Author: Kelly Musyoka
Women’s bodies are not inherently sexual, but from a young age they are sexualised. In primary school, we are told to cover up because bare skin is distracting to boys. We are told to carry pepper spray. We are told to stay friendly when being assaulted because raising your voice might provoke the attacker. We are told not to walk alone at night. We are told not to wear anything revealing to protect us against the lingering eyes of men. We are told not to wear headphones when walking alone. We are told to do and not to do so many things in the name of safety, but why is the source of danger not addressed?
In the Netherlands, 73% of women aged 15 years and over have been sexually harassed at least once (Vernhout 2018). Unfortunately, the victim’s appearance is often commented on when the topic of sexual harassment arises, which completely dismisses their experiences and labels them invalid. This notion tells us that clothes are more harmful than the attackers are, but clothes do not assault people. It’s not my skirt that grabs my butt without consent. It’s not my pants that stroke my legs without warning. It’s not my shirt that pats my breast without invitation. It’s the men who believe that they are entitled to my body who invade my personal space. Yet the obsessive focus on appearance and clothing provides men with an excuse to assault women, and makes victims less willing to speak about their experiences. The problem isn’t the clothing, it’s the beliefs that men have when it comes to women’s bodies.
Still, the true danger is the societal position women are believed to hold. Women do not always receive the same level of respect as men do. They often have to work harder to prove that they can adequately fulfill positions traditionally held by men, because for so long it was believed that only men were capable of accomplishing complex tasks. Even when women do rise to the top, they continuously have to prove themselves as they receive more backlash than their male counterparts for the same errors.
The fact that the ill treatment of women is indeed a deep-seated and institutionalised matter is denied by the heavy focus on women’s appearance during sexual assaults. It is a mixture of beliefs, passed down from generation to generation, about women’s supposedly inferior position in society that makes a significant number of men feel entitled to sexualise and harass women’s bodies when they “are asking for it”. This notion is the real danger, not the clothes women wear. So instead of enforcing dress codes on women, we should be teaching men that women’s bodies are no one’s but their own and that as men, they have no right of ownership. So until the focus is shifted from the clothes women wear to the way men behave, the problem will persist.
Rebecca Vernhout. “Nederlanders onderschatten probleem van seksuele intimidatie.” NOS, December 6, 2018.
*DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of BAISmag or BASIS.*
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