Friday, July 29, 2011

Stigmatized Dress, Demeaning Words, and SDCC & Beyond: The Follow Up

So, the Oh You Sexy Geek Panel gave me a lot of food for thought, and I have been reading other blogs regarding it online (Action Flick Chick has a fairly complete list).

I'd like to give a more personal explanation for my opinions, since yesterday I went off on a bit of a random academic tangent (I do that--it will probably happen again ;)).

Stigmatized Dress

I can very easily see the points of other feminists about sexualized dress being a part of patriarchal oppression. But through both personal experience and academic studies, I find modest dress to be an equal symbol and symptom of oppression.

The Personal Side:

I like the way low cut tops look on me. I just's not about garnering male attention (or female, for that matter). In fact, for the longest time, I was so repressed that I was vehemently uncomfortable with the idea of anyone finding me sexually attractive.

So what's the catch? I felt uncomfortable wearing these tops, because I was afraid I'd be looked upon as dirty or slutty for wearing them. Moreover, I was afraid I'd get in trouble at school, due to what I now believe is an archaic and oppressive dress code for women. I remember tugging my top up higher to try to ensure that I exposed less cleavage, and always feeling very self-conscious about it.

The Academic Side:

As I discussed in my last post, I believe on a scholarly level that the enforcement of modest dress is oppressive. This enforcement is sometimes institutional (school dress codes and public indecency laws), and sometimes comes in the form of social sanctions (slut baiting and disapproval from those around you).

We give the Arab and Muslim world a lot of flack for forcing women to wear burqas, niqabs, and hijabs (it should be noted that there are places in this world where Muslim women have actually fought for the right to wear them). But we don't see how we subtly treat women the same way when we demand they cover their cleavage, their thighs, their navels, their backs, and their shoulders in order to pass as a 'sexually moral woman.'

The Personal Side, Continued:

Someone I am very close to also happens to like wearing clothes that are tighter and more revealing. Twice, she's been called out for it by random strangers who feel they have the right to impose their vision of sexual morality and modesty on her. These are the kind of social sanctions that leave some women feeling self-conscious and uncomfortable in their own skin. This girl has enough self-confidence that she doesn't let it affect her. But what about all the girls who do?

The Academic Side, Continued:

In my junior year at DU, I did a preliminary study on school dress codes and how they affect young women's views of themselves. I'd still like to do a more in depth, more controlled study, but the preliminary data still seemed pretty telling. The polling numbers remained consistent, as they went up, and told me what I already knew from personal experience: Girls are negatively impacted by these dress codes. It can affect their body image, reinforce the concept that female body and sexuality are dirty, and play to the idea that women need to modestly attire themselves to avoid enticing men.

Which brings me to my next subject: Why we need to flip the conversation from what women need to do to protect themselves from the male gaze to what we need to teach men about respecting women.

Demeaning Words and Leering Gazes

The Personal Side:

I've been sexually harassed. It's a familiar story to a lot of women. In my case, it was a boy in high school grabbing my ruler and putting it down his pants. Another time, I had a teenage boy touch my butt when I was 10 or 11. These things are not okay.

There is a reason that Chris Gore's comment raised my hackles. There is a reason that, while I know he has the right to say whatever he wants (free speech), there is a reason I can't respect his words. They were sexually objectifying and disempowering.

"I want to stick my penis in each and every one of these women."

There were ways he could have said this that would have been more respectful. I would never ask that people deny their natural attractions, or claim that sexual desire is wrong. "I find every one of these women attractive" -- that would have been appropriate and reaffirmed what the panel was saying about the need for a variety in what we see as 'sexy.'

"I'd like to have sex with each of these women." -- Not great, but still better for exactly one reason.

Sexual Power.

The Academic Side:

Sexual control is a huge problem in our society. It rears its ugly head in a culture where 1 in every 4 American women has been raped.

The flip side of this is sexual desire, and the way our culture often denies women the right to have this desire.

Pair the sexual control and domination by one party with the suppression of sexual desire with the other party, and you have a denial of female sexual agency.

The phrase "I'd like to stick my penis in" suggests male domination. Whether Mr. Gore meant it this way or not, it creates this image. The vocabulary feeds into the idea that there is only one active party in this sexual act and desire: The man.

No, I'm not accusing Mr. Gore of wanting to rape these women. Not at all. That would be a terrible and disrespectful assumption to make about anyone. I don't know the man, and I won't pretend to. All I know are the words he spoke at the panel and the words he subsequently wrote on Twitter--and those are the words I want to discuss, not his overall character, which I know nothing about.

Maybe his words were truly meant as a joke. If so, all he is personally guilty of is bad comic timing and satire that couldn't be discerned as such from his words or circumstances. But, unfortunately, his words recall a desire by men to sexually dominate women, irregardless of the desires of those women.

What demeans women is not men finding them sexually desirable. For heterosexuals, that's just a fact of human nature. What demeans them is the idea that they all are, and should be receptive to the sexual advances of a man, or men in general.

Telling a woman you have no sexual relationship with that you want to put your penis in her is not just crude. It's disrespectful. It assumes that not only is she receptive to that idea, but that she is perfectly comfortable with the thought. Or, that you don't give a damn whether she's comfortable with it or not, which to me is the ultimate disrespect.

Not everyone is going to be comfortable with what everyone says to them; that's a fact of life. But when it involves physical contact, especially in a society where so many women have been sexually assaulted or sexually harassed, it can be more personal, more offensive, and more uncomfortable. It can make women who have been victimized feel re-victimized, and it can create a hostile environment for women who feel that their own desires are being made subordinate to their male co-workers, friends, and even strangers off the street.

So to Chris Gore, if you read this: All I ask is that, next time, before you tell a woman you want to put your penis in her, think about how it might affect her.

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