Why Do We Care What “She” Wears? Because We’ve Been Told That’s How “She” Talks.


We see it all the time. Sometimes in sit coms, sometimes in movies, certainly all over magazine covers and as a staple of love songs: the idea that women are creatures whose signals must be decoded, mysteries of the universe, silent beings issuing subtle messages. A cursory Google search for “how to tell if a woman is interested in you?” spits out an article by www.askmen.com as the first search result. How does the article begin? “With regard to our communication, 55% is non-verbal, 38% is based on speaking signals and only 7% has anything to do with what you actually say, according to the Social Issues Research Center. It stands to reason, then, that if you want to know whether or not a woman is interested in you, you should zero in on her non-verbal signals.” www.askmen.com/top_10/dating/top-10-proven-signs-shes-interested.html This is the opposite of seeking enthusiastic affirmative consent. The second search result is an article called “Signs a Girl is Attracted to You,” which contains the following nonsense:
Lots of guys worry about whether or not she’s touching her hair or her clothes or these other super subtle cues. Reading her body language is actually much simpler than that. The more she’s facing you, the more likely she is to be interested. And the more she’s facing away, the more she has her mind on other things.

While a girl could “fake” interest in you with her body language (or, for that matter, fake a lack of interest), almost no one is self-aware enough to perform this kind of trickery. So rest assured, the more she’s facing you, the more likely she’s into you.

https://theartofcharm.com/flirting-and-attraction/signs-girl-attracted/ Both articles then encourage men to look at body posture, hair touching, and other non-verbal cues to decipher women’s intentions. What the articles don’t tell men to do, first of all, is to listen to the words a woman is using. Why would they? Only 7% of communication “has anything to do with what you actually say.” In a world where women's consent is already a hard-to-explain concept this line of reasoning is damaging. It is an inordinately problematic notion because it creates a world where women’s intentions and desires are to be interpreted from women’s external “cues” rather than from women’s actual words. Indeed, it is easy to make the small leap to believing that regardless of what a woman is saying, her "physical cues" are the real message being expressed. This manifests itself through assumptions about women’s wants & wishes made on the basis of external attributes, including clothing. And this is how clothing becomes an excuse for rape: if she didn’t want to have sex, why did she dress that way? She was saying she wanted sex through her clothing, her behavior, her presence. Unfortunately, this works. The way a woman dresses matters because society has accepted that cis hetero women express their sexual interested in cis hetero men non-verbally.

This dynamic dangerously strips women of control over their own self-expression. It normalizes the idea that women are giving off signals to be interpreted and read by everyone else (men) without concern for what women are actually meaning to say. And, indeed, in reality women are just as likely to be going about their business, moving through life, as they are likely to be trying to seduce anyone or someone in particular. Further, accepting that women’s intentions need to be deciphered makes whether or not women mean to express non-verbal cues irrelevant. Most problematic, of course, is that there is no "secret" language. Interpretation of women's clothing and body language is, in fact, an expression of what men want them to be saying rather than what they are actually saying. The notion, therefore, is nothing more than a male fantasy. And a rape is the natural denouement of that fantasy.

In reality, there is no scientific basis to interpret what women do a certain way. It’s just an amorphous set of stereotypes and wannabe psychobabble. In fact, these signals can easily be, and often are, misinterpreted. Society creates personas associated with what women do in an effort to infer what they want. Interestingly, and underlining how inaccurate these interpretations are, If she wears heels, she must be into sex. If she wears a skirt, she must be looking for sex. If she wears a tight top, she's showing off her breasts because she wants sex. If she's wearing make-up, she's obviously trying to make herself look attractive for men because she wants sex. If she does her hair up, she's trying to look put together and attractive for men because she wants sex. This is where this unfortunate logic leads us to, the idea that everything a woman does that is somehow related to her attractiveness and how she wants to present herself to the world is necessarily signaling something tacitly to men, an invitation. That is simply not true.

While it appears evident to some, it is always worth repeating: women dress a certain way for reasons that are entirely their own and which, for the most part, have nothing to do with men generally and nothing to do with any one particular man. We can wear heels because we find them beautiful, we can wear miniskirts because we like the way they make our legs look, we can wear tank tops because we’re feeling good about our stomachs, we can wear makeup because we find it accentuates positive facial features, and even though these are attributes of physical appearance they are not necessarily aimed at men. Here is the key: a woman’s beauty can be experienced by a woman as a personal experience of fulfillment without being meant to attract anyone’s attention. In other words, we don’t exist for men’s desire; our bodies are not beautiful only if they are in service of men, they can be beautiful just because. We also don’t make ourselves look a certain way necessarily for men: it is just as likely that we make ourselves look a certain way because it makes us feel good about ourselves. The trope that women use their bodies (and their clothing) to emit subliminal messages ignores the reality that sometimes (often) women move through this world for reasons that have nothing to do with men. How about that for a novel concept!

