Conservative evangelical provocateur Doug Wilson recently posted an article titled On the Moral Necessity of Judging Books by the Cover on his blog. It was … interesting, to say the least. In his post, Wilson argues that we should judge people by their appearances, in contrast to what anti-racism or feminist groups might argue. A black male wearing a hoodie and low-slung jeans should be assumed to be dangerous, and that women who dress a certain way are selling something.
Check out this bit, for instance:
Suppose a director wanted his character to dash down the subway steps late at night to be confronted with three dangerous looking characters, leaning against the wall of the platform. Could he do that in three seconds? Yes, why yes, he could. …
But we are suckers for misdirection. If the three thugs in the subway are black, say, and are telegraphed as trouble by means of low-slung jeans and hoodies, and a nervous real life person picks up his pace to get past them, he is thereby condemned as a racial bigot. How dare he react to their skin that way? How does he know they are not accounting majors at CUNY? But we are actively suppressing our knowledge that this misidentification happened because of the cloth, not the skin. The same exact effect could have been accomplished with white skin and motorcycle gang regalia.
But the way we dress is communication. What we are doing is communicating, and then insulting as a bigot anybody who is stupid enough to believe what we just said.
Yes, that’s right—Doug Wilson believes that hoodies and low-slung jeans are the equivalent of “motorcycle gang regalia” in the amount of fear they should legitimately cause a passer-by. He doesn’t seem to realize that that is exactly the problem—that black males wearing hoodies and low-slung jeans are assumed to be dangerous or criminal, when such clothing does not signify anything of the sort.
Look, hoodies and low-slung jeans are not gang paraphernalia. I live in a diverse neighborhood. This is simply how many teenagers dress. It doesn’t signify anything at all, but Wilson would have you believe that it is reasonable and legitimate to conclude not only that hoodies and low-slung jeans communicate the same thing as “motorcycle gang regalia” but also that skin color is irrelevant (as though white teens wearing hoodies and low-slung jeans are perceived of identically).
This kind of thing makes me grind me teeth in frustration.
But Wilson also has words for women, or, for foolishly dressed women.
Could a capable director make that statement with no other materials to work with than a ritzy hotel lobby, a platinum wig, heels, and earrings that sparkle like a disco ball? Such that any movie-goer who didn’t get the point was an idiot? Yeah. Now when a woman casts herself in that role, and decks herself out in that same way—and I would like to flag my upcoming emphasis for any of my readers who struggle in this area—this does not make her a hooker. But it does mean that—if the world were just—she loses all ground of possible offense if some poor chump in the lobby makes the faux pas of his life. If she was not selling, why was she advertising?
She insists, with furious indignation, that she was not advertising. She was simply waiting in the lobby for her ride. But she was dressed exactly like 100 women in the movies we have seen who were advertising. Why was the chump not allowed to draw this conclusion?
Um. No. No he was not.
The assumption that women who dress in a certain way must be prostitutes is a problem. It’s also outdated. Clothing patterns change over time. Dressing “sexy” is not synonymous for “selling” something. Women frequently dress sexy for each other, or because they like the feeling, or the confidence.
More to the point, when feminists talk about the problems with the frequent focus on what women were wearing when they were raped or assaulted, they’re not simply talking about women being mistaken for prostitutes, as Wilson suggests here. No, they’re talking about women being raped or assaulted by individuals who believe (or claim to believe) that clothing signals consent.
Now work with me here, because I would like to run ahead just a few steps. Nothing justifies rape. Absolutely nothing. I would like to take a moment to make this additional important point, which is that nothing justifies rape. In case people have not grasped how strongly I feel about this, I would like to insist that nothing justifies rape.
To use an offbeat analogy, it is also true that nothing justifies holding up a taco stand and shooting the clerk. Robbery is robbery, and murder is murder, and should always be treated as such. But it is possible to hold this position while also maintaining that a taco stand ought not to advertise that they are selling sushi when they are in fact not selling sushi at all. And if that was the fact that made the shooter mad in the first place, it still doesn’t matter because nothing justifies shooting the taco guy, etc. So that principle is clear?
