This is going to look like a reflection about dress codes. It isn’t really. Or, on the other side, about sexual harassment. It isn’t that either. It is an extended plea for an understanding of communication as communication actually happens. It’s a denunciation of tag team flame-throwing.
In the account I found on politico-dot-com, Sen. Claire McCaskill “is not happy about reports that lawmakers in her state [Missouri] considered instituting a dress code for interns after a summer of sexual assault allegations.” I’m OK with that. Have a dress code; fine. But how does one argue that a dress code is a good idea or a bad idea—now THAT actually matters. The way the argument is shaped can be truly destructive of thoughtful discourse.
So let’s consider the role of how one dresses as it bears on sexual harassment. I have heard people say that women who dress as if they were eager to be approached sexually have only themselves to blame when things go wrong. The liberal crowd I hang out with finds that completely reprehensible. No one would mistake Sen. McCaskill for a liberal, certainly, but in this instance she says what liberals say. I’m going to separate her remarks into two parts because the two parts use different standards.
McCaskill, Part I
“Is your recommendation [the dress code] meant to suggest that the ability of adult men and women who have been elected to govern the state of Missouri to control themselves is contingent on the attire of the teenagers and young adults working in their offices?
The “ability…is contigent on…” language is rhetorical excess. In the context of a conversation that had even a basic understanding of how people work, it would be ridiculous. But this is an argument conducted with bullhorns, so subtlety isn’t really part of the mix. The picture Sen. McCaskill paints has two pieces to it. In the first, a female intern shows up to work in an outfit that shows, just guessing here, too much cleavage or too much leg. The picture suggests some ways of imaging the issue; they were not chosen from Missouri. I know there are other possibilities. The result of these wardrobe choices is that the male representatives lose the ability to control themselves and they sexually assault the intern. Those are the two pieces. The provocative intern and the incontinent legislator. In the other picture, the intern is not provocative and therefore the legislator is…um…able to contain himself.
I don’t want to offend anyone unnecessarily by pointing out how ridiculous this is, but people don’t actually function like that. Rats do, not to disparage the sexual behavior of rats unnecessarily, but people don’t. The way one dresses is part of an immensely complicated tapestry of communications about who I think I am, what kind of an occasion I think this is, and what I hope or fear will happen in this setting. That complexity is a commonplace of culture. The two-valued parody that Senator McCaskill offers is not an attempt at analysis.
Then the Senator moves on to Part II:
“Is your recommendation meant to suggest that if an intern wears suggestive clothing, she or he will share partial responsibility for any potential sexual harassment or assault?”
More rhetorical extravagance. Sen. McCaskill wants to say that how the intern dresses cannot affect the way she is treated. I built a small model in the paragraph above that suggests that an intern might say everything about me, how I walk, what I wear, who I talk to and how I talk etc. is part of the normal everyday information by which people align their behavior with each other. Everyone bears partial responsibility for every part of the web of communication that allows societies, even legislatures, to function. To imply that each person does not bear such responsibility is to misconstrue how social communication works.
Everybody knows all this. Everyone who is discussing communication and considering the elements that make it work (to the extent it does work) and each person’s responsibility for getting it to work and for keeping the machinery of implication and inference in good working order, knows all this. But the charges we are considering today are not “discussions.” They are accusations. They are intended to score points. And in the service of scoring points, what is a little damage to the reality everyone knows about the communications process?
To give the sharpest point to this distortion, Sen. McCaskill calls the story that a dress code has been formulated, “blaming the victim.” The point of a word like “victim” is to absolve the legislative interns of any complicity if there is an episode of sexual harassment and to accuse anyone who wants to make the situation more complicated is “blaming” the interns. But really, who could blame interns like these?
My point so far has been that as analysis, the perspective Sen. McCaskill has adopted is the sheerest nonsense, but in fact, there is a reason she is so fired up. Let’s imagine that Sen. McCaskill is ordinarily careful with the way she uses language and shares the understanding of interpersonal communication that scholars have agreed upon. I don’t know whether any of that is actually true, but let’s posit it so that I can ask the next question. The next question is this: what could have so riled Sen. McCaskill that she blew right past all that she knows about how people communicate and went straight to stereotyped charges?
Well, here’s an idea.
“McCaskill, a Democrat, discusses being sexually harassed while she interned in the Missouri Legislature in her new book Plenty Ladylike.”
Oops. So Legislative Intern McCaskill was sexually harassed. And now Senator McCaskill—Democratic Senator McCaskill—hears that Republicans in her home state are sexually harassing interns and then passing a dress code, as if the lack of a dress code were the cause of the difficulty. If the question is, “What could have so riled Sen. McCaskill….?, here, I think, is the answer. She was mistreated as an intern herself and now this is happening to a new generation of interns and the same old “it’s their fault” accusations are being made. You can almost see the steam coming out of the microphone in this picture.
I get that. She’s upset. She is saying the kinds of things people say when they are upset. But she is saying them into a microphone. And she is being covered by the national press. And she is saying that what legislative interns wear to work is no part of the misbehavior of the legislators.
Now that makes me upset. Let me tell you why I hate her approach with such a passion. I hate it because it exposes people like me, (who say that communication is a complicated matter and that every part of the communicative world of each participant needs to be taken into account if fingers are to be pointed at anyone) to censure unfairly. To tell the truth, I don’t like being censured even when it is fair, but when it is unfair, it feels even worse.
If I were going to give advice to the legislators, I would say, “Behave toward the interns as if the Legislative Ethics committee were controlled by your worst political enemies and had the Kansas City Star on speed dial. You don’t make suggestive comments; you don’t have private meetings in private spaces; you don’t feature the sexual implications of male legislators and female interns. 
If I were going to give advice to the female interns, I would say, “Let the way you act and the way you dress indicate how you want to be treated.” Make sure that the way you see yourself is broadcast on all available channels.” That won’t solve all the problems, but it will solve all the problems that are caused by confused communications.
I think there ought to be people like me saying what I am saying in public. Sen. McCaskill makes people like me part of the “blaming the victim” crowd because it suits her political agenda to misconstrue what the process of interpersonal communication is like.
She makes me the victim of her intemperate outbursts and then blames me for objecting to it. Really, is that fair?