When considering what to wear for a night out with friends, I always look for anything but a dress. As much as I love dresses and mini skirts, and the ways that they make getting dressed or going to the bathroom in a dirty bar much easier, I also love to dance. I know it's harder to get down when you're worried about that skirt going up, and it's impossible to free yourself of inhibitions when you can barely move in skin-tight fabric.
I try on each potential outfit, pose no less than three different ways in the mirror, while the night plays out in my head. Getting in the car or on the train, getting out, standing outside in line or waiting for friends to finish that arrival cigarette, going to the bathroom, sitting down, dropping my ID and picking it up, and the inevitable movement on the dance floor. I'll start with one brave friend who just wants to dance. We’ll move together, laughing, singing the lyrics, feeling ourselves. Then, predictably, feeling someone else, hands on our hips, coming closer and closer until hot breath tickles the loose hairs at the nape of our necks. Hands on our thighs, and I'm probably going with it, until I feel my never-been-worn dress riding up, and look down watching a stranger’s hands grope at my hemline. Nope, I'm not going to wear a dress.
In college, dresses and skirts were the female weekend uniform. I went to a small school where I knew (or knew of) most of the guys that I'd end up dancing with, and it didn't feel that frequent (or memorable) that a guy would glide his fingertips along my thigh on the dance floor. In time, the expectation that it would just happen - that men would grab me at bars and appear behind me to dance without knowing or caring if I wanted to - turned into frustration. And last summer, when visiting one of my best girlfriends, living in Budapest and earning her masters degree in gender and sexuality, we spent our first night out surrounded by stag parties and catcalls and hands. Within minutes, my friend was spanked by a stranger, and at our first bar, I experienced “negging” for the first time.
"...there's always another bar, waiting with the same hands and entitlement."
A guy approached me and immediately got in my face, stepping closer and closer, criticizing me while trying to grab at me. My skin beginning to crawl, I asked him politely to leave me alone, and eventually, told him to get away from me. When he only stepped closer, my friend and her colleagues appeared, collectively telling this guy to fuck off, to stop touching me, that I clearly wasn't interested, and to move on. None of them knew me, but they recognized my discomfort and made me feel safe.
But no matter how many empowering moments of solidarity I've felt, there's always another bar, waiting with the same hands and entitlement. Most recently, I reunited with my best friends in Burlington, Vermont, desperately needing that time together. I was ready to unwind with them for the first time in over a year. The night was sticky, so I wore a new dress. It was fine on the drive there, during my friend’s cigarette, when I leaned over the pool table, and when I listened to the best and worst karaoke the city had to offer. At the next bar, my friend hit the dance floor first, lighting it up with her smile and confidence that comes with a swing of the hips and a toss of the hair. We stood in our tiny circle, dancing and smiling, and then there were hands on my hips. I leaned in, fine with dancing with a stranger, but trying to keep some friendly distance. Each time I stepped back, he thrusted forward, grabbing me tight and hard.
One of my friends stepped between us, equipped with the most efficient repellent: “hey, she has a boyfriend.” I was embarrassed. Maybe this guy just wanted to be friends, what does my boyfriend have to do with dancing, and why does he have to be the excuse to get this guy to move on? I said it was fine, and gave the stranger another chance. I danced by him without touching him, and within seconds, we were glued at the pelvis, and suddenly I was turned around. I felt my dress riding up as my friends stood watching, and looked down to see a stranger’s hands pulling away the animal print, revealing more and more bare skin. I don't know if I said it out loud or in my head, but the words “My dress…!” melted into the rising flames of burning panic. Pulling the cloth and pushing the stranger, I said, “I'm trying to dance, and you're obviously not. Get the fuck away from me.”
I turned to face my friends, humiliated. How could I be so stupid? Why didn’t I let my friend step in? Why did I dance with him? Obviously that guy wanted me, not to dance with me, so I asked for this. What's wrong with me? And why did I wear a dress?
"Shame washed over me."
We left, and I brushed it off on the walk to another bar. I know that no matter what I wear, nobody should feel entitled to my body. And I would tell any other person the same. But, despite what I know and what feminism has taught me, between that dance and the shower I took when we arrived home, shame washed over me. Shame that rests during my weekday walks to the gym played to the tune of, “suck my dick for $10.00?” And men following me on my commute, screaming “hey baby,” or worse, never giving up on trying to get my attention. Shame waited patiently when three men in Manhattan called me a bitch in three weeks. I felt so ashamed that I'd danced with a guy when I should've known the subtext, that I wore the wrong thing, and that my friends might've thought the same. And I felt ashamed that what stopped a guy from groping me was hearing about another man’s alleged ownership over me.
I hear #MeToo mentioned almost as frequently as I experience catcalls. That, on top of knowing that sexual harassment and more severe acts of sexual violence disproportionately affect women of color and LGBTQ+ (particularly trans) folks, leaves me feeling more fearful than ever. I spend most of the walks in my neighborhood, between shouts, beeps, and whistles, thinking about how people from vulnerable communities navigate these situations, trying to magnify that fear to help me empathize, while simultaneously pondering whether or not most men even realize that asking me, “hello, gorgeous, where have you been hiding,” can feel terrifying.
Almost daily, I think about bell hooks’ essay, “Understanding Patriarchy,” which perfectly defines and delineates the ways in which gender socialization affects boys and girls who grow into adults with misguided notions about “normal” and healthy behavior. At one point, hooks breaks down another of her essays from, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center saying:
I emphasized that patriarchal ideology brainwashes men to believe that their domination of women is beneficial when it is not:
Often feminist activists affirm this logic when we should be constantly naming these acts as expressions of perverted power relations, general lack of control of one’s actions, emotional powerlessness, extreme irrationality, and in many cases, outright insanity. Passive male absorption of sexist ideology enables men to falsely interpret this disturbed behavior positively. As long as men are brainwashed to equate violent domination and abuse of women with privilege, they will have no understanding of the damage done to themselves or to others, and no motivation to change.
And instead of worrying about what I should wear for safety, I wonder when we are going to take seriously the urgent necessity of teaching children new ideas about gender and sexual stereotypes. Instead of simply exposing sexual harassment and assault and attaching nearly empty taglines like, “still not asking for it,” we need to talk about consent. We need to talk about the ways expecting and encouraging the assertion of dominance over all others hurts everyone, especially young boys and men. By delaying discourse around sex, power, and consent, we’re pausing the potential for a society built on visibility, compassion, and mutual respect. The necessity of hearing victim’s stories and holding perpetrators accountable will not prevent power inequity. If we, as a society, have any hope of halting a long history of sexual violence, we must collectively address the ill-informed, festering ideologies that indoctrinate, empower, and embolden us to humiliate and harm one another.