What Not to Wear [updated [again 17.02.2011]]

Update Thursday Feb. 17.2011

Things have moved along quite a bit since my last update. For one, the news media and blogosphere caught up.  Jezebel, Torontoist, CBC, the Toronto Star, Rabble and campus newspapers including the early off the mark Obiter Dicta and York’s Excalibur all reported on the story. The Star story has a quote from the amazing “Jane Doe“, a woman with the experience and expertise to put this in context.  Here’s what she told the Star:

Jane Doe, who won a landmark case against Toronto police in 1986 when a judge ruled she was used as bait to capture a serial rapist, said that unfortunately this was not the comment of “one bad apple.”

“In 2007, I was paid by the Toronto Police Services Board to monitor their sexual assault training for two weeks and the course is riddled with sexist and racist myths and attitudes about rape. I produced an assessment for them and it quickly disappeared.”

And now, in addition to the joys involved in reading the comments on all these sites, we have the apology.  The text is in the picture below.

ORIGINAL POST FOLLOWS

Safety on campus is a big issue at York University (and at many other schools too) and students frequently raise their concerns about it.  Here’s a recent safety audit of the campus, here is a news release from the York Federation of Students about a year ago after a violent sexual assault near campus, in which the YFS calls on the University to act on the audit, and here’s a map of Toronto using Statscan data to illustrate violent crime rates across the city [2006 census] (I offer this one in part to illustrate that although many of the neighbourhoods around the University have high violent crime rates, the areas in which most students tend to live (on campus and near campus) have lower violent crime rates.

Sometimes, the police and York Security Services do sessions for students on “Safety Tips”.  A few weeks ago, the law school held one.  And at that session, i’m informed, a uniformed member of the Toronto Police Service told the audience that -although he knew he shouldn’t say so –  one “safety tip” he could offer was the suggestion to avoid dressing like a “slut”.

[Let me be clear- I wasn’t present.  I heard that the officer used the word slut or sluts or slutty and that the association between safety and non “slutty” clothing was made.  I think my primary source is as good as they come]

Update: Osgoode’s Assistant Dean Ronda Bessner was present at the session.  She was shocked and appalled to hear the comments and immediately afterwards she spoke to an equally shocked York Security rep (who had arranged for the Toronto Police Service to be there) to discuss how to respond.  AD Bessner phoned the senior constable at the TPS repeatedly, and when he called back, he admitted that he knew why she was calling.  AD Bessner (backed by an equally appalled Associate Dean Shelley Gavigan), has asked for written apology & explanation for the comments.  More information when it’s available.

When I discussed the comments with colleagues & students, everyone was shocked and angry.  But I think that we’re shocked at the unprofessional nature of the comments rather than the revelation that some people think these things (which makes us angry).  Is this kind of comment actually a distraction? Or is it an illustration of the pervasiveness of these beliefs, a hint at how challenging the larger goal will be to attain, an invitation to take on these kinds of beliefs (again!) directly? I’m inclined to think that there are important ways in which this is a distraction, even if it is an illustration.  It is the kind of situation which can easily be converted to a “bad apple” argument, and/or an argument about the police, and both of those seem far too narrow.  Sometimes I feel I’m being baited into losing my focus, baited into returning to arguments that have been made again and again, and I feel determined to keep moving forward.  But I can see that this approach isn’t always going to work.  When to turn back and do road repair work?

In other news, I’m brushing up on my arguments about why women deserve the vote.

I searched and searched for a picture of an outfit with which to illustrate this post (see past angst over the illustration issue), but every single one turned out to be totally begging for it. The overalls, the muumuu, the suit, the judicial robes, the lululemon pants and TNA parka, the classic librarian look, the flightsuit, the short shorts,  the trenchcoat, the slanket – when I really looked at these, it became obvious that all were totally inappropriate for wear by any woman who wants to be safe, since all have been sexualised one way or another.  I wonder if there’s anything at all which a woman can wear to prove that she really does not want to be assaulted?
I’ll update this post re: institutional responses (Osgoode’s and the Toronto Police Service’s). In the meantime, here are a few suggestions for reading – please put yours in the comments – along with your comments, of course.
  • Duncan Kennedy’s Sexual Abuse, Sexy Dressing and the Eroticization of Domination
  • Is Clothing Probative of Attitude or Intent – Implications for Rape and Sexual Harassment Cases; Lennon, Theresa L.; Lennon, Sharron J.; Johnson, Kim K.P. 11 Law & Ineq. 391 (1992-1993)
  • Undressing the Victim: The Intersection of Evidentiary and Semiotic Meanings of Women’s Clothing in Rape Trials; Sterling, Alinor C.  7 Yale J.L. & Feminism 87 (1995)
  • The Canadian Journal of Women and the Law recently published a volume honouring the 10 year anniversary of the Jane Doe case. Click here for more information and links.
If you would like something less academic, perhaps you will enjoy Amanda Hess (@thesexist) on short skirts etc. She doesn’t pull punches.
The next generation of potential rapists will have to receive their social cues by eavesdropping on the advice we’re providing to the next generation of potential victims. This is what they’re hearing: If she’s wearing a short skirt, it’s not your fault when you rape her.
Which is a bit of a zinger, but also terribly depressing, because it is written in 2011 and not 1981.

