Look like what you mean

The great thing about fighting a war with intercontinental ballistic missiles is that you don’t have to know a lot about your enemies. You load up a barrel full of destruction and heave it off to “do bad things” toslutty-2 the bad people over there. Of course, there are other things that are incredibly bad—like when an ICBM lands on you, sent by people following the same script. Still, firing them off is a pretty tidy action.

The nuclear exchange model

I discovered just last week that there is a “SlutWalk” in Portland which is supposed to serve as a retaliation for remarks made in Toronto in 2011. Seeing Portland’s response as retaliation is what brought an exchange of ICBMs to mind. In Willamette Week, a local paper, Marty Smith wrote an article about it. He provides this much background.

In 2011, a police officer named Michael Sanguinetti told a campus crowd in Toronto that female students “should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”

First, without going into the merits of his argument, I want to recognize Sanguinetti as a Man of Courage. He went onto a college campus and said either a) that women are sexually abused because they dress provocatively or b) that they would not be abused if they did not dress provocatively. If he said either of those things, then he came very close to saying that “women who dress like that get what they deserve” or that the men who abuse them are free from any blame because they could not help responding.

I don’t know if that is what Sanguinetti had in mind, but if he did, I think that was the initial ICBM strike. Portland’s response was predictably bellicose. Marty Smith puts it this way.

SlutWalk was founded in response to these remarks: The “slutty” attire worn by marchers proudly asserts a woman’s right to wear (or not wear) whatever she chooses without being shamed for it.

looks like an ICBM counterstrike to me. Women have the right to wear anything they want without “being shamed” for it. The interesting thing to me is the sudden shift into the passive voice. The women are “being shamed” by someone. That means at the very least that someone is telling these women that they shouldn’t be wearing such an outfit. It may mean more than that. The great thing about the sudden introduction of the passive voice is that it enables us to single these “shamers” out for…special shame, I suppose.

So the nuclear exchange could be summarize like this. Strike 1: Women who dress like sluts and are abused as a result are getting what they deserve. [1] Strike 2: Women have the right to wear whatever they want without fearing adverse consequences.

The communication model

So I have an idea. Maybe nuclear exchanges aren’t the best way to approach this issue. I think conversation might be a better metaphor. “The way I present myself,” or just “what I wear” for today’s essay, is something I choose to say about who I am and what my intentions are. What I say is not gobbledegook; it relies on broadly accepted meanings. [2]

Here’s a very helpful example from a piece by Peggy Orenstein in the New York Times, which you can see here.

An economics major taking a gender studies class is getting dressed in her college dorm room for a night out, cheerfully discussing sexual stereotyping in advertising with Orenstein — while at the same time grabbing a miniskirt and a bottle of vodka, the better to achieve her evening goal: to “get really drunk and make out with someone.” “You look hot,” her friend tells her — and the student, apparently registering the oddness of the scene, turns to Orenstein. “In my gender class I’m all, ‘That damned patriarchy,’ ” she says. “But . . . what’s the point of a night if you aren’t getting attention from guys?” Her ambition, she explains, “is to be just slutty enough, where you’re not a prude but you’re not a whore. . . . Finding that balance is every college girl’s dream, you know what I mean?”

Please note that what she calls “every college girl’s dream” is not getting laid or not getting laid. It is navigating between two “looks,” each of which will be meaningful to others and both of which she rejects. She wants to say something about herself—“just slutty enough,” is what she is after. She knows the look (or thinks she does) that will convey “whore” and she is trying to avoid it; she knows the look that will convey “prude” and she is trying to avoid that as well.

This girl is a terrific example of the system I would like to see in place—the conversation system— as opposed to the nuclear exchange scenario I described and rejected first. And here’s another one. This one comes from a site called Aggie Catholics and the message I want to share here has been devised by Kristine Cranley for a very conservative setting. The reason for what Cranley calls “modesty” is this:

First of all, I want to assert that the reason we dress modestly is NOT [the caps are in the original] because our feminine bodies are bad or ugly or intrinsically ‘occasions of sin’. Simultaneously, it is NOT because all men think about is sex, or that they are incapable of looking at us without lust. Rather modesty involves speaking the truth with our bodies. …Whether we intend to or not, revealing too much of our bodies sends a message that we are sexually available to them.

