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.