Saturday, February 11, 2012

Bettina Arndt you're busted!

When I was in my early 20s, I went out at night a lot more than I do now. Almost weekly I could be found at some bar, nightclub, rave or dance party. I liked to dress up to go out - to a bar I might wear heels and short skirt, to a rave I once wore sneakers and a cheongsam (a high-necked Chinese dress), to a beach party I wore sneakers, a short skirt and singlet top (it was summer). Each time I went out, I could expect men to ogle me, pinch me on the bottom, make lewd gestures, stick their tongues out at me, call at me from passing cars, outright proposition me or any combination of the above. It was an inevitable but unwelcome and uncomfortable part of the evening's proceedings. Interestingly, I noticed that wherever I went, decent men were respectful, and boorish men were not. It didn't matter what I was wearing, or how I reacted. They were going to either be charming and friendly or uncouth and rude. I didn't suddenly enjoy being pinched on the bum uninvited just because the guy was good-looking. Those entitled arrogant jerks were still jerks, Armani suit or not, and the moron leaning out of his friend's hotted up Holden Barina was still a jerk too. Jerks come in all packages. As do intelligent, wonderful men. I would sometimes go out with male friends and if they looked at me, I either didn't notice or didn't mind as they were doing just that: simply looking. If an acquaintance leant over me with leery, beery breath and held his gaze on my chest for too long, I would steer clear of that guy as he was clearly overstepping the boundaries of good taste with no regard for my comfort level. So far so normal.

Except last weekend I read a piece by Bettina Arndt which seemed to completely contradict my experience. Arndt claims that by "dressing sluttishly" women are "flaunting" (she uses this word a lot) their sexual power in an "UP YOURS gesture of the most provocative kind". And here I thought I was simply wearing whatever I choose to wear and expecting decent people to be respectful. What was I thinking?

Of course, if you dress for attention, then attention you will get. Some of it negative. That goes for men and women. But due to society's double standards, I would suggest it goes far more often for women than men. By putting the onus back on women to take responsibility for men's reactions to the way they look, we are stepping away from gender equality. And terms like "women flaunting themselves publicly" belong in the dark ages. The argument is that if you don't want them to look at you, don't wear a low-cut top/short skirt etc. Arndt accuses these women of double standards and says they dress provocatively to secure the appreciative glances of 'alpha men', or of men they are interested in, and then deride the 'beta men' - the ones they reject - for looking too. She implies that you can't expect one group of men to look and another not to. I would argue that if a man were to glance or even look with appreciation at a woman's body and nothing more, many women would either not notice or not mind. It's the definition of 'looking' that we may have a problem with, if by 'looking' you mean ogling, staring, commenting, and touching. I would also argue that the poor deprived beta men are not the only ones perpetrating these acts. So-called 'alpha' males with their sense of entitlement are just as likely to go a step too far when commenting or reacting to a woman's body. The issue here is consent and power - the woman is disempowered when the way she is dressed becomes the basis for unwanted and unwelcome comment and actions by others - to put the onus on the woman to take responsibility for the man's actions because, well, the man is in a permanent state of sexual red-alert is just ridiculous. The message seems to be that women should check themselves because of men's desires and the related actions that they 'just can't help' - this is too close to the argument that 'she shouldn't have walked down that alleyway/ been drunk/ worn that skirt' and would have kept out of 'trouble' as a form of rape apologism for my liking.

I find Arndt's argument so appallingly illogical that I can't help but break it down line by ridiculous line. Firstly, the language used throughout the piece is problematic. Accusing women of dressing sluttishly, provocatively, of flaunting their 'goodies' and displaying their 'assets' is inflammatory and reductive. It reads as though she is looking for a reaction rather than trying to put forward a reasoned argument.

And then there are the broad sweeping generalisations such as this pearler: "Everywhere you look, women are stepping out dressed provocatively but bristling if the wrong man shows he enjoys the display."

There are so many things wrong with this statement. Firstly, it is lumping all women in together, with not a shred of compelling evidence. It is simply an observation that she has made about some women that she has then used individual examples to back up. Secondly, is Arndt being deliberately disingenuous with her use of vague terminology like "enjoys the display."? What does 'showing he enjoys the display' entail exactly? It's kind of left to the reader to conclude, and some may take it to mean a man who simply acknowledges with a look or a nod the aforementioned 'provocatively dressed' woman, whereas others may assume a whole raft of behaviour such as ogling, pawing, commenting, and who knows what else.

Arndt has thought of this and later on insists that "Of course there is no excuse for sexual violence or for men to paw or harrass women" and then starts the next sentence with "but..." and goes on to criticise women who over-expose their bodies. To me this is akin to saying "I'm not racist, but... [insert racist comment here]." Issuing a disclaimer prior to an offensive statement does not make it any less offensive.