If nothing justifies shooting the taco guy, why are we chiding him for advertising sushi in the middle of discussing his shooting? No seriously, what does that add? Why note it at all? Why is it relevant to even bring up?
This is precisely the problem.
Why do newspapers or lawyers throw in what a woman was wearing when she was assaulted or raped? Because many people (including jurors and, as we shall see, Wilson himself) believe that what a woman wore is somehow relevant. Sure, the raping or assaulting still shouldn’t have happened, but if she was wearing XYZ, well, that makes the raping or assaulting more understandable somehow—or so the inference seems to go.
Also, I’m sorry, but Wilson’s analogy is horrible. The clothing women wear is not analogous to the signage a food vender puts out regarding his wares. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that clothing always signifies nothing—just the other day I put on an outfit that I told my husband was “hip mom chic” before going out to something with my daughter, even though I typically dress in a way that is far less, well, hip. But that is a far cry from one’s clothing signifying that one is publicly available for sexual favors.
Clothing does not override consent. It does not work like that.
But back to Wilson for a moment:
A chaste but foolish young woman does not deserve to be assaulted. Of course not. But she does deserve to hear an admonition from her favorite aunt. She does need to hear a caution from her husband.
Look, if her clothing did not play a role in her assault, she does not need an “admonition” or “caution” regarding her clothing in relation to her assault. Period. The only way such an admonition in the context of her assault would make sense is if Wilson believes her foolish clothing choices played a role in her assault. Wilson is playing a semantics game here. He says that she did not “deserve” to be assaulted, but he clearly believes that her “foolish” clothing choices played a role in her assault.
Nothing “justifies” shooting a taco guy for advertising sushi, and no woman “deserves” to be raped for dressing like a whore, Wilson appears to be saying, but, well, the taco guy probably wouldn’t have gotten shot if he hadn’t advertised sushi, and the woman probably wouldn’t have gotten raped if she hadn’t dressed like a whore. Their “foolish” choices played a role in what happened to them. But that doesn’t justify what happened and it doesn’t mean that they deserved it!
As if to drive this point home, Wilson writes this at the end of his post:
The problem I am addressing here is the incoherence of an entire generation that wants to be something or someone else, at their leisure, at their will, while never having to pay any kind of cost for being that something or someone else.
Unless we assume that Wilson honestly does not understand that the “slut walk” movement was about rape and assault and not simply about mistaken identity—which he clearly does, given his comments above—the implication here is that being raped or assaulted is simply the “cost” of being a sex worker (a disgusting suggestion in itself), and if you don’t want to be raped or assaulted you shouldn’t, well, dress like a sex worker. Why wear those skinny, sexy clothes if you don’t understand that there’s a cost involved (i.e. being mistaken for a sex worker and raped or assaulted)?
There is some serious misunderstanding of how rape and sexual assault usually work here. The high profile cases we’ve seen in recent years don’t involve anyone mistaking anyone for a sex worker. That’s not typically how rape or sexual assault work. Instead, these cases happen not because of clothing but because an individual chooses to rape someone—and then that individuals lawyers argue that what they did was somehow understandable or excusable because the victim wore something/drank something.
In a very real sense, Wilson spent his entire article involved with a strawman version of something he couldn’t bother to research. He’s also highly disingenuous: He claims up and down that he isn’t blaming women for getting raped while “foolishly” dressed, but finishes by saying women shouldn’t dress that way if they’re not willing to pay the cost. And Wilson is someone who has literally written logic textbooks. No really—as a homeschooled teen, I studied logic out of textbooks written by Wilson.
Perhaps it’s a good thing my education did not end there.
More than anything else, though, I am beyond tired of conservative evangelical men who cloak tired old prejudices in him, edgy language and think that makes them somehow different even as they say the same damn thing.
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