As is so often the case, I am sitting down to write this because of an intellectual – and emotional – conflict. A few days ago I read this after a friend linked to it on Facebook. It is an open letter to the editors of The Cambridge Student, responding to an article written by a third year law student titled “Stop Taking Offence, Start Taking Care” (a link to the original article is given in the first sentence of the open letter). In the original article, the author urges feminist groups, in particular those behind the “Slutwalk” campaign, to rethink their strategy of absolving women from any responsibility in the event of sexual violence. His point (this article is written by a man) is that all the education and sensitivity training in the world is not going to impact those hard-core rapists out there – some people are going to commit sexual violence – and potential victims need to practice responsible behavior and not place themselves in or exacerbate dangerous situations. There are several problems with this article, not least that the author has adopted a removed and objective tone which, while attempting to treat the subject in the abstract, comes off as an overly theoretical take on a very emotionally charged issue and, therefore, is offensive. That said, I was not really convinced by the open letter response, either. Oh, I was convinced that the writers were offended, and I was convinced that they wrote well and persuasively and that they had “done their homework” in terms of providing figures and statistics pertaining to the experience, reporting and treatment of rape. But I didn’t come away from their letter thinking “Yes! Right on!”, either. Maybe this is because I have internalized some academic rubric that means that I am never fully convinced of anything – but I think it’s because I spent much of last Thursday afternoon trying to dress a twelve-year-old girl.
Both kids have shot up like weeds in the past four months and the return to school, and advent of cooler weather, necessitated a trip to the local consignment shop. L, who is nine, is still quite easy to dress. His only sartorial requirement is “No Cammo!” (no problem!), and as long as the sleeves on his shirts are long enough and there is an adjustable waist on his pants he is good to go. M, on the other hand, has hit that “impossible to dress” stage. I remember it from my own girlhood – suddenly girls’ pants were too short, and going up a size to get the required length meant an enormous increase in waist size so I was swimming in fabric. The solution then, and now, was to go up to the smallest available women’s size and either roll up the legs or wear a belt. Well and good, but I went through this in the ’80s, when pant fashions were high-waisted. Today’s low-slung skinny jeans barely covered M’s underwear and I refuse to buy her jeans that she can only wear with tunic-length sweaters. Thankfully, M isn’t fighting me on this – she thinks low-slung jeans are uncomfortable – but an afternoon spent watching my step-daughter try on clothes certainly made me think about clothing choices and the messages they send.
The local school and PTO put on dances every other Friday evening for kids in 7th and 8th grade, and M loves them. Well, she loved the one she’s been to, anyway, and came home squealing about how someone slow-danced with her. Obviously there is no alcohol available at these dances, but M’s father and I agree that it is only a matter of time before these innocent social events morph into less official social activities, some of which come with Consequences. So here we are, poised on the brink of shepherding a child through adolescence, and suddenly discussions of violence and responsibility seem a lot less abstract.
I know first-hand that sexual violence cannot always be avoided. I experienced it as a teenager in the family to which I was unofficially fostered, and the effects were long-lasting. Unlike many people, I reported the situation – by which I mean I told my mother, and she either didn’t believe me or didn’t take it seriously. Either way, the effect was the same, and I spent countless hours in therapy and twenty years fighting depression before I made some sort of peace with the concepts of trust and love, and with my relationship with my mother. So, with this as a back-story, I wonder about the responsibilities involved in preparing young people for the world.
On the one hand, I can’t say “clothing doesn’t matter, wear whatever you want” – because there are some things we are not going to let her out of the house in. Whatever my opinions on the importance of fashion choice, society at large (or at least in our small town) is going to see a tween girl wearing a midriff-baring tank top and low-slung skinny jeans in a certain, sexualized way. I may not like that clothing choices impact how others see us (and every time I have to put on a suit in order to be taken seriously I rail against it), but there is not much I can do to change that in the here and now. I can work to change societal expectations, I can do my best to raise children who are their own people, know right from wrong and stand up for what they believe in — even to the point of facing down a mob mentality. But I cannot control what other people will say or think or do, and because I cannot I have to teach M and L that sometimes bad people do bad things, and sometimes you can’t tell who the bad people are and sometimes the best thing to do is to get yourself out of a bad situation.
The authors of the open letter are not wrong: sometimes bad things happen no matter where you are or what you are wearing. It is not possible to control events to the exclusion of the possibility of disaster. But the author of the original article isn’t completely wrong, either – personal responsibility is an important part of being a functional member of society. Personal responsibility can take many forms and may sometimes involve forgoing or curtailing certain behaviors in certain circumstances. It may mean having an uncomfortable conversation with a friend whose choices are putting themselves or others at risk. The authors of the open letter write:
Rapists choose victims whom they consider to be vulnerable. That is how rape and sexual violence happens: the perpetrators choose to do it.
The concept of personal responsibility applies here, too – we have to make rape socially unacceptable, we absolutely need to hold rapists accountable for their actions/choices, both in the legal system and in the broader social structure, and we should not pass that responsibility on to their victims. But the first sentence of this quote is also important – what makes a victim appear vulnerable? We cannot always predict how we will appear to others, but we should at least admit, whether we like it or not, that physical appearance and behavior plays a huge role in how we are perceived. This does not just apply to women, as anyone following the politicization of the hoodie can attest. By all means, let’s work to change the emphasis on appearance, let’s work for a world where clothes do not dictate the person we can be. But for right now, I have to teach my step-daughter how to recognize and side-step the most blatant and common cues of vulnerability so she can go out and change the world.
*Title taken from a line in episode 6 of the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which characters become their Halloween costumes.
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