The New Criterion vs. Sluts

Trigger warning for survivors of rape/sexual assault

Over at The New Criterion, James Bowman has written a piece on sluts, invective, and honor culture. The whole piece is worth reading, especially if, like me, you suffer from dangerously low blood pressure. I was particularly struck, however, by Brown’s peripheral comments at the begining. On the Slutwalkers:

“Their apparent purpose…was to stake a claim to the right of women everywhere to be indiscreet without consequences.”

First of all, sexual license brings plenty of consequences for both men and women. Disease, crisis pregnancies, social destabilization, moral and psychological damage all spring to mind. Rape, however, seems an odd thing to file under “consequences of sexual license,” given that the whole premise of rape is not consenting to sexual activity. Ah, but Brown isn’t talking about licentiousness, only the appearance of it. He is referring to the eminently sensible idea that

” If [young women] wished to avoid the occasion of sexual assault, it might be a good idea for them not to dress like sluts.”

Dressing like a slut, you see, leads to rape. To put such faith in this facile assertion–one that will surely influence how his male readers percieve women and the issue of sexual assault–he must know what he is talking about. He must have logged countless hours staffing hotlines, counselling victims, poring over police reports. He must have interviewed the women raped in knee-length skirts and hijabs, in sweatpants and scrubs, and considered their stories before making any kind of causal or correlative claims. He couldn’t simply be passing on a piece of unsubstantiated and possibly dangerous folk wisdom.

Except that’s exactly what he’s doing.

“What would once have seemed nothing more than common-sense advice, such as generations of mothers have given to their daughters, was now officially to be designated as an instance of ‘blaming the victim’ and was strictly verboten….”

The problem with this folk wisdom is that there seem to be three ways to unpack it. The first, and I think most prevalent, is that women who dress in a provocative manner can reasonably be assumed to desire sexual activity. Sexual assault falls somewhere between an understandable if self-interested mistake, and a frustrated attempt to accept the strongest of a woman’s two contradictory signals.

Of course, a woman may decide to dress “sluttishly” for any number of reasons: fashion, social acceptance, sexual attention, even–get this–sexual activity with someone who is not her rapist.

Clothing is not consent. Period. Your reading of a woman is not necessarily correct, and is not consent. Period. Men do not own women’s bodies. They do not have the right to decide what a woman’s presentation means, to presume that consent has been given, or is not needed, or that its refusal is invalid. Men, if you fail to internalize this, it is your fault, and our collective fault for not drilling it into your heads. This is such a simple point that I’m surprised I have to keep making it.

I can already hear the chorus of “Well, this is the way the world is, we just have to live with it.” Utter nonsense. Men* are rapists because they choose to be–either because they do not care about consent or because they rationalize their behavior with the poisonous bromides Bowman and his ilk spew under the guise of common sense–bromides suggesting that men’s perceptions of women are more valid than women’s actual choices. If this is the world we live in, it is because this is the world we choose.

And to all the “nice girls” out there–don’t think that if you watch your hemlines this doesn’t affect you. Men’s unspoken entitlement to construct a woman’s sexuality and choices based on externals extends to race, class, how large your breasts are, how loudly you laugh, the way you walk–a host of other traits and behaviors whose only common factor is their inequivalence to actual consent. There is nothing new about this (read Tess of the D’Urbervilles for an easy crash course)–only that women are now in a position to challenge this entitlement, to the disgust of self-appointed champions of female virtue. So unless you are the skinny, white, demure, middle-class virgin who seems to be the only truly blameless victim of sexual assault, I suggest you take notice.

The second possible rationale is even more disturbing. It lies in Bowman’s discussion of the Slutwalkers’ misguided “claim on behalf of women everywhere to be indiscreet without consequences.” Women who engage in illicit sex, or even appear sexually aggressive, are transgressing social and moral behavioral codes. Therefore, they are the acceptable receptacles of men’s most aggressive sexual urges. These women have forfeited the protections and privileges of the “nice girls” who respect their sexual boundaries: in polite society no one will go so far as to say that sluts should be raped, but to deny that they will be deprives both men of their legitimate prey and society of a necessary corrective. Rape, in this case, actually performs an important social function.

This is so wicked and sickening that I doubt it needs much comment–I sincerely hope and expect that Bowman would repudiate this explanation. There seems to be some truth to it, however, at least regarding how we think about rape on a collective level. Certainly this hierarchy of women is very real, and incorporates much more basic and pre-decided divions than the virtuous and the vicious. So pay attention, my fellow chasteniks, as there’s no particular reason you shouldn’t be It.

The third possible explanation is probably the least dangerous, because the most obviously idiotic, if its proponents would only articulate it more clearly. It’s the old equation you probably learned in Algebra II: (X) (exposed female flesh)=Y, where Y is both uncontrollable male lust and its natural consequence, rape. Women’s bodies, especially in public, are inherently dangerous, volatile, and violence inducing. For their own protection, quite apart from any other social and personal value to modesty, women must be kept covered and hidden. As long as one minimizes the value of X as much as possible, one is reasonably safe. This explains why women are never raped in Saudi Arabia, although not why male prisoners are one of the largest victim demographics in the U.S.

As proof of his regard for women, Bowman offers us this: “Equating a woman’s virtue with her honor was once a way of ensuring her privacy.” Yes, and locking her up in a bronze tower was one way of ensuring Danae’s. Bowman’s honor codes are part and parcel of what the Slutwalkers walked against: this idea that freedom from rape and assault is one end of a negotiable socio-sexual contract rather than one of the most basic requirements of a just society. Their aims were two-fold: to invade public space with their sexual bodies in defiance of those who insinuated that the existence of those bodies is an incitement to violence, and to upend hierachical distinctions among women that rationalize assault. As long as you say it’s sluts who get raped, they said, I’m with the sluts.

This kind of activism is nine tenths performance art, and the fact that so many mistook the Slutwalks as an endorsement of any particular sexual ethic (or lack thereof), tells me that the movement failed. I still think that marching up the streets in long Talbot’s dresses with the placard “I Am A Slut” hanging from their necks would have been more effective. However, Bowman would do well to take the Slutwalkers seriously if he is at all interested in discussions of sexual virtue moving beyond the conservative and religious enclaves they currently inhabit.  The sexual free-for-all in which most men and women currently participate has wreaked havoc on our society, especially its most vulnerable members. Unfortunately, women will continue to dismiss and resist any call for change as long as they sense, rightly, that the Limbaughs and Bowmans of the world are more interested in reinvigorating repressive and violent structures and codes than any genuine mutual flourishing.

Mirror of Justice, ora pro nobis.

Further reading.

*I understand that women can be rapists, but the dynamics are usually different and not relevant to this discussion

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