The gender-based nature of this mythology is evidenced by the fact that the same “tacit messaging” is not imposed on men. If a man works out, or gels his hair, or wears curated clothing, we don't necessarily assume that he's out there inviting every woman he crosses to ask him to have sex. We can just as much assume that he's an attractive guy taking care of himself. A man’s appearance certainly has nothing to do with his consent. However, if a woman’s appearance tells us what she wants, then it obliterates the need to obtain her consent. After all, why would consent be needed if the woman in question has already issued an invitation? Here is where this romantic notion of women’s “signals” feeds ever so neatly into rape culture.

The “tacit message” reading of women’s appearance associates a level of consent with what a woman wears or says or does that has nothing to do with the actual consent she is giving. The message, just like the beauty, is entirely in the eyes of the beholder, which is the last place where consent should be. However, we see this time and time produce perverse results, most notably in rape case verdicts. A few weeks before the Bill Cosby not guilty verdict, I tried a sexual assault. I represented a woman alleging sexual assault and she was suing her alleged rapist in federal court. In opening statements opposing counsel, a woman, made a whole series of statements about my client's appearance. Nothing was off limits. According to opposing counsel, my client wanted to have sex because: she wore make up, she wore baggy cargo pants both times she saw the defendant and the state of her pubic hair. The worst part? It worked. The jury returned a not liable verdict. The Bill Cosby verdict similarly contained echoes of women’s “tacit messaging.” At least one juror interviewed after returning the verdict indicated that the victim’s wearing of a “midriff top” implied consent. http://www.salon.com/2017/06/23/bill-cosby-trial-jury-bare-midriff/ This would be utter and complete nonsense in a society that viewed women’s sexuality as belonging to them. But women’s sexuality doesn’t belong to them. In fact, it belongs to whoever is watching and whoever interprets the tacit signals. Or so the theory goes.

Luckily women are increasingly re-claiming their right to say “No” and explaining that “No means No” regardless of what they are wearing. But that’s not enough. In order to really tackle this, we have to get to the root of the problem. The root is the romanticized notion that women are mysterious creatures to be interpreted. We aren’t. We are human beings perfectly capable of self-expression. The idea that, as Billy Currington croons in his hit song “Must be Doin’ Something Right,” “A woman is a mystery a man just can't understand,” reduces us to objects emitting signals rather than human beings capable of voicing opinions of our own. We see examples of this particular idea everywhere, in seemingly innocent settings. However, as state above, the dark side of this supposedly romantic concept rears its head every time a jury returns an incorrect acquittal. Most recently, one of the jurors interviewed after the Cosby verdict stated that the victim in that case wore a tank top and therefore had implicitly agreed to intercourse. Unfortunately, this is a very common opinion and it has devastating results for victims of sexual assault.

As a society, we are taught it is not only acceptable to judge women by what they wear but that women dress a certain way because they are communicating with men according to an unwritten language. Unfortunately, this assumes we are all privy to this unwritten language (which we are not) and it deprives women of the ability to control the message (which is obligatory in a civilized society). Either women are wearing certain clothes to say certain things or they can’t wear those clothes. Regardless of outcome, we are depriving women of a fundamental right: that of moving through society with the ability of being mistresses of their own destiny. Given the state of affairs, what should we do?

I would encourage women and men to, first of all, avoid assuming they know “what women want” without asking them. Indeed, abandon the trope altogether and resist it when you see it. Women aren’t “mysteries.” They are just people. We should also continue to demand that women be treated like human beings with the ability (and right) to express themselves. This lesson should be taught from childhood: if you want men to treat women like people, you need to teach teenage boys that teenage girls are people too. If we taught teenagers to start off their human relationships on a better footing, we would have less problems explaining consent to adults. The other thing adults can do is shut down body, clothes, and slut shaming. Until and unless women say anything different, a skirt is a skirt, a top is a top, and consent is consent. How can men know whether women like them? Ask, like you would any other human being.

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