A dark Saturday night in December, and I’m standing underneath the Greyfriar’s Bobby statue in Edinburgh, a popular meeting place for… well, all sorts of things, as it turns out. As is the way with 18 year-olds, the bitterly cold Scottish weather had had little bearing on my outfit choice which, while I’d be lying if I said I remember it entirely, involved a denim jacket, a pink mini dress, Doctor Martens and black tights. I was never one to go bare-legged in winter. Which is why I remember being so surprised by what happened as I paced around, alone, waiting for my friends. A car drew up, a man rolled down his window and said to me: “how much?”
I’ve never forgotten this incident. It’s always lovely to be mistaken for a prostitute en route to a night out with your friends, when you’d naively hoped your outfit was chanelling Molly Ringwald. Did I really look like a prostitute? What did a prostitute even look like? If you’re selling sex for money on the streets, is it incumbent on you to dress a certain way? Send out signals? Make it easy for prospective punters to identify you? I hadn’t really thought about it. I was a teenager. My head was full of scented rubbers and brat pack movies. All I can say now is: thank god Harvey Weinstein wasn't driving by.
Donna Karan’s response to Weinstein-gate is worth reporting in full. “I think we have to look at ourselves,” the designer who has made millions from dressing women said, when asked about the sexual harrassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein. “Certainly in the country of Haiti where I work, in Africa, in the developing world, it’s been a hard time for women. To see it here in our own country is very difficult, but I also think, ‘how do we display ourselves? How do we present ourselves as women? What are we asking? Are we asking for it by presenting all the sensuality and all the sexuality?’”
It really, really shouldn’t need saying that no woman is “asking for it”, regardless of what she wears, be it burka or bikini. Yet apparently it still does. Karan has since apologised for her remarks (“I have spent my life championing women. My life has been dedicated to dressing and addressing the needs of women, empowering them and promoting equal rights”), but the damage has been done. To be accused of “asking for it” by a man is appalling, if not surprising. To be accused by a woman feels more appalling still. It messes with your mind. That said woman has made a fortune from selling slinky slip dresses (one of Karan’s trademarks) is even more pernicious. And also: baffling. Presumably, Karan doesn’t actually believe that every woman who ever bared a shoulder, a thigh or an inch of cleavage in one of her trademark bias-cut slip dresses was, “by presenting all the sensuality and all the sexuality”, asking to be sexually assaulted.
It really, really shouldn’t need saying that no woman is “asking for it”, regardless of what she wears, be it burka or bikini
Rather than being careful of how we dress, maybe we need to be careful of how we speak, what we say, and whether it will hurt people. The scars of sexual abuse aren’t merely physical: they can include years of self-doubt, self-hatred, self-medication and serious depression. Possibly the worst thing about victim-shaming is that it inflicts such an unneccesarily cruel blow on top of the blows the victim is already showering upon herself. In my experience, women are already far too willing to blame themselves for any negative things that happen to them, without having the idea reinforced by others. I know I blamed myself for my choice of outfit that night. Asking whether I’d asked for it came far more easily to me than cleanly attributing the blame to that dumb man.
I’m older now, and wiser, and I know that a woman’s clothes can never give consent: only her words can. A mini skirt doesn’t mean yes. Fishnet tights don’t mean yes. Four glasses of wine don’t mean yes. The onus isn’t on women to amend their outfit choices: it’s on men to amend their behaviour. Because here’s the thing: some men will take anything as an invitation to have sex. Even black tights and a pair of Doc Martens.