I was wearing classy black shorts, an elegant designer top, my favorite denim jacket, and my leopard-print heels… the ones my husband hates. I almost never wear anything other than chap stick on my lips, but since this was one of the rare occasions I had gone out since my son was born a year ago, I decided to go all-out. I chose a bright red lipstick. I was in Mexico City for two weeks doing research for my dissertation, and a friend of mine was in town for business. It was her birthday and I was meeting her for dinner and drinks. I walked the five blocks from my apartment to the bus stop. I noticed people staring, but that was nothing out of the ordinary. After all, I was a gringa living in Mexico City. Every day on the metro I stuck out like a sore thumb with my pale skin, light brown eyes, and chestnut brown hair with caramel-blonde highlights. People often stared.
Cat calls are ubiquitous in Mexico, so as I made my way to the bus stop to meet my friend for dinner and men whistled as I walked by, it was annoying, but nothing unusual. Then I thought I heard a man say as I passed by, “Hey beautiful, you’re going to take all my money.” I must have misunderstood him, or maybe he wasn’t talking to me, I told myself. As I sat on the bench at the bus stop, I noticed some cars slowing down beside me, but since I was next to a stoplight, I dismissed it. Then a man approached me and murmured, “How much?” “Excuse me?” I said, confused at first. I wasn’t quite sure I had heard him correctly. “You’re not working?” he asked. “No!” I shouted. He said nothing and walked away sheepishly.
I was completely mortified. How dare he think he could have control over my body? I dressed this way because I wanted to—not because I was advertising something. I wore these clothes for my pleasure, not his. As I waited for the bus, cars continued to stop in front of me with the windows rolled down and waited. Some drivers even gestured for me to approach the car. They think I’m a prostitute. Horrified, I looked away and crossed my arms, hugging my purse tightly over my lap. I was terrified. I felt naked, vulnerable, and in danger. Are they going to try to rape me? I couldn’t believe it. Here I was, a middle-class, college-educated, late-twenties white American woman from rural Ohio, who—because I had traveled throughout Mexico and spoke fluent Spanish thought I had seen a thing or two—was experiencing complete and utter culture shock. A sheltered country girl, I had never even seen a prostitute before (unless you count Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman)—so for them to mistake me for one was incredible to me. My white middle-class privilege has limited my experience with sex work and human trafficking to articles I’ve read, TV shows I’ve watched (I’m a big fan of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit) and movies I’ve seen (For an excellent article explaining white privilege, read Peggy McIntosh’s well-known 1988 article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”). Unlike many underprivileged women—single mothers, victims of human trafficking, or women who’ve grown up in poverty with limited educational opportunities, I didn’t grow up with prostitution as a “norm” in my daily environment; I was never forced into sex work; nor did I ever have to consider sex work as a possible profession due to economic constraints. For women living in poverty, patriarchy and capitalism frame their experiences so that some are coerced to participate in sex work as a way to support themselves and their families. Limitations on the quality of their primary and secondary education further confines any hope of their attending college and climbing their way out of poverty. In my limited white middle-class experience, the way I was dressed that night in Mexico City was appropriate for dinner and drinks that in my everyday life in the U.S. would in no way indicate that I was a “working girl.” However, this experience indicated to me that in certain neighborhoods at certain times of the day in Mexico City, shorts=prostitute. And according to my Mexico City hosts, white women or lighter-skinned women are especially “desirable” prostitutes. Got it. Lesson learned. No more shorts.
I was resigned to accept this as a solution at first, but the more I thought about it, the angrier I became. I can’t even wear shorts without being bothered? And I suddenly understood the reasoning behind the recent “SlutWalk” movement. For those of you who may have never heard of SlutWalks, allow me to explain. In 2011, Constable Michael Sanguinetti, a Toronto Police officer, made a public statement in which he suggested that in order to remain safe from sexual assault, “women should avoid dressing like sluts.” So, in April of 2011, in protest of Constable Sanguinetti’s “victim-blaming” approach to sexual assault prevention, women in Toronto held the first SlutWalk, in which they took to the streets dressed like “sluts” in protest of victim blaming, slut shaming, and patriarchal constraints on their wardrobe choices (To read more about Slutwalk Toronto’s official organization, click here). Some feminists of color have criticized SlutWalk as a movement of luxury for privileged white women which ignores the historical implications of words like “slut” for poor women and women of color (To read various feminist critiques of the SlutWalk movement, go here). Despite the movement’s problems, the Toronto SlutWalkers inspired women in other cities throughout the world to host their own SlutWalks in solidarity. Mexico City was one of those cities.
Prior to my unfortunate incident in Mexico City, even though I consider myself a feminist, I had always viewed SlutWalks as an extreme fringe movement within modern feminism, despite having had my share of encounters with sexual harassment in the past. However, the feelings of shame and humiliation which I felt after this particular event angered me in such a way that I felt compelled to hold my own SlutWalk right there at that bus stop on the Paseo de la Reforma.