Arndt bemoans the fate of the so-called 'beta males' who are angry that the 'goodies are not on display for them'. She writes: "These men are more likely to behave badly, blatantly leering, grabbing and sneering. For them, the whole thing is a tease. They know it and they resent it." Not that she's promoting that sort of behaviour, of course.

So is Arndt purporting to stand up for men who are merely having an innocent 'look' and get told off for doing so by women who would accept the same kind of behaviour from men they were interested in? Does she think that a woman should not pick and choose who she feels comfortable engaging? As one of her interviewees clumsily says, "sometimes it feels sleazy when I'm way out of the observer's league like if they're really old or fat or ugly." Arndt claims this double standard is unfair to the poor men. I disagree. I have a friend whose father never fails to look at me just a little bit too long, and to comment on the way I look. I suspect it is just his unfortunate style of communication with women and I don't imagine I'm the only target, but his manner makes me uncomfortable. If my husband, on the other hand, looks at me that way and comments on my body, I enjoy it. Do I have double standards? Or am I simply at liberty to feel valid reactions to the way I am treated by others depending on my (real or potential) relationship with them? What if I was wearing a low-cut top? Would I then have to just put up with my friend's father's attitude? How low would it have to be? What if I was wearing a swimsuit in a restaurant? Or if we were at the beach? Would I have a responsibility to tolerate certain behaviour in certain situations but not in others? What if I were wearing a tracksuit? Then is it not ok? I wonder if Arndt can see how arbitrary her distinctions over womens dress are. There are nudist colonies and tribes in Africa and the Amazon where men routinely see women either fully or partially naked. Somehow the majority seem to be able to control themselves. Arndt might want to have a think about why that is.

"While there are women who claim they dress sluttishly just to make themselves feel good, the fact remains that... the main message sent is about flaunting women's sexual power." While Arndt may claim to understand that there's never an excuse for gross behaviour, the fact remains that the main message sent is that if they do, they can't help it and it's actually the woman's fault.

Halfway through the article Arndt quotes a "men's advocate" and Perth psychotherapist who believes many men are confused about what's going on. At this point I am also confused. "We do want to be respectful but it's not always easy with a neon pink g-string staring up at us!" Hmmm. Is it because it's neon pink? Or was that just to illustrate a point? What if it was a greyish g-string? Would that be less distracting? What about tight jeans? What about loose jeans? Who's going to tell the woman when she's gone too far? Who's going to tell her when she's dressed suitably enough to decide how she reacts to unwanted attention? What happened to ownership of our actions?

The next cab off the rank claims that "provocative female attire is an assault against men" - best he moves to Saudi Arabia then so he can feel less assaulted. Makes me feel for all those beta males running home from the newsagents to be oppressed by their copies of Maxim magazine.

Then a political philosopher chimes in. Apparently beta males get the message that what women instinctively want is for "99 per cent of the men they run into to leave them alone... while the one to whom they are attracted makes their dreams come true." You mean women want to be able to choose who they give their time and attention to and not be forced to accept all takers? Outrageous! They don't want to feel pressured into smiling politely when some buffoon makes them feel uncomfortable?? They're not gracious enough you say? Bad women. Poor, poor men.

Arndt argues that men have a right to "show what it's like to be on the receiving end." Again this is dangerously vague. What does this even mean? She goes on to illustrate the point with a description of a tv comedy wherein a character, after watching Lindsay Lohan "putting on little outfits and jumping around on stage" laments that "no woman anywhere wants to have sex with anyone and to titillate us with any thoughts otherwise is just bogus." So really it's all about him. And you know what? Lindsay Lohan probably does not want to have sex with him. He's spot on there. So why should he have to see her throwing "those things" in front of his face? From a stage on a screen you mean? And you really scratch your head and wonder why guys like this struggle to get girlfriends!?

And what of all the 'beta females' out there, are there no women who are stung by rejection? What happens when they look too closely for too long at a man who will have nothing to do with them? Do the men lap up the attention and respond graciously or do they label them stalkers, desperate, and all manner of unattractive adjectives?

It seems like Arndt would have us all living in a perpetual Adam Sandler movie if she had her way. A world where hot chicks put their money where their mouths are and wise-cracking slobs in oversized t-shirts got to pick and choose from a bevy of female delights, where women exist purely for the gratification of the beta male gaze.

