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Last week, several commenters on this blog suggested that wearing a short skirt is like walking alone in a bad neighborhood—-it’s an unsafe behavior that makes women more vulnerable to sexual assault. I live in a neighborhood that has been dismissed by some as a “bad neighborhood.” So when I see comparisons to sexual assault that go like this . . .
If I’m walking late at night in a bad neighborhood with few people around and someone sticks a gun in my ribs and robs me, I wasn’t asking to be robbed and I wasn’t consenting to being robbed. I was not taking appropriate precautions against getting robbed. I was robbed and as I wish to avoid being robbed, I will endeavor to not put myself in circumstances where a criminal will take advantage and rob me.
. . . it is obvious to me that the person floating this little analogy has not considered the reality of the person who cannot avoid these “circumstances.” The person that compares sexual assault to getting mugged after “walking in a bad neighborhood” does not consider the mugging victim who lives in that bad neighborhood because he can’t afford a place with less street crime. He does not consider the mugging victim who works late into the night so that he can pay his rent. He does not consider the mugging victim who does not have the means to fastidiously avoid his life circumstances.
More than likely, the mugging victim in this analogy has the privilege of avoiding bad neighborhoods. He lives in a good neighborhood, works in a good neighborhood, eats in a good neighborhood, hangs out with friends in a good neighborhood, and gets wasted in a good neighborhood. He grew up in a good neighborhood and will raise his children in a good neighborhood. If he ever does cross over onto the wrong side of the tracks, it is strictly a voluntary—-and wholly avoidable—-diversion.
Tell a Georgetown resident that he needs to stay in Georgetown to avoid street crime, and he can easily satisfy that safety requirement; tell an Anacostia resident that he needs to stick exclusively to Georgetown, and your common-sense solution becomes a lot less tenable. Upon hearing this strategy, the Anacostia resident will likely laugh his ass off; the Georgetown resident will have a more insidious reaction. He’ll start to feel a little bit empowered about his own safety. He’ll start to think that he has avoided being held up at gunpoint because he’s made good decisions in his life, not because he was born into privilege. He’ll start to feel a little bit superior to people who live with street crime as a matter of course.
Acting like a woman, in many ways, involves performing behaviors that are out of the ordinary: shaving your entire body, coloring your lips and cheeks, lengthening your eyelashes, extending your legs on high heels, “doing” your hair, dieting obsessively, waxing, plucking, padding your breasts, painting your nails, stuffing your tummy into tight spandex casings, wearing skirts and dresses and pantyhose and earrings. The behaviors associated with femininity occupy a strange space in our culture. While they are obsessively reinforced as “normal” behaviors for women, they simultaneously work to situate women as abnormal, different, “other.”
To the average heterosexual cisgender man, refraining from performing these behaviors is just a fact of life. For women, these feminizing behaviors are enforced from birth, and are extremely difficult to avoid. And when women do refrain from performing these behaviors—-when they don’t shave their body hair, don’t cinch their waists and inflate their breasts, don’t teeter on high heels, don’t wear makeup, and don’t wear skirts, just like men don’t—-they risk being dismissed as “abnormal” women. In a culture where the privileged experience of the average heterosexual cisgender man is the baseline for “normal,” women are seen as outsiders no matter how they act.
And so when a woman is sexually assaulted—-no matter what she’s doing—-it’s easy for the culture at large to insist that she’s done something out of the ordinary to bring it upon herself. Because women’s lives are out of the “ordinary.” Because heterosexual cisgender men are born with the privilege of not being systematically targeted as victims of sexual assault. When you say that women who wear too-short skirts, or too-high heels, or too much make up are not sufficiently protecting themselves against rape, what you are really saying is that women who act too much like women deserve to be raped. When you say that women who drink with the boys, or have casual sex like the boys, or walk alone like the boys are not sufficiently protecting themselves against rape, what you are really saying is that women who don’t act enough like women deserve to be raped. And what you are really saying is that women deserve to be raped because they’re women. In a culture where women’s behavior is viewed as alien, it is this attitude that qualifies as “normal.”
When it comes to sexual assault, every neighborhood is a bad neighborhood for a woman.
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Photo by luisvilla, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0