Image by Frida Castelli

In my undergrad, it wasn’t unusual for me to go to a club 3 or 4 times / week. I loved dancing and, above anything else, I loved attention. I didn’t care whether it was a man or a woman looking at me. I didn’t care whether the attention was lustful or envious. I didn’t even really care whether the thoughts were positive or negative. At the end of the day, it wasn’t even me who was getting the attention; it was my alter-ego. My alter-ego was confident and popular, all winks and toothy smiles. My alter-ego knew everyone and always went to the front of the line and never paid for anything except cabs. It was all a game to me, but it was a fun game for a girl who’d grown up gimpy and nerdy and unpopular.

Those days are behind me now and, as I grew more comfortable in my own skin, I grew apart from my alter-ego. Consequently, I’ve forgotten how to even have fun at a club. I look back on that time fondly though. It was some of the best fun I’ve ever had. The years have washed away any memory of the drama and the hangovers that I know full well defined most of those nights, and all that’s left is the memory of a feeling that still makes me smile and shake my head a little at my stupid teenage self.

However, there is one set of negative memories that has stuck with me: the chorus of men asking me why I would “be here, dressed like that, if you don’t want to hook up”. As I explained above, the answer to that question is easy enough to understand. I wasn’t dressing up for the benefit of anyone else; much less any skeezy guy at da club. I was, effectively, playing dress-up. Living out my childhood fantasy of adulthood and glamour… for ME. Men (and women for that matter) were merely an audience through whose eyes I could see the realization of my party persona. But alas, it didn’t ever occur to the many many guys who asked me the exact same question that a woman might want to dress up and dance for her own pleasure, not for the pleasure of men.

What’s worse: these men were angry. In some cases they were VERY angry. All because they felt that I had led them on and that they had some right to… something… from me, based solely on the fact that I had gone to a club and showed some skin. It took me several years to learn enough to articulate specifically why their anger was so inappropriate. It boils down to what has come to be called “rape culture”; a cultural axiom that women’s bodies are public domain.

In the club anecdote, the manifestation of this cultural axiom is evident in the fact that the rage of the men arose, ostensibly, because I had misled them by dressing up and going to a club and then not being receptive to their advances. More to the point, they were angry because they had not considered the fact that, even if I had been out looking to hook up, it would not be incumbent on me to be receptive to any / all advances or to justify why I would be receptive to any one advance over any other.

For more evidence of the pervasiveness of this cultural axiom in the clubbing scene, one need only look at how a woman is “asked” to dance by a man at the club; approached then grabbed and grinded on from behind. No consent sought. No consent needed. And when a woman asserts any agency, by declining and/or moving away, the response is usually hostile.

Men have been raised immersed in a culture that tells them that they are entitled to immunity from certain uncomfortable feelings and from responsibility for acting on those feelings in inappropriate ways. Their culture tells them this implicitly through the expectations established and reinforced by its systems. The first example that comes to mind is the decision of the Iowa Supreme Court which entitled an employer to fire a woman on the basis of her being “irresistible”. For an example that is more universal, however, we can take school dress codes. Think Progress has an excellent summary of specific examples, and the article’s conclusion is a perfect articulation of the link that lies between the cultural axiom, the seemingly innocuous day-to-day realities of women, and the ultimate resultant evils; “Rape culture is also evident in the attitudes that lead school administrators to treat young girls’ bodies as inherently “distracting” to the boys who simply can’t control themselves. That approach to gender roles simply encourages our youth to assume that sexual crimes must have something to do with women’s “suggestive” clothes or behavior, rather than teaching them that every individual is responsible for respecting others’ bodily autonomy”.

And when that ultimate evil is manifested, and a woman is raped, the cultural axiom presents itself most plainly: through speculation about the woman’s level of intoxication, judgment about the woman’s attire, drawing inferences from the woman’s sexual history, and on and on. Mary Beth Williams has written extensively on the subject but in her article for Salon, “Absolutely Not Fabulous” she suggests the perfect simple rule of thumb which, if employed, could help to stem the tide of evil that is borne of this misguided, unacknowledged, unchallenged cultural axiom:

“No undue burden on the ladies as guardians of male impulse control.”

Posted in: Progress

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