Tag Archive: rape culture

High Heels and Rape Culture

The other night I went out clubbing with some of the girls from my pole dance studio, and I had an interesting revelation.  Walking through Farragut North, a relatively safe area of DC—well-lit, with lots of people around—I realized that I felt incredibly vulnerable. In my high heels and fancy club-wear (albeit fairly modest by the standards of those around me), I felt unnaturally like a target.  Moreover, I felt that I lacked the ability to defend myself.

Gange rape shirt

Rape culture

Perhaps in this regard I am actually luckier than most.  I walk through dangerous neighborhoods as a matter of course for my work, sometimes quite obviously lost, and have never feared for my safety.  I have been able to trust in my wits, my strength, and the goodness inherent in people around me to keep me safe. For many women, the vulnerability I felt walking around in my high-heels is a daily occurrence.  They dread catcalls and leering strangers, men in large groups, and unfamiliar streets.  They feel unsure of their ability to fend off the manifestations of rape culture which surround them.

I’ve written about rape culture before: the behaviors and attitudes that perpetuate a society in which rape, harassment, and belittlement of women (and non-cisgendered people) exist and thrive.

In many cases, rape culture’s most insidious aspect is how it is insulated by people who have become accustomed to its effects.  Cliff at The Pervocracy writes excellently on this phenomenon, which she calls “The Missing Stair:”

Have you ever been in a house that had something just egregiously wrong with it?  Something massively unsafe and uncomfortable and against code, but everyone in the house had been there a long time and was used to it?  “Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you, there’s a missing step on the unlit staircase with no railings.  But it’s okay because we all just remember to jump over it.”

Some people are like that missing stair….

passed out chick meme


Everyone who says “I don’t want to be a victim-blamer, but girls should know frat parties aren’t safe places” is treating rape culture like a missing stair.  Everyone who says “it’s an ugly fact, but only women who don’t make trouble make it in this business” is treating sexual harassment like a missing stair.  Everyone who says “I don’t like it either, but that’s the way things are,” and makes no move to question the way things are, is jumping over a missing stair somewhere. http://pervocracy.blogspot.com/2012/06/missing-stair.html

In this way, the missing stair (ie: rape culture) is not the only problem.  The people who continually ignore or apologize for rape culture begin to perpetuate, and in some instances worsen the problem.  And it usually takes drastic measures to shake that kind of apathy.  If someone fails to jump over the missing stair, falls and breaks zir ankle, zir friends will suddenly be up in arms and protesting that the stair must be fixed.  Similarly, people who know family or friends who have suffered sexual assault at its most violent are quick to take up the cause and fight for justice.

But those that just barely graze the edge?  Whose feet are beginning to slip, but caught their balance at just the last moment?  Who endure catcalls and uncomfortable advances in bars?  Whose breasts are grazed in the subway, but convince themselves that it was just an accident?  Those people don’t often recognize rape culture.  They don’t fight the injustices that they deal with bodily on a daily basis.

Instead they have set ups like the safe call.  A safecall is an arrangement that you make to check in with a trustworthy person when you’re meeting with an acquaintance or someone new with whom you haven’t yet developed trust. Your trustworthy person should know where you’re going to be (specific addresses), who you’re going to be with (real names), and what time(s) you will be checking in. If you don’t check in, they’ll assume something has gone wrong and will contact the local authorities.

I don’t want to dissect the safe call here, because I think it is an incredibly valuable tool to protect yourself in potentially dangerous situationsNo More Rape Culture (and I urge all of you to read this article).  However, I think it’s poignant that such a practice is both necessary and widely practiced as a way of ensuring an individual’s safety.  It brings to light the extent to which many individuals acknowledge the bodily dangers of rape culture (and the necessity of precaution), without examining the structures which make these situations dangerous.