0 thoughts on “What Not to Wear [updated [again 17.02.2011]]”

  1. Thanks for this post and for bringing this issue to light. I’m relieved and hopeful to learn of the administration’s response, especially in demanding an apology and explanation.

    But you raise some great points that implicate that response too, I think, namely about incidents like this being a distraction. I’m not sure about whether the comment is such a distraction, but I feel more sure that an apology and explanation could very well be.

    We get an apology (or not), then what? We get some token promise about “sensitivity” training, then what? I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a likely response. That phenomenon incenses me. It’s such an easy way to slap someone on the wrist without really changing their (or, perhaps more significantly, everyone else’s) entrenched misogynist beliefs. I simply don’t see it as an effective ‘way forward’, as you put it. We really need to strategize on the best way to target the pervasiveness of these beliefs, and unfortunately I still don’t know what that is.

  2. By no means am I condoning the officer’s statement but isn’t it possible that we might be taking it out of context? He didn’t say that someone was inviting assault or placing any blame (from what I can gather from the quotes above). However, he did speak to pervasive beliefs that are a real problem. Perhaps there would be less offense had he articulated his message differently.

    True, an outfit is never an invitation to rape. However, there are many precautions that people take based on common sense. For example, many people wear travel belts when they travel in an area known for pick-pocketing. Wearing a purse wouldn’t be an invitation to one’s wallet but would certainly make a thief’s job easier.

    So, would I think twice about gallivanting in an area known for its sexual assaults wearing a very skimpy outfit? Maybe. Not out of fear or invitation, but simply because I might appear to be an easier target. The talk wasn’t meant to address morality or legality, the officer was likely speaking from experience and reality (sadly). Or maybe there was something about the way he expressed himself that really was offensive. I can’t say since I wasn’t at the talk.

    Changing beliefs takes time and education and, like it or not, there will always be deviants in society. Should the unthinkable happen, the assailant would not be any less responsible because of whatever the victim was wearing.

    1. I wonder about many of the assertions above (below? not sure how comments show up)- like precisely what is the difference between ‘it was your fault that it happened to you’ and ‘you asked for it’? – but let me try this argument first:
      Some of the research I’ve read seems to suggest the following kind of links:
      provocative dress is understood as assertive/aggressive. perpetrators select targets who are or appear to be unassertive. Therefore provocative dress does not attract sexual predators.
      What do you think about this hypothesis? I’m not building an evidence based argument here. I’m offering this as a suggestion, because I think that it reminds us that much of what we “know” about sexual assault is wrong. It’s not a singular or unitary phenomenon, and different kinds of assault in different contexts may well exhibit different patterns. Family members, friends, acquaintences, not strangers, are the people you want to be scared of, really. That said, if the paradigm we’re working within here is “stranger attack at night” then maybe we might want to look at what people who commit those attacks actually do when they commit these crimes. It’s like evidence based medicine. You want to assume that OF COURSE you’re getting this advice because it’s based on something real. But let’s ask for the evidence that these things actually will protect students. Is it the officer’s “experience”, is it “reality”, that sexual assault happens to people who are dressed like….? And what does that mean anyway?
      One way or another this kind of advice always boils down to this: Be afraid and stay home. But – “reality” does suggest that home is not a safe place, statistically.

  3. My closing footer got cut off…

    The post was written by a woman who walks herself home from the bar, downtown, late at night, without worries.

