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.

15 Responses

  1. Anonymous

    You’re aware that based on the data we have about sexual violence and women victims that MOST women who are sexually assaulted are a) assaulted by someone they know, b) assaulted in the home, and c) wearing something like sweatpants, pajamas or daily hanging-out clothes, right?

    In other words, if someone earnestly wanted to give women advice to try and help avoid rape based only on what they chose to wear, the sound advice would be to stop wearing comfortable clothes we hang out in at home. However, since studies also often find perpetrators of rape don’t even remember what their victims were wearing, even that would be problematic since we know what women wear most often makes no difference in preventing assault. And this, really, is the crux of the problem with what the officer in Toronto said — and some of what you yourself are saying or supporting — which was the impetus for SlutWalks from the start. Not only was he victim-blaming, he was giving advice that supported rape stereotypes, not rape realities. His advice was biased but also not even remotely helpful.

    There is nothing prudent about telling women they can prevent rape by watching their hemlines, and suggesting if they don’t, their assailants are somehow less responsible for choosing to rape them.

    You can find all of this information and more just by spending a little time with data at the DOJ or by speaking with people who know anything at all about the realities of sexual violence for both victims and perpetrators.

    Reply
    • Neely Steinberg

      If the news reports are saying that the criminal is attacking women in short skirts, it’s common sense and good judgement to be mindful about what you’re wearing. The fact of the matter is, in this scenario, the NYPD has said that the attacker is going after women in short skirts. Even if one of the victims happened to not be wearing a shirt skirt, but the rest were, then I’m going with the odds. I’m not saying it’s the ONLY way to stay safe. You seem to be missing the point. It’s simply one suggestion of a way to protect yourself.

      Thanks for your feedback!
      Neely

      Reply
      • Anonymous

        I think the fact the NYPD seem to have recognized they erred here is sound reason for anyone supporting how they originally responded to figure they are probably erring, too.

      • Anonymous

        Also, where would this end? What if an attacker was only attacking blondes? Should blondes not leave their homes or dye their hair a different color? Would you?

        The biggest common denominator here wasn’t wearing short skirts. It was being women, women who, like everyone else, should have the right to a quality of life which includes being able to dress how they choose without being in any way blamed for assault, or given the message that how they dress is why they were or may be assaulted, rather than the truth, which is that someone willingly chose to assault them, and that person is who has the most power to prevent assault. That person is the sound person to give the responsibility for assault and preventing assault to. Giving women the message that their clothing choices are the real issue is just one more thing that keeps the most attention from being focused where it really needs to be in terms of prevention: on perpetrators, not victims.

      • Neely Steinberg

        I think you’re building a strawman argument. The facts as they were presented to us were about what the women were wearing at the time of attack. You can choose to accept those facts or ignore them.

        Of course we have the right to a quality of life which includes being able to dress how we choose, but that doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to the realities of certain situations in the name of “well, this is the way it should be in an ideal world.”

        It’s not taking attention away. I’d argue that attention was taken away the second women started complaining about the officer’s comments. Frankly, I think the guy was just trying to be helpful.

        But to answer your question, though: If it was reported that a man was attacking only blonde women in a certain area, and I happened to be blonde, you can be sure I wouldn’t be walking in that area until he was caught.

      • S

        The wording itself leads very much into an understanding that victim blaming is right beneath the surface. Looking at your own quite where you say how “lucky” you were considering what you wore – but it’s not about what you wear. When I was raped, it never crossed my mind that something I wore was the cause, and it still doesn’t and never will. I wasn’t the cause of my rape – he was. If it were about my dress, or how I talk, or the color of my eyes – then it somehow falls on me. And it never does, nor should it fall to the one that was raped.

        I also think the thoughts above on hair color make it understandable how it could be anything. It it were women of a certain race or religion that seemed to fit, would it be okay to tell people of that religion or race to just not leave their house at night? They’re all women, so women shouldn’t go out?

      • Neely Steinberg

        It’s not about blaming anyone. In the case of Park Slope, it’s about considering the facts of a case. The NYPD was simply making a statement based on the facts of the case. If a man is systematically attacking women wearing short skirts, does the public not have a right to know? Have we gotten so PC that the police will no longer be able to mention facts like this because they are afraid to offend? I guess so.

        I see your points, but I do think you’re taking things too far, going from Point A to Point Z. You say that because I think it prudent to simply consider what you’re wearing in an area where a maniac on the loose is attacking women wearing short skirts, I should also then think that women shouldn’t leave their homes ever. Nonsense! The police need to present their evidence based on case facts, and people can choose to ignore it or consider it. But at least they give us the option of knowing. Granted, the way the cop phrased his statements was a bit obnoxious, but I truly believe it came from a place of wanting to keep women safe. I don’t believe his advice was malicious in any way or an excuse for a power trip.

        According to Wikipedia:

        “In 2008, Amanda Marcotte published her first book, entitled It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments.[37] Jill Filipovic of AlterNet described the book as a “how-to manual for feminist-minded women to take on a sexist society and have a good laugh along the way.”[38]In August 2007, Marcotte posted an image of the chosen book cover on her blog; the image “was a retro-Hollywood pulp cover of a gorilla carrying a scantily clad woman.”[39] The image immediately came under fire for perpetuating racisttropes, and, consequently, Marcotte and Seal Press changed the cover image.[39]
        When the book was finally released, it again set off controversy in the feminist blogosphere for use of images that many saw as racist.[40][41] To illustrate the volume, the publishers used images taken from the 1950s Joe Maneely comic,Lorna, the Jungle Girl,[42] which was chosen for its retro comic art look. The illustrations used included stereotypical images of “savage” black Africans being beaten up by a white, blonde, superhero, described as “racist cartoons of ‘natives’ in a jungle setting.”[38]Marcotte subsequently issued an apology, adding that a second printing of It’s A Jungle Out There will not contain illustrations.[43]”

        Is Marcotte a racist because she chose those images? Of course not! She simply wanted to make a point and had no idea people would take it in that direction. I think it’s a similar situation in Park Slope. The cops were presented the facts of the case, and simply wanted to protect women based on that evidence.

