or a more nuanced examination of the way women’s clothing choices affect their public personas—some trollish commenter decries the “foolishness” of women complaining about their poor treatment and tells them to “face facts.” He (and it is almost always a man) argues that feminism is giving men the responsibility for women’s choices and that if they don’t want their breasts stared at they shouldn’t wear shirts that reveal them.

The feminist community’s response to this commenter is, appropriately, indignant. After all, some truly unpalatable sentiments are expressed here, all in a way that reinforces the patriarchy by requiring women to preemptively compensate for male failings. The discussion is rarely very fruitful, though, because the two camps (and indeed, individual commenters involved) are rarely speaking the same language. Two words cause a lot of confusion in these debates: “responsibility” and “should.” A clear distinction between moral and practical responsibility and normative and positive shoulds would make things much clearer.

Let’s start with responsibility. A responsible person is one who acts sensibly and appropriately. One who avoid getting in trouble or acting imprudently. And, in that sense, I suspect the anti-feminist trolls are more accurate than most feminists want to acknowledge.

It is a deeply unpleasant but very real truth that the way a woman is treated in public is closely related to her attire. While many commenters relate anecdotes in which they were the subject of sexual aggression while modestly attired, this is slightly misleading. We shouldn’t forget the fact—it demonstrates that this isn’t about hardwiring but male privilege—but I think it’s fair to assume that women receive more sexual attention when they are, well, sexy. Now, there’s no objective definition of what is and is not sexualized clothing. In fact, I think it changed with time and place. But, on a simplistic level, a woman who goes out wearing clothing that reveals her breasts probably knows that they’re going to be stared at.

From a practical standpoint, all one controls is one’s own behavior, not the environment. If one holds that:

A: if I expose my breasts, they will be stared at
And
B: if my breasts are stared at, I am receiving unwanted attention

Then it necessarily that “If I expose my breasts, I will receive unwanted attention.” If my biggest priority if to avoid unwanted attention, then I should not expose my breasts.

This argument is the core of the troll’s argument and it is logically sound. The only problem is what it leaves out. First, one must be wary of the converse error: even without exposed breasts, one may still receive unwanted attention. Second, other considerations. One does not, presumably, expose breasts purely to earn unwanted attention. Therefore, a woman exposing her breast is probably doing so for some other reason, whether to attract wanted attention, because she can’t find clothes that don’t, or because it’s more comfortable given the weather.

Thus, a woman who wants to avoid sexual harassment is forced to make other sacrifices. The anti-feminist is right in the superficial sense that a woman who wants to avoid negative social consequences should (empirically, not morally) dress “modestly” whatever that means. His mistake, and what makes his argument unacceptable to feminists, is that he suggests that this is a fundamental part of the world, and should not be further examined. feminists can accept the logic, but recognize the decision to be “modest” as what it is: an unpleasant compromise.

Moral responsibility, of course, falls on the person who actually performs an unpleasant action, no matter why they did it. The victim is never morally at fault for being the victim of an immoral act. For example, if I leave my car unlocked with the keys in the ignition when I go into a hop, and someone drives off with it, there are two kinds of responsibility here: I acted irresponsibly by leaving my car unlocked while the thief ignored his moral responsibility not to steal it. Everyone who wants to avoid having their car stolen should (empirically) lock their doors while at the same time everyone given a chance to steal a car should (morally) refrain from doing it.

After my friend’s car is stolen there is absolutely nothing contradictory about my simultaneously advising him to be more careful and calling for the thief to be caught and punished.

So everyone has, at a minimum, two tasks as they go through life: be pragmatically vigilant against encouraging others to trespass against them and morally vigilant against committing trespass against others. a woman deciding what to wear needs to take into account both what she wants to wear, and the reactions she will probably elicit, and decide whether the hassle is worth it to her.

So where do we stand now? We’ve realized that people do evil things, that they should be despised, and that, at the same time, it’s a good idea to do what you can to prevent them form doing evil things to you. That’s a pretty good rubric for living in the world as it is today, but being activists we want more. While we recognize the double bind women suffer today, we want to make sure that the same double bind doesn’t hamper the women of tomorrow.

My suggestion? Don’t compromise, if you can possibly avoid it. If all you want is to maximize your personal well-being, it may be easiest to go with the flow. But that isn’t going to change the world. If don’t like the current, I swim against it. Figure out how much you need to compromise to survive (by which I mean, to live a rewarding life, not simple physical survival) and then compromise that much and no more. If you absolutely hate being stared at, your own well-being may require you to do everything in your power to avoid it. But if you cope with it a little, go ahead and wear that low-cut shirt.

We can only remake society by challenging it.
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