The Appeal of a Well-Tailored Suit

Right-wing pastor Carl Gallups recently argued on his radio show that women who dress in sexually provocative ways are sexually assaulting men, because they are forcing those men to experience involuntary sexual stimulation. What I found especially interesting—and telling—was this comment:

[Gallups stated] that if a man were to parade around the workplace “in a very sexually suggestive outfit,” women would immediately file sexual harassment claims. He demanded to know, therefore, “why wouldn’t it be sexual assault” when a woman does it.

Let’s break this down, shall we?

Gallups’ statement is based on an implied that women “parade around the workplace” in “sexually suggestive” clothing on a regular basis. However, women cannot wear just anything to the workplace. In the vast majority of cases, there are specific standards for professional dress women have to meet.

My read is that Gallups finds some outfits that meet women’s professional dress standards sexually alluring.

There is a second assumption in play in Gallups’ statement—namely, that women do not find the clothing men wear in the workplace sexually alluring. Ahem. I beg to differ. Gallup is clearly ignorant of the sexual appeal of a well-tailored suit. Men can be very sexy in professional work clothing.

Gallups’ entire argument is based on the assumption that men experience involuntary (or unwanted) visual sexual stimulation while women do not. In response, Gallups wants to control women’s clothing choices; he says nothing about men’s clothing choices. He doesn’t appear to realize that men’s clothing is even relevant to this conversation.

During his program, Gallups interviewed Mike Shoesmith:

“Men are visually stimulated and unwanted stimulation should meet the basic definition of assault,” Shoesmith said, asserting that women who dress in a suggestive manner are “guilty of indecent visual assault on a man’s imagination, which does cause mental anguish and torment.”

Note Shoesmith’s statement that men are visually stimulated. There is nothing about people being visually simulated, just men. This belief that men are visually stimulated and women are not likely plays a role in the assumptions underlying Gallups’ comments. It is not, however, the only factor at play. Have a look at this comment by Shoesmith:

“Men are in a state of constant sexual assault by women who either don’t understand the severity of what they are doing, because it’s cute and they like the attention, or worse, they do know the feelings it stirs and like the control they have over men.”

There is no understanding that this goes both ways—none. Women exist in a state of tempting men. That women, too, might be involuntarily aroused by someone at work (or elsewhere) is completely absent from Shoesmith and Gallups’ entire framing. That women, too, are sexual—and not merely sexual in the way they affect men—is nowhere to be found in their treatment.

Evangelicals and other conservatives often argue that men are visually stimulated while women are emotionally or physically stimulated. However, the research suggests that it’s not quite that simple, and even if it were found conclusively that men are more visually stimulated than women, there would still be variation within each gender.

I’ve known women who were frustrated in their relationships with their husbands, for instance, because their labido was higher. The common stereotype is that it’s universally the other way. There is a lot of simplistic treatment of gender and sexuality in popular culture that ignores the reality that variation within genders is far greater than variation between genders.

What would it look like for men like Gallups and Shoesmith to take men’s clothing choices as seriously as they take women’s? To be clear, that’s not what I want. I am not a fan of restricting people’s clothing choices. It’s just that I’m more than tired of men like Gallups and Shoesmith only and always focusing on things women need to change, and (apparently) forgetting that women are sexual beings too. Women are people. They’re not mere objects that exist for men to look at. They have lives, feelings, and desires too.

Perhaps that is what frustrates me—rhetoric like that used by Gallups and Shoesmith leaves me feeling both objectified and dehumanized, like I don’t exist or matter except in my relation to men’s sexual imagination.

Ultimately, Gallups and Shoesmith’s focus on curbing women’s clothing choices is what leads to things like requiring burkas to be worn in public. Yet, even wearing burkas doesn’t stop men from being turned on by a drape of fabric or a glimpse of ankle. Men (and women) are sexual beings. No amount of covering up will change that.

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