Ask A Feminist #6: A question of nuance

This week’s Ask A Feminist tries to reconcile two potentially conflicting feminist beliefs relating to women’s dress and speech.

Dear Jayne,

There is something I have been wrestling with recently. I don’t understand what I perceive to be a disconnect between these two positions, both of which I support:

Exhibit A: As a woman, I should be able to dress how I want, without fear of rape or harassment.

Exhibit B: As a person, I should watch the way in which I speak for fear of causing offence, e.g. casual racism, as I am in a position of privilege.

It seems to me that in the first of these scenarios the onus is on others to be aware how they are treating me, and in the second it is on me to be aware what effect my actions are having on others. Do you think there is any kind of clash between the two beliefs? Is it that I am coming from a position of power as a white, able-bodied, cis person in B and from a position of repression as a woman in A? Is that not just a purely theoretical position, then, and hard to put into practice in actual interactions in society?

– Puzzled Feminist

Interesting question! I think there are quite a few ways of looking at this, so as ever it would be great to hear other people’s thoughts in comments.

From my perspective, the main distinction between the two examples you give lies in your level of responsibility for the reactions of the other person. In Exhibit A, one would be hard pushed to argue that your choice of clothing actually forces people to treat you in a certain way. Regardless of whether you choose a certain outfit to try and provoke a particular reaction from the people around you, they are still ultimately free to choose how they behave when they see you. The fact that the vast majority of men don’t go into auto-attack mode when they see a woman wearing a short skirt proves that the short skirt rape defence is nothing but a misogynist myth. An individual who looks at your clothing can choose what effect it has on him, and you can’t sensibly be held responsible for his reactions to it (although sadly many women are).

For Exhibit B, one could argue that people can control how they react to your words and are therefore responsible for any offence taken. However, I think the concept of “offence” is a red herring when it comes to discriminatory language. Racist language, to take your example, isn’t problematic because it offends people. People are offended by all sorts of different things, and if we were to censor any speech that causes offence we’d be living in a totalitarian – and most likely silent – world. Racist language is problematic because it contributes to the oppression of those it is targeted at, reinforcing the stereotypes and assumptions that are the basis of and justification for that oppression. While the individual who overhears or is on the receiving on of racist language may be the kind of person who can choose not to get upset or offended at that particular moment, she cannot control the wider implications of racism on her life. She can’t choose to just ignore the racist employer who turns down her job application because she’s Asian and start work anyway. By perpetuating racism through your speech, you become complicit in – and therefore partially responsible for – the oppression that caused her to miss out on a job.

To sum up, you are responsible for the effect any discriminatory language you use has on those around you, but you are not responsible for the effect your clothes have on them (or, more accurately, how they respond to your clothes). Viewed in this way, I don’t think your two positions are incompatible: the onus of responsibility for a person’s behaviour simply changes depending on the context.

I think you’re right to point to the admittedly theory-based concept of privilege as one of the key determinants here. However, the fact that this explanation is theoretical doesn’t in my view undermine its applicability. A lot of what any feminist or other activist strives to do in her daily life is underpinned by theory, and while it might be a bit trickier to live your life in accordance with non-mainstream theories and beliefs rather than going along with social norms, I think most of us would agree it’s worth it! Stopping and thinking about your behaviour or speech – particularly when it comes to exerting power and privilege – is at the heart of tackling oppression and discrimination.

Photo by VirtualEyeSee, shared under a Creative Commons Licence.