Wednesday, May 10, 2006

From the Richard Cohen's Greatest Hits File

7/31/1998, Washington Post:

Let's go now, as they say in television, to the Thomas Circle area around midnight. What do we see there? Well, we see some women walking in a certain way, dressed in a certain style. They're hookers. How do we know that? Because, as I said, they're walking in a certain way and dressed in a certain style. Case closed.

Now let's go to a different location, a different time. We are in a government office, say around 9 in the morning, and a young woman comes in to work. She walks in a certain way and dresses in a certain style. Is she a hooker? No way. She's a clerk-typist, and should she be treated like a hooker she just might file a sexual harassment complaint with a multitude of government agencies -- and the United Nations, for good measure.

Is it fair that she be treated like a hooker just because she dresses like one? On the other hand, is it fair that a man be condemned for responding to the signals he thinks she's sending? My letter writers and phone callers say yes to the former, no to the latter. Following a column I wrote on sexual harassment, which began with an offhand remark to a colleague who had worn a short skirt to work that day, I heard from many men (and some women) who insisted that I had been entrapped. My colleague, they said, should have worn a longer skirt.

In principle, I reject that argument. But I also reject the argument that women are never accessories to their own harassment, that the man is always totally wrong and the woman never, not even a tiny bit. Let's examine this by analogy. Just because you leave your keys in the car doesn't mean someone is entitled to steal it. But by leaving your keys in the car you have made it easier for someone to steal it. Similarly, you have a perfect right to flash your money, and should you get robbed, the thief has no excuse. But neither, really, do you.

Prudent women recognize the importance of dress and behavior, the subtle signals that clothes and mannerisms send. For instance, it's neither smart nor good manners to wear short skirts or shorts in most Third World countries. It's not smart to go sashaying down dark streets there alone at night. To do those things sends a signal. A woman might just be trying to keep cool, but her outfit would not be interpreted that way by many Third World men. They would find her insolently provocative. The response might be brutal.

American men and American women share the same culture. But even within a single culture, subcultures exist. Sometimes they're racial, religious, ethnic or geographic. But they can be sexual as well. A woman may think she is saying nothing by wearing a short skirt, but many men think otherwise. If the skirt is accompanied by flirtatious behavior, then the message is even stronger. The woman may be oblivious to what she seems to be saying. She also has the law on her side. But, to many men, she is saying something nonetheless.