The nub of the piece comes towards the end, and if there is any sense at all contained within, it's this: "Of course men are going to want to look... but there are men struggling with how to do this in a respectful way." BINGO! So why not write an entire piece helping these dudes out? Why blame their behaviour on women? I would argue that it's not just men who want to look, that looking is actually an inherently human thing to do - it's not as though women go about with downcast eyes - but in the case of this argument I will focus on men. Firstly I wonder why it is so hard to look without offending. Why is a subtle glance so hard to master? We have eyes. We see things. Take a mental picture and move on. Because when your gaze lingers and you start to make the other person uncomfortable, you need to do something about that, not them. It's not that hard. And despite what Arndt would have us believe, I think that most women are complaining about the looks and actions that make them acutely uncomfortable, not the 3-second glance. If there were no leering, groping, lascivious responses then we wouldn't have a problem.

Towards the end of this ungainly article (yes, we're getting there, three cheers for you if you've stuck it out this far!), Arndt completely contradicts her whole argument by stating "Young people caught up in all the titillation rarely see any harm in what's going on." What? Does she mean young women or young men? She goes on to talk about women and their 'flaunting' again so I can only imagine she means the women can't see any harm. But then, the kicker, in the final paragraph, is that we really can see the damage we are doing to the already "tragic" situation that is the male sex drive: only now does the 43-year-old woman think about the confused young men she left in her wake and the mixed messages she'd sent them [by virtue of her revealing clothing]. "Deep down I was much more aware of my power than I actually let on." Replace 'power' with 'responsibility' and you have one of the oldest tricks in the book: trying to make women feel responsible and take the blame for the way men behave towards them. Shame on you Bettina Arndt.


  1. 3 cheers for me :-)

    But seriously, brilliant post. I can't tell you how disappointed I was to read Arndt's article. Arndt's use of the term "sluttish": well, it says it all, really. Since when has that word been appropriate? Sluttish? Really?

    Further words fail me. Thank you for finding the above words.

  2. I'm not surprised you don't get the article - you were raised and continue to exist in a bubble of female avoidance of responsibility - but that's ok because the Government and Judiciary has your back.

  3. And anonymity appears to have yours, Anonymouse 10:47pm

  4. Awesome post! And completely right - the whole article just stinks of no research coupled with a whole heap of slut-shaming and a bit of Schwyzer on top ('cos you know, that's the only perspective from "women's studies" etc we're going to get).

  5. Thank you, that was very cathartic reading! Arndt's article had me fuming incoherently.

  6. Wonderful dissection of a fatuous argument, Sarah. I have a slight problem in that I am sympathetic to some of Arndt's pro-male arguments (their sex drive is largely driven by the inescapable fact of biology & the vast majority of men control this extremely well - like you I don't see the problem in a subtle appreciative glance) but why does she have to distort them to become anti-female ones? There is room in the middle. Anyone who uses the word 'slut' or 'sluttish' to describe any woman loses me straight away. Abhorrent word.

  7. Hey Ingrid - why would i use my real name here - this is the internet equivalent of a gang-bashing of Arndt (and by extension, her readers)
    The piece is way too long and picks at trivialities of language.

    Fact is - many women have no idea what they are doing when they follow sexualised fashion ... yet you people insist that their ignorance be honoured by writers in the media.

    Of course there are plenty of women who understand what they are communicating with their bodies and choose to either use it overtly to their advantage, or dress in accordance to their social and ethical values - with modesty or whatever they wish.

    ATEOTD Arndt has been around the block and writes about it - prob best that you girls read and learn.

  8. Ok - this is going to get me in trouble but I have to say I'm with Bettina. I do feel sorry for men who have what I consider to be a mixed message of 'look, enjoy, gratify my vanity, but only in a totally respectful way, and don't even think about trying to touch'.
    I don't know when short skirts and low cut cleavage became associated with feminism, but it's not my type of feminism. The only real reason to dress provocatively is to get attention - which is why it's usually done by people in their teens and early twenties, who are forgiveably still trying to figure out their needs for attention and how they can/whether they can wield power physically.
    For me it gets down to the simple idea of don't offer your treasures if they ain't for sale. It doesn't mean wearing a burqa, or never going swimming in a bikini. It does mean not primping in push up bras, spending thousands on fake boobs, wearing skirts so short your undies are visible even before you sit down - and then acting oh so outraged when someone, whether handsome or not, tries to make a play for what he wants.

    Prepared to make some enemies, but I say good on Bettina for raising this discussion - there's a huge double standrad in the way men and women dress, and it is absolutely a power play and real issue.



    Here here Lady.
    Anonymouse Chandler

  10. Emma, I am curious as to why you object to an argument that says "look" but only in a "respectful way". Surely this is not so hard? Do we really think so little of men that they are not capable of remaining respectful while appreciative?
    I imagine that as we send our boys out into the world we can teach them how to do exactly this. To argue otherwise is as insulting to men as it is problematic for women.
    And rather than directing our concern towards men perhaps have a look at the stats on sexual assault. Bettina presents men as "confused". On the other hand women often find themselves justifiably afraid.
    Sarah, a brilliant take down on an incredibly offensive article.
    I really can't believe that this discussion is even necessary in 2012.

