The XX Factor

Smart Girls Wear Short Skirts, Too

Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

I have one strong desire that carries through life, which is that I never become one of those women who self-identifies as a feminist while conflating the problem of inequality with the non-problem of young women being sexual.  Should I ever start assuming that young women who have sex are being had, or if I start hyperventilating about young women wearing miniskirts, I hope I at least have the good sense to give up the writing thing and go into real estate.  A piece like Lisa Belkin’s in the New York Times, where she conflates women having sex with men and actual social inequalities between college men and women, makes me cringe in embarrassment for the writer.  Having the whole world look at you and wonder if you’ve truly forgotten what it’s like to be young and horny is my version of the nightmare where you’re speaking in public and you look down and realize you’ve peed yourself in front of everyone.  

To make it all worse, Belkin has some very real concerns to go along with her hand-wringing about college women wearing skimpy clothes to attract male attention or that young men make raunchy jokes.  Belkin is quite right to be upset that men still exert total control over the college social scene, and that young women feel they have to suck up to men or they won’t have a social life at all.  It is troubling that some of her students believe that women have too much power because women technically have the legal right to decline a sexual encounter (though that right isn’t honored in the legal system the way it should be).  But to illustrate her point by fussing over the fact that young people drink and young women like to show off skin misses the point completely.  In a world with complete equality, young women would still wear teeny skirts and drink alcohol at parties, because these things are fun.  Even more distressingly, Belkin conflates the problem of campus rape with the fact that young women like to look sexy, saying that the young women who wore sexy Halloween costumes to a Duke fraternity party “had mothers who attended more than one Take Back the Night March in their college days,” as if being opposed to campus rape and being willing to wear sexy clothes are in opposition to each other.  But as the organizers of Slutwalk know, that’s absolutely false.  In fact, you can and should argue that men can look at a woman wearing sexy clothes and think, “She wants to look sexy,” and not, “She’s asking to be violently assaulted.” 

To Belkin, the fact that women dance in their underwear at parties is part of the same pattern that caused a fraternity to circulate an email explaining that women aren’t actually people, as if women could get their people status back by putting more clothes on.  But I think that men are perfectly capable of being turned on by a woman dancing in her underwear while never forgetting that said woman has a family that loves her, a mind of her own, and ambitions that are equal to his.  We don’t allow men’s sexuality to dehumanize them in our eyes.  If a young man spends his weekends partying and flirting with women, and spends his time in the classroom pulling down As, we don’t see that as a contradiction. The belief that female sexual expression is uniquely dehumanizing is a double standard, no matter how much you dress it up in feminist language.  Instead of condemning young women for the length of their skirts, why not use that energy for condemning anyone who would think that a woman is lesser-than because she wears a miniskirt?  

Again, it’s a shame, because I do think Belkin makes some interesting points about how unfair campus life is to women, who don’t get to share power over orchestrating campus social life.  That women’s relationships with each other are eroded by competing for male attention is a problem, as is that men get to make all the decisions about what to do for fun and the women are just expected to tag along.  But these problems are complicated, and solutions aren’t immediately evident. Plus, the solutions to them would require asking something of men, that they share power and treat women with respect.  Asking something of men seems to be the big taboo in our culture, even sometimes among feminists.  In contrast, scolding women about what they wear is easy, even if it’s a red herring.