Park Slope, Brooklyn: One of New York City’s most desirable neighborhoods and home to a whole bunch of famous people, like Steve Buscemi and that actor everyone confuses with Samuel L. Jackson. Recently, though, Park Slope hasn’t been so idyllic. A slew of gropings, rapes, and molestations have occurred since March, making the locale more infamous than anything else. The suspect has been targeting women between the ages of 20 and 35, all of whom at the time of assault were wearing short-hemmed clothing. (Police do have a “person of interest” in custody as of October 11.)
A recent Wall Street Journal article covering the attacks had me thinking about what I believe to be a tragically misguided focus. According to the Journal, police officers patrolling the area have been telling young, female residents to be mindful of what they’re wearing because the assaulter has been going after women dressed in short skirts. Granted, some of the quotes from the officer, as mentioned by “Lauren,” sound a bit obnoxious, especially if, in your head, you add a certain tone or emphasis on particular words. But there’s no way to know exactly how those warnings were delivered by the officer, unless you have access to a flux capacitor and a Delorean. I digress. The point I want to make is that instead of focusing on the assaults and keeping women safe, some members of the fairer sex have seized on the cops’ sartorial advice and deemed it inappropriate, insensitive, and sexist.
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne responded to the uproar by saying: “Officers are not telling women what not to wear — there’s a TV series that does that.” (Do I smell a career in stand-up?) He continues: “They are simply pointing out that as part of the pattern involving one or more men that the assailant(s) have targeted women wearing skirts.”
Alas, Skirtgate was born.
The incident soon became the latest cause celebre for feminist groups, inspiring protests and yet another Slut Walk, a demonstration against explaining or excusing rape by referring to any aspect of a woman’s appearance. Not too long ago I attended the Boston version of Slut Walk, organized by feminist figure Jaclyn Friedman.
While I agree that the way a woman dresses is NEVER an invitation to be raped or sexually assaulted (I’m having visuals of the horrific Jodie Foster rape scene from The Accused), I do have to wonder: What’s so wrong with suggesting that women exercise a little common sense in these scenarios? If I know that a man is assaulting women wearing short skirts in a certain area around a certain time, you can damn well be sure that I’ll take all precautions necessary. Nor would I ever tell my daughter (if I ever have one) the following: “Sure, honey, wear those hooker heels and that dress that barely covers your vagina proudly when you walk through Boston Common at 3 a.m. on a Saturday.”
The notion that humanity is perfectible — that we can reason with or socially engineer sick-minded individuals — is puerile. We do not live in an ideal world. We never will. Unfortunately, we live in a world where police won’t always be able to save everyone or catch the criminal right away. Unfortunately, we also live in a world where this happens and people like this exist. We do not live in an ideal world. So what’s wrong with merely suggesting that women take precautions?
I admire their passion and dedication, but I do think that certain feminists are so ideologically attached to their ideas that they often become blinded to reality. What if a woman came forward on the night of a Park Slope attack and said she felt she had been saved by an officer’s counsel earlier that day, in which he mentioned to be sure to cover up late at night? Of course, there’s no way to know for sure in this hypothetical if that’s the reason the attacker avoided her and went after someone else, but would the feminists turn a blind eye to this kind of testimony? I wonder.
I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention the fact that I remember many nights walking home late from the bars in outfits that, to be sure, revealed some skin. Part of me feels a bit uncomfortable, hypocritical even, espousing calls for good judgment when the mistakes of my youth burn brightly in my memory. But the truth is I was lucky. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with dispensing advice based on the filtered wisdom one gains with age.
After writing this piece and tiring of my own opinions on the matter, I was curious to see what others had to say about the Park Slope contretemps, so I reached out to a few people who I knew would view the incident through different lenses. The first of which was Susan Walsh, author of the popular blog Hooking Up Smart (HUS), a strategic take on dating, sex, and relationships. Walsh was a guest on my radio show back in the day. She was recently profiled in this tremendous piece about the lives and realities of today’s single woman. HUS has a large following and is worth a weekly check-in.
Next, I contacted the aforementioned Jaclyn Friedman, Feministing.com’s Jessica Valenti, and author and speaker Amanda Marcotte, all avowed feminists and leaders of the movement. Marcotte responded; I never heard from Friedman or Valenti. Marcotte, by the way, is no stranger to controversy – this woman has balls! (In one of her entries for John Edwards’ campaign blog, of which she was blogmaster, she wrote: “Q: What if Mary had taken Plan B after the Lord filled her with his hot, white, sticky Holy Spirit? A: You’d have to justify your misogyny with another ancient mythology.” Yowsa!)
In many of Walsh’s blog entries, she goes toe-to-toe with all three ladies, so I figured their juxtaposed opinions would be interesting. Below are Walsh’s and Marcotte’s thoughts on Skirtgate and a few other topics I wanted them to answer about dating, sex, relationships, and feminism.
Their responses couldn’t be more different. Check them out below – they are worth a read. Who do you agree with?
BLAST: What was your reaction to the Park Slope incident in which cops warned women about wearing short skirts?
MARCOTTE: First, I want to draw your attention to the fact that the NYPD responded to feminist complaints.
It was unacceptable of the NYPD officers to exploit the existence of a rapist as a cover story for an obvious power trip on women. Authoritarians all over the world love how rape gives them an excuse to indulge the misogynistic desire to tell women what to wear and how to act, but the police work for us, and because of this, they should treat women with respect. We women, after all, pay their salaries with our taxes.
WALSH: I understand why the women who were stopped by the policeman were offended. He may have been insensitive in his approach. I think it’s very important to consider his intention, though. As far as I can tell he was attempting to advise women about real risks to their safety. Though the journalist suggests that the police department disapproves of all shorts, skirts and dresses, he appears to have specifically taken issue with “short shorts” and dresses that “show a lot of skin.” Is it in fact prudent for women in that neighborhood to be careful about their appearance and behavior at night? Of course!
The WSJ article describes how many women in the neighborhood are taking concrete steps to stay safe. 80 have attended self-defense workshops. Women have stopped wearing high heels because they make it difficult to run away from an assailant. Women have been observed taking taxis to travel two blocks at night. All of these strategies are sensible and effective. Do they guarantee that a woman will not be attacked? Of course not, but they lessen her risk considerably.
Does it lessen a woman’s risk to refrain from “showing a lot of skin” at night in the very neighborhood where these attacks are occurring? Probably! It sure can’t hurt! Evidence that all of the attacks have been against women in skirts just adds to the good sense of such a strategy.
What’s going on among feminists here is that the political is getting in the way of the personal. When we stifle prudent advice to women about keeping themselves safe from assault because it doesn’t fit the agenda of sex-positive feminism, we risk the health and safety of women in a very real and measurable way.