Christina Patterson: Sex and feminists' new clothes

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Sex is here to stay but sometimes the signals can be baffling, writes Christina Patterson.

Sex can be very, very, very, very nice. It can also be nasty. It can also be tedious. It can leave you screaming out for more. It can leave you longing for a nice cup of tea.

But whether you're Dominique Strauss-Kahn or Mother Teresa, one thing's clear. Sex was here at the start of things, and it's here to stay.

Ever since Eve bit the apple, and discovered that she wasn't even wearing a thong, which was, like, so embarrassing, there's been a lot of fuss about what, in the light of this, women should wear.

The apostle Paul said that women should "adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety". He also said that they should cover their heads when they worshipped and avoid displaying "broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array".

For the past 2000 years, this has been the main dress code in the Middle East. The prophet Muhammad made a few adjustments in the Koran - women "should draw their veils over their bosoms" and "not display their ornaments except to their husbands" - but the general trend remained. If you were a man, you could wear whatever the hell you liked. If you were a woman, you should stick to long and loose.

In Africa, and South America, and Australia, and New Guinea, the rules were different. If you were a man, you wore - well, not very much. If you were a woman, you didn't wear much either. If you were raped, then nobody said you were asking for it because you were only wearing a loin cloth, because everybody was only wearing a loin cloth. But if you were a woman you might still get raped because in every culture throughout the world, and throughout history, women have been raped.

In the West, we did things differently. We didn't bother all that much with what men wore. What women have worn is dresses with hoops, and crinolines, and petticoats, and bustles, and corsets, and frills, and flowers, and, more recently, maxi dresses, and miniskirts. What women have worn, in other words, is what emphasises the fact that a woman's not a man. What women have worn is what emphasises her value in the sexual marketplace.

Forty-odd years ago, there was an attempt to redress this. Women, largely Western women, said that they didn't want to be defined by their value in the sexual marketplace. So they started wearing clothes - often rather ugly clothes - that made them look more like men.

And then something changed. It's not absolutely clear why it changed. It's not clear if it was because the women got bored with dungarees. Or that they secretly missed the wolf whistles in the street. Or because fashions come and go, and the dungarees were just a fashion.

But suddenly the women who had worn the dungarees - or perhaps the daughters of the women who had worn the dungarees - said they were still feminists, but that they were something called "new feminists". This meant that they still wanted to be treated as equals by men, but that now they could wear very, very short skirts, and very, very low tops, and very, very high heels.

They said they didn't dress this way to please men but to please themselves, although when they were sitting at home, they didn't dress like this. When they were sitting at home, they wore tracksuit bottoms and trainers.

It must have been quite hard for the men to tell the difference between the women who wore very, very short skirts and very, very low tops and very, very high heels who wanted to meet a footballer, or be on a reality TV show, or in the pages of a magazine, and the "new feminists" who said they just wanted to be taken seriously for their brains.

It must be quite hard for them, too, to tell the difference between the women who join "SlutWalks" and the ones who want to drink a lot of alcohol in nightclubs and maybe have sex with a stranger. The ones during the day were, it's true, waving signs saying things like "My Clothes Aren't My Consent". The ones during the evening weren't.

And, of course, the men should understand that very, very short skirts and very, very low tops and very, very high heels aren't an alternative to consent, that nothing is ever an alternative to consent, and that very, very short skirts, and very, very low tops and very, very high heels, and even very, very large quantities of alcohol, are never an excuse for rape.

And that women have as much right to control their sex lives as men.

But perhaps the women who say they are "new feminists", or "post-feminists", could also understand that since human beings (unless they're women over the age of 50) aren't yet invisible, and since we are part of a species that's programmed to want sex, and which seems to have found the technological means to make images of sex available to anyone with a computer, every single thing you wear sends out a message.

They might think wearing short skirts, low tops and high heels is sending out a message that they are very, very keen to become successful doctors, lawyers or politicians.

They might think that men who are talking to them when they're wearing low tops, short skirts and high heels shouldn't look at their breasts or their legs.

The men should be thinking about how they'll be brilliant doctors or lawyers.

The women might think that the thing to do about "the sexualisation of children" is to commission reports from Christian organisations for mothers run by men. And maybe it is. Maybe it will help.

But little girls dress like their mothers, and if their mothers dress like sluts, or even like "sluts", then they're quite likely to be as confused on the subject of sexual equality as the mothers who briefly saw a flicker of progress, and then watched it fade.

- INDEPENDENT

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