        Your argument is black and white, based on absolutes. Mine is greyer, because life isn’t always ideal.

  2. S

    If the officer wanted to warn women about the rapes – then you talk about how it can be safer walking at night if you walk with someone else. If you absolutely need to go somewhere alone, you can carry pepper spray or hold keys between your fingers. Some of the “back to basics” ideas used in self defense classes. Or that if in an emergency, you need to yell something such as “fire” rather than “help” as statistically proven more people are willing to help when it’s not “help” that is yelled. Not go around telling women about how to dress – because that absolutely does lay the blame with the women here and not with the rapist.

    I also fail to see how comparing through a different lens the same ideas is walking from one side of the alphabet to the other. Not to mention:
    “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.”

    I wonder how you can honestly say what you’ve said here isn’t about blaming anyone. You’re talking about “good judgment calls” and “mistakes” and being “lucky” that in the outfits you’d worn home from a bar you weren’t raped. So the women that were victims and are survivors of rape and sexual assault were so because of “mistakes” and “bad judgment calls.” It’s NOT about the choices those women made, it’s about choices that were made FOR them. I don’t quite understand how you can go from saying that what someone wears if never an excuse for rape or sexual assault then have a “but I think back to what I used to wear and consider myself lucky.”

    Reply
    • Neely Steinberg

      I consider myself lucky that I have not been assaulted period. I consider myself even luckier that I have not been assaulted given the fact that I have walked the streets of Boston late at night, drunk, while wearing stilettos and skimpy outfits. I’m not blaming myself; I’m simply recognizing that I put myself in dangerous situations, because the world is not a perfect place, and walking home at 3:00am in sky-high heels and little dresses while inebriated is probably not the safest idea. Sure, women can be attacked wearing anything (sweats, etc.), but I can’t help but think that a woman stands out even more when wearing skimpy attire – after all, that’s what skimpy attire is designed to do. I believe women should be able to walk down the street naked and not have one finger laid on them, but you can’t apply that logic when dealing with criminals. You can’t reason with a criminal. Also, consider this article: http://shine.yahoo.com/channel/beauty/do-skimpy-outfits-make-men-objectify-women-2585077/;_ylt=AhjYlZOh6KpQXLg_yreWjA37hKU5

      I agree, though, that there are plenty of other ways for women to protect themselves – the strategies you outline above are all good ones and I’m sure tactics that NYPD has espoused before, many times over.

      Would a woman be better served by packing a pair of sneakers (to swap with her 4-inch stilettos) in her bag if she knows she has to go through an area late at night, in which attacks have been rampant? Yes. I’d say sneakers would be a safe choice, so she has a better chance of getting away if attacked. Should she have to think of that? Of course not. But does it make sense to consider it? Probably. The onus shouldn’t fall on women, because it’s NEVER their fault if/when attacked, but the world isn’t perfect, and until we can eradicate every single criminal, it may just have to, sadly, be our responsibility.

      Reply
  3. L. Byron

    Great idea Neely, to place both replies side by side: Marcotte comes across as a lazy, blinkered sloganeer, without an original thought in her head. Susan Walsh, on the other hand, is thoughtful, intelligent, alert, informed & compassionate, & the future of male/female debate. I know who’d get my vote.

    Reply
  4. Susan Walsh

    If we could view parallel universes, one in which the police share information about what victims are wearing, and one in which all tips related to women’s appearance are censored, I wonder what we might see. It’s certainly highly plausible that with suppression of key information about the attacker’s triggers, more women would fall victim to assault.

    Would the rad fems here be willing to change their position if that could be proved? I am certain they would not. They are wedded to a political ideology that actually serves to make women unsafe in cases like this. Fortunately, as is clear from the article, many women were practicing safe measures, including not walking at night at all, much less in short skirts. If women want to adopt the SlutWalk argument for themselves, that is their right, even if it’s extremely unwise.

    What is necessary, however, is that women like Neely Steinberg write pieces like this one in an effort to get important safety information out to women that counters this very imprudent campaign.

    Neely, I appreciated what you said about how you might broach this with a future daughter. As the mother of a 22 year-old, I can assure you that I would be doing everything possible to elicit promises from her that kept her off the streets as bait for this rapist.

    I cannot imagine any mother adopting the feminist position here. It’s truly unthinkable.

    Reply
  5. Jane

    By attacking women who dress in revealing ways, this guy does a great job of setting women up to be blamed. And our society is great at doing just that. The police are great at it too. If the rapist liked to attack women who wore green parkas, would we be as quick to blame a green-parka-wearing victim as we would be to blame a revealingly-clothed victim? No, because the parka-wearing victim would have been exhibiting culturally acceptable levels of female modesty at the time of the attack. Many of us are kind of ok with immodest women being physically punished (through rape) for violating gender ideals. The police should try to emphasize other common features of the attacks. What were the times of day/night? Were the women alone? What else do the victims have in common other than the fact that they’re WOMEN? To me, that’s what really matters. There’s a man on the loose who insists on attacking only women. Not men, women. What the police should be emphasizing is that women should walk in groups because there’s a woman-hating rapist on the loose and he is taking away womens’ ability to be in public without fearing for their physical safety.

    Reply

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