Fashion Tips: “Don’t dress like a whore.”

This post was written in consideration of the wave of sexual assault incidents that have occurred this summer in Toronto, specifically in the Bloor/Christie Pits region, as well as Krista Ford’s social media blunder that made the news headlines – and ended up overshadowing the police conference that was held on Thursday morning to warn women of these recent attacks.

As I am sure many of you have read, an hour after this conference was held, Ms. Ford tweeted her response to the warning:

“Stay alert, walk tall, carry mace, take self-defence classes & don’t dress like a whore.”

The comment incurred immediate and furious backlash, online and elsewhere, particularly for her poor choice of the phrase, “dress like a whore.” Ms. Ford quickly issued an apology for the controversial tweet:

“I didn’t mean to cause such an alarm and I apologize if I did. I just want women to be safe.”

I am not condemning Krista Ford for her opinion. Doug Ford had a point when he said that all kids make mistakes and we should forgive his daughter for this gaffe. (Too bad these are all recorded on the internet forever these days. When I was young, we could just say something stupid and have it dissipate into the ether to be immediately forgotten.) I don’t doubt that she tweeted that first comment with the best of intentions. Who, after all, would argue against improving the safety conditions for any group?

However, this problem goes deeper than a young woman not completely thinking through the implications her latest tweet. The debate that this comment has re-opened (once again) is how, exactly, to approach the issue of women’s safety. How is this “blame the victim” reaction still posited as a plausible response when questioning the underlying causes for sexual harassment or assault? Judgment (by either women or men) of how women choose to dress and of when they choose to go out in public is deeply troubling on a number of levels – many of which have been deconstructed already. I thank those who responded to this incident, especially Alice Moran for her excellent open letter to “a lot of people, but specifically to Ms. Krista Ford,” a post on Facebook that went viral last week. The Star also published a Q&A with Moran on her thoughts about women’s safety and the reaction to her letter.

Ironically, our current “best” solution for the issue of increasing women’s safety – as tweeted by Ms. Ford, but surely also upheld by many others who cannot blame the ignorance of youth as the basis for their opinion – is to take away women’s freedoms.

Take away a woman’s freedom to walk alone at any hour of the day in the city in which she has chosen to live. Why not just have them all come in before sunset to ensure their safety?

Take away a woman’s freedom to wear whatever she wants. If those infernal temptresses dress in that certain “whorish” way, how can people help but assault them? Best to cloak them all in shapeless sacks, regardless of temperature, personal style, or any other reason people wear what they do.

A fashion choice, or necessity?

A Woman Walking at Night

I have touched on these events of the past week to provide context for a more personal anecdote. I am not sure if I have been thinking more about this issue recently, or if I have actually encountered more of this type of harassment in Toronto than in other cities in which I have lived, but this experience seems to be a troubling trend.

On Saturday night – emphasis placed on the fact that this was over the course of a few hours in one night – three separate events occurred to convince me that my opinion that women should feel free to walk without fear is not ubiquitous in Toronto.

1. Around 9:00 p.m., I was waiting for Mink at the intersection of Bathurst and St. Clair West, when she rushed up to me, visibly upset. While making the short walk from her house, a car with four men had slowed down to speak with her. When she realized that she knew none of them, she turned her head and continued walking, making no eye contact or otherwise engaging them. They proceeded to follow her and yell out comments, their car slowed to walking pace, almost until she met me.

2. Under an hour later, we had just gotten off of the streetcar at Queen St. West and Bathurst to go to a friend’s house. A different car, also containing four men, pulled onto the street that we were about to cross. The shirtless front seat passenger waved both arms out of the window and yelled, “Suck on this dick!” to us.

In the wake of what had just happened to Mink and our ensuing conversation about sexual harassment, my impulse was to flip them the finger as they drove on. A surly, “Fuck you, bitch!” was hurled back at us – the first lewd comment had transformed in that moment of resistance into pure spite and aggression. My immediate reaction was not anger, but fear. For us to reject such a disgusting come-on line, yelled out at us from a car window, should be expected, and yet I was scared that these strangers would bring their car to a screeching halt and retaliate for my “insult” of having not giggled meekly at their intensely unappealing suggestion to “Suck on this dick.”

3. Later that night, I was walking the last few minutes home by myself on Davenport. A third car with four men stopped at a red light, again yelling and whistling at me. I refused to turn around or engage with them in any way. One of them spat out, with what seemed like genuine loathing, “Fuck you for pretending like you don’t see us,” and they sped in the opposite direction. I turned to see that the car was pulling erratically to the side of the street and the brake lights were on. I felt another stab of panic that they, too, might decide to turn around and continue with this one-sided conversation until I had no choice but to stop ignoring them. Fortunately, the car drove on without further issue.

I am not pronouncing any generalized conclusions in this post, nor am I making blanket accusations about all men being assholes. But the fact that these three incidents occurred in the course of one night, and the interactions were aggressive and intended to be demeaning for the receiver(s) of these comments, is profoundly unsettling. How often does this type of harassment happen, to women walking either alone or together, at any given moment and intersection?

A person should be free to walk in a city without the constant fear of being sexually harassed – physically or verbally – regardless of the time of day or what s/he is wearing.

This is clearly not an issue that Torontonians are willing to ignore. On Monday night, hundreds of people rallied in Christie Pits Park in protest of these sexual assaults, as well as the incidents that undoubtedly occur but go unreported for various reasons. Their objective was to reclaim the space as one in which anyone can walk without fear. The “blame the victim” mentality that runs as a subtext of even well-intentioned statements such as Ms. Ford’s tweet is still deeply ingrained in our society’s perception of why sexual harassment occurs. It is my hope that events such as this protest – which garnered much more support and attention than its organizers had anticipated – will work to dismantle these erroneous preconceptions.

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