On January 28, Christen Brandt, co-founder of She’s The First, a non-profit that “sponsors girls’ education in low-income countries with the goal of creating first-generation graduates and our next generation of global leaders,” shared a personal anecdote on Facebook that has reignited a discussion about street harassment and how we ought to get rid of it. Within a few days, the post went viral garnering more than 150,000 likes and more than 80,000 shares.
“This is what I was wearing this morning as I made my way through a crowded 34th Street subway station, and a man passing by me said, ‘Damn, you have some great legs,’" she posted alongside a picture of herself in a mid-thigh length puffy parka and knee-high brown boots. “When I ignored him and kept walking,” she went on, “he turned around to follow me, to get closer, even as I was moving away. ‘Did you hear me, honey? I said you have nice legs. Damn! Thank you.’”
“It was the 'thank you' that got me. As if my 5 inches of legging-covered skin were there for him,” Brandt explained before concluding, “Next time you wonder whether your skirt is too short, next time you ask your teen daughter to change her clothes, or the next time you hear about school dress codes in the news, remember this photo. I am in a f—ing parka and boots. And it. doesn't. matter. All women have these moments. All of us. And yet the world acts as if it's still our problem to fix. Get your s— together, guys. I, for one, am sick of dealing with it.”
Brandt’s post highlights a vitally important point: when it comes to sexual harassment (and yes, rape), how we dress is neither the cause of nor the solution to the issue. Women are vulnerable to harassment no matter what they wear. I am convinced that in our present culture, one so practiced in and obsessed with sexually objectifying women, street harassment would continue even if we all wore Victorian-era gowns and bonnets. Furthermore, regardless of whether or not clothing “provokes” harassment, it certainly never justifies it.
Street harassment is a part of a larger problem—a false line of thinking continually sold to men in sexualized media and porn—that women are always available for male consumption. If we recognize this underlying issue, it makes more sense why harassment occurs no matter what she's wearing; the harassing man only needs to identify her as female to see her as a sexual opportunity.
But I think we ought to exercise caution before concluding that how we dress, as Brandt wrote in her post, “doesn’t. matter.” Very often, I find that the age-old discussion of how women ought to dress hinges on how men will respond. Advocates for modesty warn of harassment and rape, while those who would like to dress how they please point out, as Brandt does, that harassment and rape occur no matter what women wear. But to act like guidelines or social norms for dress are there only to either encourage or deter sexual interest is ridiculous.
The truth is avoiding harassment, or any other unwarranted action, is not the only reason to dress with others in mind. At the same time, research shows us that my clothing affects those around me. Say, for instance, you are meeting a blind date at a 5-star restaurant. Showing up in a tailored suit shows respect, to both you and the establishment. Showing up in sweat pants sends an entirely different message and not a very good one. There isn't anything wrong with sweatpants, but clothing has communicative power that varies with situation and context. In which case, it is not unreasonable for me to take others into consideration when I dress.
Nothing justifies sexual harassment. Women (and all people) deserve respect no matter what they are wearing. But our clothes do matter. So although having your teenage daughter change or adhere to a dress code may have little impact on whether or not she is harassed in the street, it may still be a good idea.