Common Sense on Both Ends

NEW YORK--Chances are, by now you've heard about the Central Park attacks during the Puerto Rican Day Parade--and probably forgotten about them too. Let me refresh your memory: Near the end of the June 11 parade, more than 50 women were sprayed with water, groped, robbed and in some cases sexually assaulted by a gang of men in a crowded Central Park in broad daylight, while police officers allegedly looked on and refused to help the victims.

The news is almost two weeks old, but every one of the millions of people in New York City is still reminded of it daily in the newspapers. Besides receiving the spin cycle from advocacy groups and public relations officers, the incident has been cast in every imaginable light on editorial pages of the city's four major competing papers. But the viewpoint conspicuously missing from this media field day has been, ironically, the one that would be most relevant: The viewpoint of the attacks' very victims, young females.

Not one column I've seen has been written by a young woman. Newspaper columnists--staff and guest--tend to be older, and they tend to be male. In their search to find an explanation for the attacks, what these pundits come up with is a sense of rage. The world should not be this way, they decry. No woman should ever have to fear for her personal safety.

All this is true--who would dispute it? But it strikes me as rather obvious. In part because they are viewing the situation from outside, these would-be analysts stop short of the how and why. In the past two weeks, I've seen dozens of mandates for change, but few suggestions for how this change should come about, or even what's behind the current state of affairs.

Now, I know I don't speak for all young women, and so can't pretend to represent the assault victims any more than the columnists I've criticized. But hopefully I can at least lend a fresh perspective to the media melee, being a 21-year-old female known to wear tight pants or a tube top now and then.

Now, a few weeks ago, my stepmother decided to give me advice on spending the summer in New York City. The number-one precaution I could take against getting raped, she said, was to avoid wearing skimpy clothing. I immediately bristled at her comment, for two reasons. The first was a knee-jerk response to the fact that she seemed to be invoking the argument that rape victims somehow "ask for it." But the second--and the one I felt more vehemently about--was the fact that I'm the proud owner of more than a few cute little sundresses, I wasn't going to let safety precautions get in the way of my looking good.

So I argued with her, whipping out the oft-cited adage that the most likely assault victim is a woman who is unsure of herself, who looks vulnerable, who visibly lacks self-confidence and assurance. Her response?

"I'll remember that when they find you dead in a spaghetti-strap dress."

A little harsh, yes, but that's my stepmom. I pooh-poohed her advice at the time, but since I've been in New York it's come to mind time and again, and I have to say that I value it a little more after living here for two weeks and developing my own spin on the Central Park incident.

You see, the generally agreed-upon turning point in the incident--the point at which the attacks escalated from lighthearted water-splashing into violence and sexual assault--was when a young woman who'd just been splashed playfully lifted her shirt and flashed the crowd. People in this city are too politically correct to say it outright, but many New Yorkers I interviewed for stories on the attacks implied it: This girl was to blame. In that brief, careless act--or so the train of thought goes--she single-handedly tipped the balance of the male spectators' conception of women.

Well, of course this woman was not to blame for any part of the attacks, and of course she was not "asking for it" in any way. But the fact remains that she should have had the foresight not to flash her breasts to a crowd of rowdy, celebrating, drunken men. As many have noted, there is a big difference between asking to be looked at and asking to be raped. But that said, just as each one of those attackers should have thought about consequences before acting, women, too, must use a little common sense.

It's helpful here to view life as one giant workplace. For example, if you show up at an interview for an investment banking position wearing ripped jeans, sneakers and a sweatshirt, you probably won't get the job. I've learned in my job as a reporter here that it takes a lot to get people to take you seriously in this city. Wear a shirt that's even a little bit tight to a meeting, and you risk losing the respect of the people whose quotes you desperately need for your story.

Like a reporter who wears tight clothing, a woman who flashes her breasts instantly transforms herself from a complete person into a mere sex object. Like it or not, this is the state of affairs in our society today. And transforming oneself into a sex object is not generally an effective strategy for empowerment.

Seldom do women get as lucky as Erin Brockovich, the movie law clerk played by Julia Roberts who used low-cut tops to distract important men into giving her confidential records. It's rare that women can reap the benefits of men's objectification of them without suffering some of the drawbacks too. Ms. Brockovich took a lot of risks, and for her, it paid off. But for most women, the eternal paradox of feminism kicks in: In order to be safe from the aggression and oppression of men, we need to lose our femininity and become like them, thus subjugating ourselves all the same.

The solution--the safe solution, that is--is to strike a balance between feminine sexuality and conservatism. Until it is safe for us to roam the streets in whatever state of dress or undress we desire, we need to fight our battle wisely. We must dress and act according to the situation and save our personal, non-professional sides for safer environments such as private gatherings and less dangerous non-mob-scene public settings, preferably with the safety net of friends accompanying us. Because especially in this city, there's no forgiveness for failing to use common sense. Women's empowerment will come about through acting like the intelligent, complex, valuable, confident and feminine beings we are--not flaunting our status as sex objects.

That's this woman's answer, at least.

Elizabeth A. Gudrais '01, a Crimson executive, is a literature concentrator in Adams House. She is working this summer as a reporter at the Queens bureau of Newsday.