A rock and a hard place

Let’s look at this picture for a moment, shall we? I’ve not seen a more powerful illustration of how there is no winning for girls and women – of how much both the media and other people judge a woman’s character based on what she wears. In the picture, a student has drawn 10 options for skirt lengths on her leg, all the way from “matronly,” down near her ankle, to “whore” on her upper thigh.

Neither, unfortunately, is a compliment. Calling a woman matronly is calling her stodgy, boring, old-fashioned. Calling a woman a whore is a threat: it’s dismissive and demeaning, and says that a woman is worth less because something about her is reminiscent of sex.

If you think about what this picture most literally illustrates, assigning judgment to it is absurd. Much like these altered headlines that show the rampant sexism in tabloids, you could say that this is simply a drawing of a woman referencing several kinds of skirt. “Woman ponders different types of clothes,” a headline might read.

But it shows something we all know too well: that we will be judged, and our right to our autonomy could be threatened, based on what we wear.

What does it mean to assign the term “whore” to the length of a skirt? It means, “she’s dressed too sexily,” based on beauty standards that equate “less clothes” with “more sexy.” Too sexily for what, though? For a Wednesday afternoon? For grocery shopping? For me to handle? Why does your opinion matter? And why is sex – whether a woman is having it or not – the ultimate criteria for how much respect women are given?

The recent rampage in Santa Barbara is evidence of one horrifying response to this whole conundrum. Elliot Rodger sought revenge on women — all women — in part because he felt entitled to have sex with them, and was not doing so.

In a sickening instance of irony, he referred to women who were not sleeping with him as “sluts” – they were sluts for not having sex.

I would bet you real money that any women who did have sex with him would be magically absolved of sluthood. Calling a woman “slutty” is not actually about sex at all, but about policing her behavior. If a woman behaves, she manages to escape insult.

I suppose I should be happy that we don’t have strict rules of etiquette for unmarried women older than their mid-20s anymore – if we did, it would be socially unacceptable for me to spend time with my male friends, lest my reputation be in jeopardy! But it’s 2014, not 1914.

The only person making judgments about my “virtue,” or lack thereof, should be me.

This is a useful list of myths about sex, and female sexuality, that our society and our media need to stop perpetuating. From the myth that women ever “owe” anyone sex, to the idea that harassment is part of life that women just need to accept, this is a solid list of ideas that need to get thrown out the window – right along with the idea that clothes indicate anything about a woman’s value as a person.

Sasha Albert holds a Master’s degree in Gender and Sexuality from the University of Amsterdam, and participates in reproductive health and justice activism in the Boston area.

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