If you’re an avid reader of The Straits Times, you may have come across a gem of a forum letter from a week back, written in response to a report on a dentist being jailed for molesting a woman on the MRT.
Troubled by such a terrible crime taking place in our society, a Concerned Citizen wrote in to suggest that if women don’t want to be sexually assaulted, they should rethink the way they dress in public.
He didn’t chastise the man for being a pervert. He didn’t question why in a safe and educated society in Singapore, a man could still find it in himself to touch a stranger inappropriately in 2016. Instead, his first thought was that the victim had probably showed too much skin, despite having no sure way of knowing how she had been dressed.
Prude or psychic, I can’t be certain. But Concerned Citizen sure scored full marks for victim-blaming and slut-shaming in my book, seeing as how in a single sentence, he managed to pass the buck from the woman’s abuser to her.
I wish someone had told me that the way I dressed was the reason why I had been accosted by a stranger on my way home as a teenager. My dowdy and unglamorous school uniform must have been too provocative for him, I should have apologised.
Herein lies what makes the tired argument that women invite sexual aggression through their choice of dressing so frustrating. It perpetuates the fallacy that women can control whether they become victims of sexual crime. It implies they could have somehow prevented themselves from being preyed on simply by wearing longer skirts or burning their bodycon dresses.
I’m sure many who advocate for women to dress modestly come from a place of good intentions. However, in one careless stroke, their thought process also paints the aggressors as being powerless to behave decently, as though they couldn’t help it, while their victims had it coming for failing to conform to someone else’s obscure yardstick for decent dressing. I’m no Judge Judy, but something in the air here doesn’t smell right.
Those who believe women should cover up to avoid falling victim to sex crimes seem to think that wearing an extra sweater would serve as some kind of magical pervert-repellant. The idea seems almost well-reasoned, until you realise, much like I did as a teenager, that a woman can dress as modestly as humanly possible and still attract the dreaded unwanted attention.
While we all have different views of what makes for a modest sense of style, last I checked, the definition of touching someone without their consent was, well, touching someone without their consent. One is certainly more clear-cut than the other.
Some have said that we should dress sensibly to suit the occasion. I agree, but common sense is a better guide than any public dress code some folks seem to be suggesting, based on their own conservative or liberal beliefs. The spectrum of expectations is simply too broad for us to arrive at one universal dress code. Even Singapore’s law for public nudity isn’t very definitive in this area, given that it says people should not be “clad in such a manner as to offend against public decency or order”, leaving room for interpretation. Will anyone call the cops if I wear denim cut-offs to Sunday brunch? My friends would laugh at the suggestion, but who knows, there may actually be people who would consider doing so.
Rather than impose expectations on women that are arbitrary at best, I say leave it to people to practice good sense. Trust them to know better than to wear bikinis to the office, or their clubbing attire to church.
More importantly, instead of working ourselves into a tizzy trying to govern what a woman should or shouldn’t wear, how about turning the conversation towards empowering people to better navigate the codes of respect and consent, so that no one actually thinks it may be alright to violate someone else?
Outside of the context of work or places of worship where some basic guidelines should be abided by, I think a woman should be able to dress however she wants and not have to fear being sexually assaulted. Call me idealistic, but I’m equally motivated by a desire to see women being subjected to less body policing and slut-shaming, as I am by a firm belief that all of us, including men, are more than capable of holding ourselves up to the standards of basic human decency.
And it would seem that plenty of such men do exist, judging by the fallout from this letter fiasco. As social media erupted in a flurry of facepalms and angry indignant comments, we were reminded of how today’s platforms have changed the face of social commentary and people power. A chorus of men made their presence felt, telling the world in no uncertain terms that women should be free to wear anything they wanted, without having to fear judgment or repercussions.
It’s probably apt that the letter which started it all reminisced about the good old kampung days, “when adolescent girls were told by their parents not to wear hot pants or shorts in public” as it reflected badly on their modesty and upbringing.
Because that’s exactly where these outdated notions of gender roles and expectations belong – in the distant past.