Sigh. This was not the first time I had experienced these feelings. Unfortunately, I have, on more than one occasion, in a variety of settings, experienced sexual harassment. And I have zero tolerance for it, so when it has happened at work, I have always notified my employer. Most have been supportive, while others…not so much. One boss told me I shouldn’t complain about sexual harassment or it would make me “look bad” in the eyes of the employer. I—the person being sexually harassed at work—looked bad for complaining about being verbally violated. Really—in the twenty-first century, there are still employers who think this way.
And you know what? Whenever it happens, it doesn’t matter what I’m wearing. I’ve experienced sexual harassment wearing a grubby t-shirt and jeans. It doesn’t matter what type of neighborhood I’m in, what time of day it is, or what country I’m in. It doesn’t matter the race, nationality, or class of men with whom I’ve interacted. But every time it happens, I feel the same way: dirty, objectified, humiliated, degraded, uncomfortable, and ashamed. Like most victims of abuse, my initial instinct is to blame myself. Victims blame themselves plenty, so can we all agree to stop blaming them now?
At times, I’ve felt tempted to buy into the “victim blame game” which so often occurs when discussing sexual harassment and sexual assault (i.e. the recent 2012 case in Steubenville, Ohio, in which the victim, a teenage girl who got drunk, passed out, and was raped by a group of football players at Steubenville High School, and then further violated by the perpetrators when they posted photos and a video of the assault on social media sites, was publicly blamed by members of the community for the incident). I’ve thought, Maybe they’re right. Maybe I shouldn’t have been wearing that, or maybe I shouldn’t have gone to that place. Then he wouldn’t have said that/acted that way/done that to me. Ultimately, though, this proposed “solution” to the problem of women getting sexually harassed, raped, groped, fondled, or in any other way sexually assaulted is not only untrue, it is not a solution at all. It is an accepted justification for the actions and words of the perpetrators. It has no place in discussions of sexual assault. No woman person, no matter who that person is, what that person does, where that person is, what that person is wearing, or who that person is with in any way, shape, or form is “asking for it.”
My case in point: when I returned home from dinner with my friend in Mexico City, I told the couple with whom I was staying what had happened. Immediately, they shared a similar story in which the woman had also been mistaken for a prostitute. She was wearing an ankle-length skirt when it happened.
Given the difference in our clothing—I was wearing shorts and she was wearing a long skirt—one might ask: what made these men think we were prostitutes? Like me, she was a white woman living in Mexico City. Was there some connection between our race and value as a sexual commodity in that particular neighborhood at that particular time of day in Mexico City? Or perhaps it was simpler than that—we were women living in a capitalist society framed by patriarchy, in which women’s bodies are commodities. Therefore, the time of day, the neighborhood, and the type of clothing that we were wearing didn’t matter—the only thing that mattered was that we were women, and therefore we were for sale. If we look around us, women’s bodies are for sale every day.
Billboards, TV commercials, movies, magazine advertisements, night clubs, strip clubs, restaurants (i.e. Hooter’s and Twin Peaks)—the list goes on and on—all feature women’s bodies as consumer products. Capitalism conditions men (and women) to treat women’s bodies as commodities ( For a brilliant critique of the use of women’s bodies in advertisements, watch Jean Kilbourne’s lecture on film entitled Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising’s Image of Women. You can watch the trailer for the film here on youtube:
And some bodies, due to social constructions, have more value than others. The fashion industry alone indicates a strong preference for white bodies over bodies of color, and tall, straight, thin bodies over short, curvaceous, plus-size bodies. On the runways at fashion shows, you would be hard-pressed to find women of color and plus-size women fairly represented (For an interesting NPR story on the current state of diversity in the fashion industry, read this). Try finding clothes in a regular store (non-plus-size) if you are bigger than a size 12—it’s not going to happen. Try finding a woman of color in a leading role on a TV show on a mainstream network—with rare exceptions, it’s not going to happen. What frames our experiences as women more than anything else is patriarchy and capitalism. And so, despite the strong influence that these entities have on society, when we walk alone on the street in our high heels and shorts, try to think of us as people, rather than consumer products.
***Hi, nice to meet you. I am a person. I’m a mother and a daughter, a sister, and a friend. I’m a wife, a student, and a neighbor. I’m a teacher, a scholar, and a feminist, too. I’m a co-worker, a mentor, and confidant. I am a person. I dress the way I want to dress, when and where I want to. I do it because I like the way I feel and look in my clothes. If I wear shorts, a dress, or a skirt, it’s not an invitation to rape, fondle, sexually harass, or objectify me. The same applies if I have a drink or two, if I smile at you, if I talk to you, or if I walk on the street alone. I possess my own body and my own sexuality. It belongs to no one but me. No means no and I refuse to be victimized. I am a fighter. I am a survivor. And I am a person.