Thursday, 26 September 2019

"You can't go out dressed like that"

Rapy knickers and skirt-rolling: what women and girls wear shouldn't matter, but we still want to protect them.

What women wear is the cause of endless speculation. There are articles written about the clothes worn by members of the Royal family to different events and what they signify. Go into a department store and compare the amount of floor space dedicated to dressing women compared with men.

Rapy knickers?
Photo by Henry Henrietta via Flickr Creative Commons
In 1998 judges at the Supreme Court in Italy ruled that a woman can't have been raped by a man because she was wearing tight jeans which were difficult to remove, so she must have helped, proving the sex was consensual. The ruling was overturned ten years later, but move on another decade to Ireland where a lawyer suggested in 2018 that, because a woman was wearing a thong with a lace front, she was attracted to the defendent and open to a sexual encounter.

An exhibit in Belgium last year replicated the clothing that women wore when they were raped. It wasn't tiny skirts and lacy thongs. It was pyjamas, tracksuits, calf-length dresses, shirts and trousers, and even a work uniform - normal clothes for normal people who just happened to be victims of a horrible crime.

I'd like to think it was now accepted that the only person to blame for rape is a rapist. But there's still a way to go before we stop questioning women for their choices, their behaviour, rather than placing the blame squarely on the aggressors. You can't accidentally rape someone, just as you can't accidentally break into their house and steal all their stuff.

Feminism v protection

So, then, to parenting, where 'she should be able to wear whatever she likes' becomes 'I have to keep her safe' which easily turns into 'you can't go out dressed like that'. As my friend said to me recently, "I'm a feminist, but I'm a mum first." We all are - feminism is political, it's intellectual, it's interesting, it's important. But motherhood is primal.

We fight for the right for all women to wear what they like, but that doesn't mean we're happy to send our children out into the world wearing clothes that highlight a female sexuality before they've developed one.

In the shops this summer you could find loads of shorts for small boys that extended to the knee, while girls' shorts stop at the top of the thigh. Why the difference? We're not talking teenagers are, who know what they want and they will want to wear the clothes they see on YouTube or wherever they hang out, so if tiny shorts is where it's at, that's what the shops need to give them. But it's not teenagers, it's 5, 6, 7, 8 year-olds, whose parents will generally shop for them. Can't our kids stay kids for little longer? Do we have to dress them as young women?

Photo by Eric Parker via Flickr Creative Commons

Teenage girls for generations have been rolling up their school skirts to show a little more thigh and many girls in the 90s went out wearing a tiny satin nightie. I remember with fondness the navy blue PVC skirt that I dearly hope my daughter never gets her hands on (I can't bring myself to throw it out).

Girls are still rolling up their skirts, they're tying up their T-shirts to expose their midriffs, and probably lots of other things that I haven't caught onto yet. We can't stop them - they'll do it as soon as they get on the school bus, and the more we try, the more they'll do it. And rolling up a skirt never caused a women to be sexually assaulted or raped - a bloke did that.

It's normal that girls and young women use clothes to experiment with how they look, with their sexuality, and push the boundaries. And it's normal that their parents want to stop them.

Do I sound like a hypocrite? I'm saying that women and girls should wear what they want, but I'm uncomfortable seeing sexualised young girls, and I don't want my daughter going out like that. One day I know that, even if I don't speak them out loud, the words 'you can't go out dressed like that' will run through my head.