  4. I am downright pissed! Ok…..now that I have that off my chest….let’s move on.
    Is it any wonder that reporting of sexual assault is so shockingly low? If a uniformed police officer gets up in front of a crowd of lawyers, legal academics, law students, other colleagues ad the general public to enunciate these antiquated/misogynist/ stereotypical views…..what do you think a person who has recently (or, even historically) suffered a sexual assault faces?? I mean really! If you have been dressing in this so-called taboo manner, is it more likely that you will be disbelieved? That your case well be determined to be unfounded? That you will either overtly or covertly be treated as suspect? That you will be re-victimized by the system? These questions are all rhetorical….I am sure you know the answer.
    Disappointed? Yes. Appalled? No doubt. Surprised? A little. It’s the fact that I am only mildly surprised which is the most….discouraging. However, it’s been a while since I have truly felt the battle cry…..time to re-group and re-double our efforts. It’s a wake-up call…certainly not the time for complacency (or “sensitivity training” either for that matter).

  5. …. this is just too depressing for words. …..So I’m sending you a comic instead.
    I thought about your ‘what not to wear’ when I saw this, the ironic flip-side of what not to wear, latest cartoons from the ‘Hark, a Vagrant’ blog (http://www.google.com/reader/view/#stream/feed%2Fhttp%3A%2F%2Fwww.rsspect.com%2Frss%2Fvagrant.xml) on 80’s businesswomen, trying to decide between two outfits with big and bigger shoulders. (‘Hark, a Vagrant’ is a Canadian blog which is often feminist, and almost always weird.)

  6. Thank you for this post. Like many others, I was incensed when I heard about this incident, and wished I had witnessed it. I also agree that it is a great reason to activate around this issue and, likely, that’s the only way to create anything positive out of the event.

    For further inspiration/viewpoints:

    1. A great Scottish PSA that you may have seen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h95-IL3C-Z8&feature=player_embedded

    2. “My Short Skirt,” by Eve Ensler (a somewhat bothersome performance of it, but one that still makes the point): http://www.vday.org/anniversary-events/video/skirt

  7. “[I]t became obvious that all were totally inappropriate for wear by any woman who wants to be safe, since all have been sexualised one way or another..”

    Sloppy thinking: false equivalence. All may have been sexualised in one way or another, but not all have been sexualised to the same extent.

    Dressing in revealing clothes generates attention from the opposite sex. We all know this. In certain circumstances it may attract the wrong kind of attention. Sex offenders suffer from cognitive distortions; many believe their victims are in some way consenting when they are not, or that their lack of consent is an act that must be overcome by force. To an offender, “slutty” dress may be taken as an invitation.

    Right-thinking people know that no one is ever “asking for it,” but the purpose of a crime-avoidance seminar is not to provide tips designed to protect people from right-thinking individuals. I suspect stereotypical assumptions run rather hot in sex offenders. If one wishes to avoid being victimized by them, then, does it not make sense to think as they do?

    Let’s draw out the distinction: as a matter of rights, no individual is responsible for their own victimization. As a matter of practical reality, all individuals can do things that reduce the likelihood that they will be victimized. The cop’s comment is considered outrageous because it struck up against a sacred political totem, not because it is incorrect. This begs the question of whether those attending the session wanted real tips on avoiding victimization or merely to have their politics (and, given that the vast majority of sexual assaults are emphatically other than stranger-jumps-out-of-bushes types, irrational fears) indulged.

    1. Sorry – I was being sarcastic in the original post. I should have been more clear. My point was that I don’t even know where the boundaries of slutty/not slutty clothes actually lie, since presumably these are in the eye of the beholder.

      But again: if we want to make empirical claims about what sex offenders think, we should provide empirical basis, and not speculation. It is by no means clear, empirically, that an outfit which would be conventionally read as “sexy” actually provokes, makes more likely, invites, inspires, sexual assault. What evidence do we have of this?
      I am ready to be convinced on this front, by evidence. The problem is that the evidence I do have about the prevalence of sexual assault, the victims and the locations of those assaults all suggest strongly to me that clothing is the least of it.

      The other thing, though, is that it’s a short step from telling women “don’t wear that if you don’t want to be assaulted” to “don’t go out if you don’t want to be assaulted”. In my opinion, and in my life, these kinds of “help” are a waste of my time.

  8. “My point was that I don’t even know where the boundaries of slutty/not slutty clothes actually lie, since presumably these are in the eye of the beholder.”

    Do you seriously expect your readers to believe that you’re incapable of choosing context-appropriate clothing? How do you go to work in the morning? Why do you not wear pajamas to the opera?

