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No One Was Asking for It

One winter day, I was walking through the parking lot at Laurelwood Shopping Center. Laurelwood is a safe, comfortable place. I was in my late 40s. A woman stopped me. She was gray-headed, probably mid-60s. She grasped my arm and, like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, fixed me with her gaze and said, “Young men are going to jump out of the bushes and rape you young women, the way you dress.”

My dress was a black turtleneck sweater dress. I had on black opaque hose. The sweater dress had long sleeves. I wore suede pumps. The pumps were complemented by a suede pocketbook. I probably had on dark sunglasses, but maybe not.

I laughed at her. I thought she was joking. Not only because of the “young women” part of her speech, but also because not one inch of skin was showing on my body.

She was not kidding. “I’m serious,” she said. Her voice was urgent—she had to warn me. Also in her tone was exasperation: if women wouldn’t dress like this, we wouldn’t have all these problems—you’ve got to stop. I’m sure I simply looked at her in befuddlement and walked off.

As I recovered from the incident, I became deeply offended. For one thing, she had just insulted my outfit. I can only surmise she did not like the tightness of the sweater dress, which showed off my curves (such as they are). Or maybe she objected to the drama of the tall thin line of blackness. The heels on my pumps were modest, particularly by today’s standards. But, somehow, she put all of this together and concluded that, if someone attacked me, it was because “I was asking for it.” Can I reiterate that not one inch of skin was showing on my body?

I thought about this experience as I drove home to Memphis today. I had been in Jackson, Mississippi where are my talented sister of Elli Morris Stills in Motion had been shooting the cover for my new novel Tracking Happiness. The protagonist in the novel is a 25-year-old woman from a small Mississippi town. She rides the train cross-country to exonerate her dad in a drug scandal. Along the way, she gets into all types of shenanigans. It must be pointed out, her idea of sophisticated dress is a tad off.

When I stopped at a gas station outside Jackson—still in full costume from the photo shoot—I wondered what the patrons thought of me. Did they conclude that my black fishnet stockings and white lace dress were so provocative as to justify rape? Did these thoughts infect even the women in the store? Where they, too, perpetuating the lie that rape is the result of physical attraction, not violent hatred?

Sliding in behind the wheel, I couldn’t help but wonder: if something happened to me on the way home, would people offer their condolences to my grieving husband, all the while thinking to themselves, “But why was she dressed like that? Didn’t she know she was asking for it?”

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Comments (16)

  • Oooh, good question. When my daughter was in the show Chicago in San Diego, she and another cell block lady were driving back to their hotel. They were still in full makeup from the show. My daughter was driving and was stopped by a police officer and harrassed with a $900 ticket because the other girl threw a cigarette butt out of the car. My daughter thought that the cop believed they were hookers. That ticket took most of her salary for the whole show, most likely. So I would add makeup to the clothes . . . . CONGRATS on moving along with your novel!

  • The well intentioned minds of the politically correct seldom understand the criminally perverted. Most people, however, do. They perhaps have either the experience or the innate knowledge to understand the triggers that inspire sick minds to action. Doesn’t make it right. Doesn’t make it politically correct. The problem for the realists who warn others of the criminally perverted mind is that they themselves soon become identified as possessing some form of criminal insensitivity. This is a political mind-set that denies reality. The flashy may swim in the schools with all the others, but the odds are greater they will quicker attract the eye of the predator. It’s a fact. Don’t think so? Go to the beach. Swim out to the edge of the breakers at sunset and put on your bling–that is thrash the water. You will dramatically increase your chances of attracting the predator. You may not like it. You may think some government organization should remedy the situation, but your opinions will not change the reality of it. It’s called a law of nature.

    • If only. Take your “be less flashy” theory to the bedside of the 94 year-old aunt who was raped and murdered in her home. Or the 88 year-old who was attacked in the nursing home. Or the 72 year-old who was assaulted in the parking lot. There is no correlation between rape and perceived sexuality. Rapists evaluate their victims the same way all criminals do: can I get away with this? Thus, they attack the mentally disabled, the old, the vulnerable. It is a pitiful, unglamorous crime of violent hate. I truly wish your theory was correct. Then we could end all this violence by conforming with other’s views of inappropriate flashiness (whatever that might be). But it’s not correct. We won’t end rape until we recognize it for what it is: hate-based assault. (and you know you’re my friend)

      • Perhaps some clarification is needed. I would not call flashy dress “inappropriate,” and in good company, it actually keeps us from drooling in boredom. I also cannot take credit for the “theory,” because it is not mine. It is a “truism” (quotes inserted for your peace of mind) taught by generations of protective mothers. It is difficult to apply statistical analysis to truisms taught by our mothers, therefore I tend to follow Disraeli’s and Mark Twain’s comments on the matter: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Let me put it this way: Statistically speaking, the chances of being eaten by a Grizzly Bear are very low, but I am not going to tie moose meat around my neck and go hiking in the Rockies, because although bears seldom display much discernment between aged and healthy hikers, I choose not to add hunger to the temptation…..Gosh, Elle, sometimes I crack myself up. By the way, I DO know I’m your friend, and damned proud of it. Civil discourse is a wonderful thing :). Thoroughly enjoyed the party.

  • Thanks for the above comment, Ellen. Predators aren’t looking for the hottest, sexiest, flashiest. They’re looking for the vulnerable and if the two things happen to coincide in a rape victim it is coincidence, not causality. There is way to much “blame the victim” mentality in rape cases. If she hadn’t been drunk, if she hadn’t been alone, if she had fought back, blah, blah, blah. Here in Canada, a judge was recently dismissed for his inappropriate comments to a rape victim during the trial in which he said “Why didn’t you just keep your knees together?” She is a petite woman and the attacker was over 200 lbs. It’s these entrenched attitudes that keep women being victimized and revictimized when they have the courage to come forward, are believed by the police and then make it to trial to continue to be attacked by judges that don’t understand rape. 1 in 4 women experience sexual assault. 1 in 6 are raped. This is a huge problem that isn’t caused by inappropriately dressed women.

    • We now know that rape is most often a serial crime. If the rapist is not caught and prosecuted, he will rape again and again and again. So this individualistic view of the victim (as if that can explain what happened) is false all the way around. I saw that case in Canada, and the thing that struck me the most is that the review court took 15 months to decide. What that tells me is that, even with that outrageous statement, the court was afraid of being second-guessed and had to be extremely careful to cross all ts, dot all is, etc. That in and of itself tells me what we are up against. But—as I should focus on the positive—it is a really big deal to remove a judge, and I am grateful they did.

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