The quotation is accurate.  I put the bold font in myself.

I like that approach in the sense that it is a communicative, rather than nuclear, approach. Don’t send a message you don’t want to send. Furthermore, as Cranley says later, “modesty involves speaking the truth with our bodies,” and I think she is right for the audience she is addressing.

lust-6The woman who is trying to look “just slutty enough” is an example of the communications paradigm. The women who are dressing modestly so that they will send the message they want to send are, likewise, examples of the communications paradigm. And when Cranley complains: “Too loose. Too tight. Too low. Too high. Who teaches us about these things anymore?,” she is complaining about a lack of the vocabulary that will enable women to say what they mean.

Sooner or later, some reader is going to point out that men have a vocabulary as well. I am inclined on theoretical grounds to say that is very likely true, but i have no idea what it is. My sense of the courtship exchange is—with a notable exception I am going to describe before I give this up—is that women dress in a way that says what they want and men respond by going up and saying, “So…let’s follow up on your suggestion.” I know that is crude, but my understanding of the interaction is crude. [3]

Doing it Right

On the other hand, no man is required to follow the lead a woman provides. I have an example in mind. A student of mine at the University of Oregon was set up on a blind date by some friends of his and her. In preparation for the meeting, her friends—through ignorance or a desire for entertainment—talked the woman into dressing very seductively.

As Kristine Cranley laments, no one teaches anymore about “too loose, too tight, too low, and too high.” And if that was the case here, the woman was being forced to say something about herself by friends with no knowledge of either the vocabulary or the syntax of the situation. She went downstairs to meet this student of mine “dressed slutty” but without any slutty intentions.

The man kept his head and said something that his buddies would have mocked him for if they had ever learned about it. He said, “My friends and your friends said we would like to get to know each other. I don’t think I can get to know you while you’re wearing that. Would you mind changing into something that would give us a better chance to get to know each other?”

I don’t think a date had ever said anything that pleased her as much as that did and she said as much when she told me about it. She presented herself (unwillingly) to him as an “it.” He responded by asking if she would be willing to be addressed as “you.” She happily changed into something that did not detract so forcibly from the project of getting to know each other and they went out together. [4]

This is the best story I know about sexual interaction considered as communication. In the nuclear exchange model, she would have demanded to dress like a slut but not to be treated like a slut. He would have claimed the right to treat her like a slut because that is what she was asking for.

I am not pitching, in this essay, sluttiness or modesty. I am pitching communication. I think it is better than blowing each other up.

[1] With charity toward Mr. Sanguinetti, I think it is only fair to imagine that he might not have said that. He very likely said something that could be caricatured in that manner, and when you speak in public on matters about which other feel strongly, that happens.
[2] Even within the conversation metaphor, we take it for granted that words have common meanings. In the present instance, “slut” means the same thing to both ICBM communities. They want to do different things, but they rely on the word to mean the same thing.
[3] In my defense, I will say that this unsubtle narrative in which the woman signals her readiness for interaction and I respond by opening a conversation is all I know from my own knowledge. Of course, I have read books and seen movies where other, more aggressive, styles of interaction are pursued. Also, I have the stories told by friends and it is always possible that some of those stories are true.
[4] And, several years later, married each other.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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2 Responses to Look like what you mean

  1. In the Muslim world a woman dresses to avoid creating conflict in a man’s mind. Still, there are rapes. When a woman walks down the street street in shorts, she may not be sending any message. She might be enjoying the sun.

    • hessd says:

      That is true about the shorts, of course, and there are a lot of reasons for sexual problems that have nothing to do with communication. There are sexual predators, for instance, who don’t care what is being “said” visually. On the other hand, the signals that get sent in most established social settings–bars, office parties, church gatherings–are received in a generally agreed upon frame of reference. I wouldn’t want to take my point any further than that.

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