Thus, I return to Friday night, walking to the club in Farragut North.  I felt at once absurd and humbled by my realization of vulnerability.  I felt vulnerable because I was dressed up, drawing attention to myself, and I was hobbled by heals.  Why did I feel like a target because of this?  Did I expect sexual assault from these behaviors?  The answers aren’t so simple, but it made me realize how frightening it must be for people who feel vulnerable like this all the time.  It reminded me that there is so much work to be done in dismantling rape culture, and that I have not even begun to scratch the surface.


shorts kinda like theseI thought I was just making a healthy, positive decision to bike to my pole dancing class in Cleveland Park.  It was easier and faster than taking the bus, and it would get my muscles warmed up for a good pre-workout stretch.  It was finally warm outside, sun shining bright, pleasant heat but no humidity.  To me, it just made sense to wear my pole shorts for my bike ride (why dirty another pair of clothes?).

What I didn’t expect was the barrage of catcalls, whistles, hooting, and ogling that I got on my two mile ide to the studio.  The first time, I thought it was an anomaly.  When I walk down the street, I try to smile at people and be friendly, so occasionally I will get a leer or whistle from a guy who took my smile as an invitation (This, also, is rape culture, btw).  But after the second and third guy hung their smug heads out the window to holler at me, I realized that it had to do with my shorts.

Ugh.  “Fuck them,” I thought.   I know many women who face street harassment of this variety on a daily basis, because of how much makeup they wear, the attractiveness of their figure, the tightness of their clothes, etc.  Intellectually, I understand that it happens.  Intellectually, I knew it could happen to me too.  Which is why I was angry, but not surprised when it finally happened.

For those of you not familiar with the term rape culture, street harassment is a prime example of it.  My short shorts were seen as an invitation by many men to objectify me and treat me with less courtesy as a normal person.  If I had been a man in bike shorts, this would not have happened.  If I was a woman in capris, this would probably not have happened.  It was specifically the combination of my gender and my outfit that made it acceptable for these men to treat me like I was an object of their spectacle.

A lot of people justify this reaction by saying that I made the choice to wear those shorts, knowing that it invited people to look at the skin they exposed.  This is, in a way, true.  I have a good body.  I don’t blame anyone for looking.  To suggest otherwise would be prudish and absurd.   HOWEVER, to make a connection between gaze and the inherent disrespect of a catcall or wolf-whistle is what constitutes rape culture.

In essence, look all you want, but do not treat me with any less respect as a human being because of the clothes I wear.  You wouldn’t cat-call at your cousin, even if you knew she looked very attractive.  Why?  Because there is a level of respect and distance between you and your cousin, no matter what she is wearing or doing.  That same courtesy should extend to me.  Even if you’ve never met me.  Even if you don’t give a damn about me.

Does this skirt make me look slutty?What really surprised me about this whole incident, however, was the reaction I received from my fellow pole dancers once I arrived at the studio.  None of them were outraged, or even mildly annoyed, by the story I presented.  Most of them shrugged, and my instructor said, “Yeah, you really shouldn’t wear your pole shorts out in public.”

Wait WHAT?  This, ladies and gentlemen, is the most insidious side of rape culture.  It has infiltrated the minds of the people who suffer from it, legitimizing itself and its world order.  My fellow pole dancers, who undoubtedly have suffered street harassment themselves, see my experience as ordinary and acceptable, simply “the way the world is.”  Rather than critique the systems that make it socially acceptable for men to whistle and cat-call at us, they blame their friends for life choices that leave them vulnerable to the system.

I’m sure my pole dancing friends didn’t intentionally blame me for wearing my shorts.  It was meant as a friendly reminder, a suggestion for next time to avoid the hassle.  But in doing so, they reinforce the way that society operates, affirming that men are allowed this indulgence of street harassment.

And that, my friends, is just bullshit.

Because I must end these posts in a prescriptive manner, PLEASE, please with everything you do, think not about how the world does work, but how it should work.  Don’t blame women for the choices they make about their bodies.  Think critically about how society has given men the privilege to demean and objectify us, and make sure your men-folk know that this behavior is NOT OK.


****Note to any trans readers out there, I know this was a very gender-binary article.  I beg your patience in that regard, as I know trans people experience severe street harassment, which deserves equal treatment and attention.  It is, however, a much more complex topic and I felt I could not do it justice.  If someone else is interested in guest blogging about it, I would more than welcome such a submission.  Thank you!

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