  11. Michelle,
    I think this discussion is necessary in 2012 more than ever in before in history. I routinely see women baring shoulders, thighs, bust/cleavage, backs and abdomen. Even 30 years ago this was more under control. On a man I rarely see anything but fore arms and calves. Quite a difference, wouldn't you agree, in the way the genders dress in this day and age?
    And therefore the need for the discussion. As well as teaching our sons to be respectful in the way they look and behave, should we not also teach our daughters to be respectful in the way they present themselves?
    Funnily enough, I bet most of us women will rear our daughters and have the dicussions about not dressing in a way that begs unwanted attention. Why is it so unpalatable to hear that same common sense argument backed up by the discomfiture of men in a world where flesh is on display but not available?


    1. Emma,

      The answer to your last question is that ideas go through fashions and it's women and non - whites who now are allowed to be themselves, after centuries of abuse of position by white men. To be a white man who speaks English adds up to original sin, and any feeling they have is niow evil by definition. The PC lobby have indoctrinated a generation, almost as thoroughly as the church has done over the centuries. The "unpalatable" perception parallels the way Christians (and Muslims etc) feel about any work of art that mocks one of their symbols - it goes against all they are taught.

      To update Thom Paine - Humanity is born free, but everywhere it is in chains of the mind and body.

  12. I go back to the original question - why does the visibility of flesh equal availability? When I go to gay and lesbian mardi gras I don't assume that the males who happily show a lot of flesh are "available" to me or I have some right to their bodies or they are trying to tease or torment me ...
    I see men out running minus shirts quite regularly. I assume they are dressed this way for their own comfort not for my titillation. If it causes me to have (thank you Jenna Price) "a party in my pants" or similar then this is not their issue but mine. It certainly doesn't give me the right to do anything more than take an appreciative glance.

    1. There is science to correlate flesh exposure to closeness to oestrus. Look up:

      Nature is no respector of persons or politcal philosophy.

  13. I don't like the tone of Betina's article at all.

    Having said that, I do believe responsibility cuts both ways. There is style and there is slutty dressing. Sorry, but that is a simple fact. I've always been one that wears cleavage at night, but I (hope) I don't dress looking as if I want sex with the first man that happens along. Hopefully, I've looked as "if you want me, you are going to have to prove your worth".

    I'f I dressed like a streetwalker from St Kilda, I'd expect to be treated accordingly. Same as if a man dresses poorly I'm not going to give him a second glance. To that exrent it cuts both ways.

    As much as I agree men should not see clothes as an invitation to sexuall harrass, equally I believe women should not invite it then complain.

    There was a type of girl around when I was a teenager. If she got home late and Dad was mad, she'd cry she was raped. That doesn't help anything either.

    Can we just have some bloody common sense on BOTH sides, please?

    1. nobody 'invites' sexual harassment. a woman has a right to dress the way she chooses without being accosted and harrassed(as do men). why is it such a radical idea that women have bodily autonomy? what a women wears does not give anyone the right denigrate her or make her feel afraid through unwanted sexual comments and/or touching. men can and do understand this. but there are some who continue to disrespect women through harassment because a lot of people make comments like yours excusing their behaviour. they act that way because they believe they don't have to respect a women's right to personal space, which is reinforced culturally.

    2. Nowadays, a man has no rights at all. That's why I am glad to be old. I spent a lifetime avoding lads at the bar, whom I find shallow, only to be bashed by feminists on account of my genes - SEXISM if ever I saw it - from the 70s onward. Rights is a narcotic idea, inviting delusions of power over one's own life, much of which is just down to (gentle mother?) nature, and beyond our strength. Politics and economics ties up a lot more, leaving a small lattitude in which we can make moral decisons. I will continue to offer courtesies to anyone, regadless of the person, and continue to get mixed reactions. It is courteous not to flaunt one's attractions at someone, only to bash them for responding. That's why courtesy is so hard; it's easier to get angry with being a being - biological as well as intellectual - and just select a target for the word equivalent of "up against the wall".

  14. You have the rights to camp in the woods and lather honey all over yourself, but when a bear comes up and sniffs you, it's not going to be the bear's fault.

  15. Bettina Arndt has it all worked out. No wonder so many men including myself love this woman. She understands men and is a fair commentator. The man hating feminists hate her and this is not surprising. Also she had a wonderful relationship with her father something the ranting feminists often never had. Another magnificent woman is Miranda Devine. Women like these will never be without a loving man. The rest of you will continue with you're embittered negativity towards men but fortunately you are in a minority.

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