    The fact that something is capable of infinite symbolic subjectivity (like dress) does not mean that we, as intelligent people, cannot reasonably infer how most of the participants in a given cultural construct are likely to interpret those symbols.

    With respect to empirical evidence, what you have written (“the least of it”) suggests that dress is not an irrelevant factor, but instead one less relevant than, say, time of day, location, etc. In light of this, I’d agree with your objection to Mr. Cop’s statement, which neither of us witnessed, if he’d said that not dressing “slutty” was the _best_ thing women could do to protect themselves against stranger assault. That would be wrong and understandably offensive. That doesn’t seem to be what happened, though.

    I’d applaud the fact that you’re ready to be convinced by evidence, but you give and then withdraw that position with your last paragraph. Parsed for its meaning, what you write there is that even if there were solid evidence linking dress and stranger assault, slippery-slope political consequences should preclude issuing advice derived from that correlation. This takes us back to my original point: what was objected to was not the truth-content of the cop’s statement, which you have described not as false but merely ambiguous, but the fact that he said something that elite women consider ideologically objectionable. Dean Bessner’s political tautology (“should we ignore this cop because he distracts us from the struggle, or are his remarks indicative of how much more struggling we have to do?” illustrates this: it is demonstrative of a politics that is simultaneously hypersensitive (one remark causes a firestorm of controversy), oblivious of its own power position (everyone she spoke with agreed with her, which I’m sure jives with your experience), and in some respects immune to empirical argument (viz. the fact that stranger rape typically represents less than ten percent of sex assaults but was apparently the topic under discussion).

    Ironically, and this should demonstrate the climate of hysteria in which the security session and the outrage stemming from it operate, one of the best tips our cop pal could have offered the attendees is to spend more time on a university campus. York Security’s incident statistics are here: http://www.yorku.ca/security/documents/Five_Fiscal_Year_Comparison.pdf. Assuming a population of approximately fifty thousand students (this number is artificially low as it does not count staff, occasional visitors to campus, etc), York’s sexual assault incidence rate has been at least half the national average over the past five years: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85f0033m/85f0033m2008019-eng.pdf.

    1. Thank you for your comments R. I do think, though, that in the past I have been deeply surprised at that way certain choices have been perceived – not always by “most people” but rather by one or two people who acted on their perceptions.
      It also seems that I wasn’t careful enough in my original post to indicate the gap between Dean Bessner’s comments and my own editorializing. All this:

      When I discussed the comments with colleagues & students, everyone was shocked and angry. But I think that we’re shocked at the unprofessional nature of the comments rather than the revelation that some people think these things (which makes us angry). Is this kind of comment actually a distraction? Or is it an illustration of the pervasiveness of these beliefs, a hint at how challenging the larger goal will be to attain, an invitation to take on these kinds of beliefs (again!) directly? I’m inclined to think that there are important ways in which this is a distraction, even if it is an illustration. It is the kind of situation which can easily be converted to a “bad apple” argument, and/or an argument about the police, and both of those seem far too narrow. Sometimes I feel I’m being baited into losing my focus, baited into returning to arguments that have been made again and again, and I feel determined to keep moving forward. But I can see that this approach isn’t always going to work. When to turn back and do road repair work?

      was me, not Dean Bessner.

      I should also have been more clear in highlighting that I too found it interesting (and not surprising) that York University is a bit of an oasis in terms of violent crime numbers. This was the reason that I included this in the original post:

      here’s a map of Toronto using Statscan data to illustrate violent crime rates across the city [2006 census] (I offer this one in part to illustrate that although many of the neighbourhoods around the University have high violent crime rates, the areas in which most students tend to live (on campus and near campus) have lower violent crime rates.

      I did indeed speak to many people who agreed with me, but I also spoke to people who disagreed. These people were outside my work context. I don’t know whether students feel comfortable disagreeing with me, so their silence does not = agreement to me. I spoke to colleagues who were interested and whose response was required, and these colleagues all agreed. I hope that I didn’t convey the impression that I think everyone agrees with me. I wanted to be clear that I’m aware that the statements of the officer represent widely held views.

      Finally, you write:

      Parsed for its meaning, what you write there is that even if there were solid evidence linking dress and stranger assault, slippery-slope political consequences should preclude issuing advice derived from that correlation.

      Again, I apologize, because my intent was to convey two ideas.
      Firstly, that I’m curious about the empirical evidence.
      Secondly, that the statement can be taken, and is taken, by me, as representative of a set of ideas which are deeply harmful to women and which go well beyond the mere notion that women can prevent or lessen their chances of experiencing sexual assault by dressing modestly.

