Sex abuse: How to respond to Dan Rottenberg

Sex abuse and Dan's column: What's sexy, and why it matters

As a young woman with a fairly progressive sexual education, I grew up learning that victims of rape and other sexual abuse are never to blame. That doesn't mean one (and especially women) shouldn't be careful and aware. It simply means that we live in a society in which men deem it acceptable to assert power over women in the form of violent sexual aggression.

Yes, women may dress in a way that conveys a desire for sexual attention; but no woman wants to be violently forced upon by a man.

Unfortunately, many people (especially people of older generations) simply lack this education. Attacking BSR's editor Dan Rottenberg for not "doing his research" (see Letters) seems a bit bizarre. How many people get to the bottom of gender relations through online research? Is that even possible? Aren't our understandings of these issues based on experience, upbringing and dialogue?

To argue that the main thrust of Dan Rottenberg's column was that women who dress provocatively should be raped is an embarrassingly simple interpretation of a rather complicated (and, at times, convoluted) article. I'm ashamed that so many are using the tactic of hate and alienation as a response to his article. This is an opportunity to educate, not to blame.

Should we really exile everyone of the older generation whose perception differs from us progressive young people? Are we simply waiting for them to die rather than using this time we have together to teach, learn and grow?

Two extremes about dress

So what is the relationship between provocative female dress and male sexual aggression? To correct Dan and simply say that women are never responsible for male sexual aggression isn't really addressing the very real male reactions to cleavage, legs, etc.

Women cannot dress "however they want" without recognizing the very real implications and influences that their attire has on men and the way that they are perceived by others in society. And we can't help it— walking down the street in even slightly revealing clothes will often provoke unwanted attention. So how should women combat this issue in our everyday lives, including our dress?

Often I feel pulled between two extreme lines of thinking that really don't get us anywhere. The first extreme is that women invite attacks by their dress or conduct. The second extreme is that women should dress however they like, regardless of what men or anyone else might think of them.

Neither of these views is complete. Much as I disagree with Dan's viewpoint, I can't embrace the other side, either. Women are part of the cultural dialogue, even if that dialogue was set up by and is primarily run by men.

Those teetering high heels

Personally, I find it very embarrassing to see women dressed in revealing clothing— not because I'm worried about their safety, but because I see that they're playing into a system that condones male sexual aggression. Often I see women teetering in completely demobilizing heels while wearing skirts that render any normal range of motion nearly impossible. Turning our bodies from entities that help us function into objects to be looked at is precisely where the idea of domination by men originates.

"Sexy," as we understand it, has been defined by men, particularly when it comes to women's dress. And within the male paradigm of "sexy" there will always be a connection between women in revealing clothing and male sexual domination. Women need to redefine "sexy" to mean something completely outside the fashion industry (run mostly by men) and separate from the models provided for us by Hollywood (also run by men).

To me, debilitating clothing isn"'t sexy. I don't think many men find it sexy either. But what men do see is someone who can be taken advantage of— someone engaging in the cultural understanding of "sexy" and all of that term's connotations of sexual domination that go along with that. This image does not lead to rape, but it does accept a society in which that kind of behavior is acceptable.♦


To read Madeline Schaefer's review of Dan Rottenberg Is Thinking About Raping You, click here.
To read responses, click here.

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