Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio reportedly believes that her female colleagues should rethink their wardrobe choices if they want to protect themselves from unwanted sexual advances on Capitol Hill. Too many outfits she sees around Washington, she told colleagues this week, are “an invitation” to be harassed.
For men who harass it’s one of the oldest arguments in the book – the “she asked for it” defense. And in her unfortunate remarks, Kaptur is making that bogus argument for them.
That she would do this seems particularly out of touch given the current conversation surrounding sexual harassment and assault. While there’s nothing wrong with a woman taking any measure to protect herself from unwanted advances, Kaptur’s comments undeniably reinforce a culture already steeped in victim blaming.
Let us be clear: There is no outfit that justifies sexual harassment.
The reason we’re hearing right now about so many incidents committed by so many men, over so many years, is that women have long found only reasons not to come forward. Comments such as Kaptur’s – indictments, really – are but one example of the ire that women have faced, and continue to face, when they try to stand up against their assaulters.
And so, Kaptur’s female colleagues, and women in general, should be outraged by her statements. The congresswoman insisted she wasn’t saying a victim is at fault – rather she’s simply hoping to “elevate the decorum” around her workplace. But how else to interpret her comments?
Calling out a woman for how she looks – and assuming she looks a certain way in order to attract men and not, say, because it may make her feel good – is a way to silence that woman, to shame her and to make her feel small. It is to strip her of her self-assuredness. Which is, particularly at this #MeToo moment in time, unconscionable.
Kaptur’s male colleagues should be outraged, too. Because in placing the onus of harassment on a woman, and her choice of clothing, she’s also confirming that men are too weak, or too dumb, to help themselves from making unwanted advances, that they are too weak or too dumb not to break the law.
Certainly, there’s a generational factor involved in this. Kaptur is 71. “Decorum,” and what defined “appropriate” probably was different 40, 50 years ago when she was coming up in her career. To be sure sexual harassment was very much an issue back then. And, frankly, workplaces have changed: There are more women working, and in more powerful roles.
So, too, has fashion. What Kaptur considers revealing may not be what a female colleague 30 years her junior considers revealing; it may not even be what a male colleague of any age considers revealing. After all, who’s to say what’s sexy or provocative ? What’s sexy to some men, and women, isn’t sexy to others. Instead of trying to define, and condemn, inappropriate clothing, how about we define, and condemn, inappropriate behavior?
This isn’t, of course, to say that it’s advisable for a woman to wear the same dress to work that she might wear to a black-tie gala or to a New Year’s party on the beach. But certainly, a woman who has made it all the way to Congress can be assumed to have the ability to choose what to wear in the morning.
In questioning that, though, Kaptur is also questioning her female colleagues’ ability to think independently and make smart decisions. They’re not here to work, she seems to be saying. Instead, they’re just here for the purpose of attracting the male gaze.
It’s also worth noting how much pressure there is on female politicians to look and dress a certain way – think of Hillary Clinton’s ruthlessly documented personal style transformation over the years. Her physical appearance was part of what people thought made her look presidential. But it was also an example of the enduring, and exhausting, idea that women need to toe the very thin line, at all times, between looking good and looking too good.
The bottom line is that, no matter what a woman is wearing, if she is harassed or assaulted by a man, it is the man who has committed the offense. It’s the man’s behavior that needs to change. If a man can’t help but look at a beautiful woman in a low-cut blouse, he can most definitely help but comment on that blouse. He can most definitely help but touch her.
Shifting the responsibility for this from man to woman, or assaulter to assaulted, distracts from the real issue and gives would-be offenders an excuse to act based on assumption (“I thought I was invited,” “I thought she was asking for it”) rather than facts. Which are what really counts – and perhaps for no one more than for those tasked with making, and upholding, our laws.