      I know that this is not a full response to all the points that you raised, and I’m going to have to plead time pressure. Thanks for putting your disagreement into writing.

  9. “Again, I apologize, because my intent was to convey two ideas.
    Firstly, that I’m curious about the empirical evidence.
    Secondly, that the statement can be taken, and is taken, by me, as representative of a set of ideas which are deeply harmful to women and which go well beyond the mere notion that women can prevent or lessen their chances of experiencing sexual assault by dressing modestly.”

    I’m confused as to why it’s necessary to re-state your position. I originally suggested that even if there were solid evidence linking dress and stranger assault, it is impolitic to issue advice based on that correlation because of its potential implications for women. What you have come back with is a) that you are unsure about the empirical evidence and b) the propriety of providing such advice is evaluated according to criteria other than its truth-content (it is “representative of a set of ideas which are deeply harmful to women” etc).

    I think I got you fine the first time — regardless of whether or not a thing is true, some times it simply should not (cannot?) be said.

    With this interesting proviso in mind, perhaps our stalwart police officer should have been given some additional coaching before addressing the audience. Something like “yes, we have brought you here for the purpose of giving what you consider to be honest advice on how to avoid victimization, but please be aware that the sphere of advice we consider acceptable is circumscribed by political premises X, Y and Z. Even if the advice is correct, contingently correct or arguably correct, we will string you up in the national media if you do not affirm our a priori assumptions about the way the world is supposed to work.”

    Given what has happened over the past few days, two things come to mind. First, if Osgoode’s population is any indication, contemporary feminists seem to have a problem with Hume’s is/ought distinction. Mr. Cop gave his version of “is” advice; he has been chastised for not conforming to the “ought” of his audience. This much is demonstrated by the race to characterize his statements as victim-blaming: unless I’m missing something, he didn’t suggest that the culpability of sex offenders can be reduced by the circumstances in which they find their victims, but instead that individuals can do certain things to reduce the likelihood of their victimization. Implicit in this is that in a perfect world they shouldn’t have to do anything, but as we do not live in a perfect world advice geared towards that scenario is rather less useful. I suppose the A+ answer to the question posed would have been “you should do nothing – you have the right to not be victimized,” but that fails the test of utility. One also wonders why the standard advice for the (admittedly improbable) stranger-rape scenario did or would not offend, ie. stay away from dimly-lit areas, avoid getting incoherently drunk with men you do not know/trust, etc. Do women not have the right to walk alone at night or get hammered like the rest of us? Of course they do! But of course rapists are not spending their nights reading Andrea Dworkin, so all of that is irrelevant.

    Second, earlier I wrote that the response to this brouhaha is demonstrative of a politics that is hypersensitive, ignorant of its power position, and in some respects immune to empirical argument. We can leave aside the third criterion for now. Let’s focus instead on the power position: within three weeks of its utterance, this single phrase became a national media item (CBC, Globe, Star, Sun, others); compelled the issuance of a written apology (at the demand of its listeners and others); and resulted in a police officer receiving internal discipline. The police don’t apologize when they break the arms of suspects, wade into crowds of peaceful G-20 protesters with truncheons flailing or kill citizens during high-speed chases/poorly-executed mental health interventions/etc, and they aren’t routinely disciplined for any of these either.

    Given the rapidity and completeness of the response, it appears that Osgoode’s gender lobby is a political force with the power, in true Foucauldian manner, to police the bounds of acceptable discourse by making examples of its chosen others. Its J.D. program page profiles six women and three men: http://www.osgoode.yorku.ca/jd/index.html. There are three feminist advocacy organizations active in the school alone (IFLS, Women’s Caucus, Osgoode Women’s Network). Full-time faculty are 56% men, 44% women, etc.

    QED, in other words.

    Is it not thus time to re-evaluate the political tautology I criticized earlier, ie. “should we let this distract us from the struggle, or is this remark indicative of how much more struggling is necessary?” How about the obvious third option, ie. “hot damn! no one will oppose us, even if their opposition was arguably unintentional! We’re totally in the driver’s seat here.” I understand this would blow to smithereens the dueling, dialectic narratives of triumphalism and victimization that have been the hallmark of elite feminist discourse since the third wave, but it does carry the advantage of being intellectually honest . . . and, viz. hypersensitivity, it might suggest the best option available to powerful groups when faced with a perceived slight: ignoring it.

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