Lifestyle

A brief history of women’s clothing and the ‘uncontrollable’ urges of men


Women throughout the ages have always been blamed for the seduction of men. CEO Relationships Australia NSW Elisabeth Shaw on the path to a better future.   

Anne Summers landmark book Damned Whores and God’s Police argued that “the colonisation of Australia created a patriarchal gender order that reduced 19th-century women to one of two narrow roles: virtuous wives and mothers, dubbed ‘God’s police’, or the more pejorative, lost ‘damned whores’.”

Our current exposure to behaviours in the workplace such as masturbation and assault, tawdry behaviour in schools and the online sexual minefield, makes Summer’s thesis particularly prescient.

During the last few weeks, most of us have been involved in discussions in our own social circles about how women need to keep themselves safe, while acknowledging how it is unfair for women to have to be so vigilant about their wellbeing. In these conversations, it is striking that both women and men can be all too ready to divide responsibility between victim and perpetrator. What can drive this is the difficulty in determining how to stop men who use violence. It can be easier to “police” the behaviour of victims, creating an illusion of control, even if it has no real bearing on crimes committed.

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Every fashion has brought with it the possibility that women, those “damn whores”, will use their feminine wiles to draw attention, and as a result may well deserve what they get. While in the 19th century it was said that this could be the seductive display of an ankle or elbow, today it might be wearing a crop or bra top to a club. However, the commentary remains the same: Just as Eve was beguiling with the apple in the garden of Eden, or Homer illustrated with the call of his sirens, women are said to be dressing or behaving in a way that conveys to men their availability or willingness. Even more worrying now is the further attribution that women are mischievously or vindictively using their sexuality to bring a good man down, in terms of career and social standing.

This narrative becomes more concerning when it intersects with old and yet persistent ideas about the male sex drive, which have dominated for centuries; the view that men’s urges for sex can be overwhelming, even out of their control. Coupled with the right “provocation” there may be a point they “can’t stop”. What is a man to do if a woman in a short skirt wanders past? Is a man unable to resist? Yes, according to a case in Iowa, where a female dental assistant was ruled to be appropriately fired on the basis of being a threat to the male dentist’s marriage, simply by being attractive to him and working in his practice.

Today, we are still hearing that women are “asking for it” and “men can’t help it” or “men are confused”. This narrative is also used by women against other women, as well as being used as a justification by men who go on to transgress. It can be terrifying to really own how pervasive this is, and that there actually little way to guarantee safety. Sexual assault, harassment or unwelcome sexual attention are to be expected by almost all women at some point in their lives.

Some facts are important here:

Most sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim.

Most sexual assaults are not sexually motivated but are sexually enacted. Dominance and power drive assault, not desire.

Sexual assault is enabled by dehumanisation and objectification, not by seduction and longing.

Gender inequity fuels entitlement, not “the woman gave me a sign”.

Sexual assault can happen throughout the lifespan and regardless of appearance or clothing. Proximity, vulnerability and opportunity are far more likely factors.

Throughout history, both men and women have utilised what can be considered seductive clothing of the day to enhance physical attractiveness, as well as to convey their power and social standing. Women can feel strong, proud and empowered by their clothing choices, they should not be treated as if they have “likely victim” stamped on them depending on their outfit.

Hanging in and making progress

It is easy to recoil from negatively expressed reactions about drunkenness, what victims wore, “boys will be boys” and so on. However, as parents, family members, teachers and friends we have the opportunity to explore, discuss and influence collective consciousness about difficult subjects such as sexual abuse, harassment and violence.

This will be how, as a community, we can move forward in unison. Silencing people only fuels resentment and pushes hatred underground, which is then likely to pop up in unforeseen places. Thoughts need to be aired and challenged. Fact-checking is critical to changing or extending one’s mind. Some options for navigating difficult conversations could include the following:

Talking to others

1. Lean In. While some views may be antithetical to yours, being curious and making inquiries can open up discussions that can be of mutual benefit.

2. Make inquiries. It could be that the apparent nasty or unsympathetic view is covering up fears and concerns that are able to be discussed, and around which you could connect and progress the conversation.

3. Owning our own histories. Our views are shaped by our own experiences of abuse and suffering – or lucky lack thereof. Asking about significant experiences or people that shaped the thinking can again open conversations up to new understandings.

4. Anxiety drives quick, superficial solutions. This is uncomfortable material. The desire for it to “just go away” or “just stop” can lead suggestions to “stop drinking” or “cover up” as if that solves the problem. Some people are just too afraid and overwhelmed to do anything by reacting with their flight or fight response.

5. Remember that most women and some men will have their own assault histories. This is not something that happens to others, but is likely to have happened to someone you know. Take care of what you say and who you are speaking to.

Talking to oneself

You might be mystified, stumped and resentful about what is being discussed. Some ways to move from this position can include:

1. Self-awareness. What are these reactions based on? If you just can’t understand, do you have the curiosity to find out?

2. Compassion – to self and others. A kind view creates connection. This is quite different to seeing others as figures for sympathy or pity, and more about taking a position of benevolence, thinking the best and wanting the best for others.

3. Managing ignorance. It’s ok not to know. Rather than say the wrong or hurtful thing, better to say “I am still listening, digesting and trying to make sense of it all” than be called to declare your position, only to find you have put your foot in it.

4. Places to talk. Rather than retreat and feel silenced, seek out trusted confidantes who can talk matters through and challenge you usefully. This is about seeking different views, not ones that just confirm your own biases. This takes courage and can be a bit provocative, but if you trust the other, then growth could be ahead of you.

5. Stretch yourself. Read widely. Push yourself to entertain different perspectives, even if you don’t agree.

6. Be accountable. If you have come to understand or have always known that your past behaviour was not acceptable, then now is the time to look at this head-on and make some decisions about what to do next, whether that might be change future behaviour, seek help, apologise or admit to a crime.

7. Difficult conversations and negotiation of conflict are part of any relationship worth having but do need careful navigation. There is personal growth required, and we can all have an important role in influencing how we collectively advance, through speaking up and taking action, even within our own households and social groups.

8. We can do this in how we talk to our children about what is happening and be open to their views and experiences. We can introduce them to alternative perspectives. We can engage fruitfully in our schools, workplaces and communities.

9. That said, the magnitude of change required can seem overwhelming. We have to manage feelings of helplessness, as they can too easily morph into anger and intolerance. Taking time out and keeping ourselves calm, kind and poised for constructive action will be key to navigating the journey ahead.

Elisabeth Shaw is the CEO at Relationships Australia NSW.