Provocative. adj. Outdated, old-fashioned, obsolete


A SYTYCB entry

A much-rehearsed debate: someone says that if a woman is wearing ‘provocative’ clothing when she’s raped, then she is in some way responsible for what happened to her. No, says someone else, a woman can wear what she likes, men aren’t animals who are unable to control themselves at the sight of flesh, rape is about power, and so on. I imagine everyone who is reading this agrees with the latter point of view. But the terms of this debate are weirdly detached from the world we live in today, in the West at least.

Short skirts, low-cut tops, high heels – these are no longer the exception. We all know this. We all leave the house. Of all the skirts I’ve owned in my life, the average length is mid-thigh, and that includes an ill-advised long floaty skirt phase. Same with low-cut tops and heels. A lot of women wear these on a day-to-day basis. This is all blindingly obvious, but when it comes to discussions about rape, suddenly we’re back in the ’60s, outraged at anything above the knee. A woman who wears a short skirt is not marking herself out as particularly sexually available: she is dressed entirely normally.

The same thing goes for the word ‘slut.’ Admittedly, to a lesser extent – more people think that women shouldn’t enjoy having sex than would gasp and pop their monocle out at the sight of a woman’s thigh, and this does vary wildly between different cultures – but it is losing its meaning. In the pub the other day, someone asked how many people each of us would have to sleep with to feel like a slut, or how many people someone else would have to sleep with for us to consider them a slut. Not everyone in the conversation was a card-carrying feminist by any stretch of the imagination, but it still caused a certain sense of bafflement. Some people put a number on it – one said ten, one twenty-five – but without much conviction. The fact is, we agreed, a slut is, by definition, someone (a woman by default) who has too much sex. But we all think that casual sex is fine for everyone, so there’s really no such thing; there isn’t a meaningful way any of us could apply the word to anyone we knew.

This bizarre and misogynistic return to outdated notions of modesty is not only perpetrated by those who want to blame victims of rape: it comes from our side of the fence too. Slutwalk in particular springs to mind. Much as I admire the intentions of the movement, and am glad that it’s introduced so many women to feminism in such a powerful way, it sticks with the terms that give power to those who stand against us.

I understand that their ‘reclaiming’ of slut happened in response to a particular comment, that of the now-infamous Toronto police officer who said that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised”, but that act of reclaiming gives the word a potency it doesn’t deserve. Same goes for “dressing like sluts.” On the Slutwalk London website’s About page, there is the following statement: “women wearing trousers get raped. So do women wearing tracksuits, t-shirts, jeans, jumpers, skiing jackets and burqas.” Making clear that what a woman is wearing is irrelevant to whether a man will rape her is incredibly important, but this isn’t how the point should be made. Whoever wrote this still makes a distinction between ‘modest’ clothes – the skiing jacket, jumper or burqa – and ‘immodest’ clothes. There is still an implication that a woman who bares some flesh is dressing in a markedly sexual way.

I’m not denying that showing your tits and arse is sexier than wearing a duffle coat, but the fact remains that it’s not actually unusual. There’s no reason why, on a night out, you’d think a girl wearing a short skirt is definitely out to get laid while her friends aren’t because her friends and all the women around her are wearing short skirts too. We don’t have to reclaim these terms, or give them a different, empowering meaning: we simply have to point out that they no longer have any meaning at all, and watch the misogynists cough and splutter.

So, do you think we can move on with this issue? Or do we still need to convince people that women get raped wearing whatever before we can point out that the skirts don’t invite rape either?



Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Join the Conversation