What a Bust: Sexy Dressing Revisited

Something funny happened to me this week. Bettina Arndt contacted a mailing list I am part of, asking for research related to an article she wanted to write on the way women dress. Arndt said she was interested in writing about the paradox that when women dress sexily they don’t necessarily appreciate men paying them attention. I didn’t think much of it. Being a PhD student, I hardly felt qualified to be giving advice. But later I came across what seemed a very relevant text – Duncan Kennedy’s Sexy Dressing – so I emailed it to Arndt, to which she replied with thanks.

One of Arndt's controversial books

I then had a dawning realisation that Arndt isn’t just another academic, she’s that infamous and controversial sex therapist and columnist. I remembered where I had heard the name before – Arndt came to the Australian National University last June to promote her book What Men Want (spoiler: “more sex”), which was met with much protest from students. My inner feminista gave a little squirm.

But then, I thought about the content of Kennedy’s Sexy Dressing that I had emailed to Arndt (see also Kennedy’s Sexy Dressing, Etc). Written from a legal perspective, Kennedy asserts that there is power in women dressing provocatively, but promotes a sex-positive approach with an aim to reduce the sexual abuse experienced by some women that do dress sexily. Kennedy’s work has not gone down well with a number of feminist writers, given his endorsement of women’s eroticism for male heterosexual pleasure (see Janet Halley’s discussion of some reactions to Kennedy in Split Decisions). Basically Kennedy asserts that men have a stake in reducing sexual violence, abuse and crime, “so we can get on with playing within while evolving the [sexual fantasy] repertoire”. All in all I felt fine about sending this controversial sex- and desire-positive piece over, given that it so strongly asserts the need to differentiate between sexy dress/play and sexual abuse.

This morning I turned on the television to find Weekend Sunrise’s presenters discussing Arndt’s article “Busted: the politics of cleavage and a glance” appearing in today’s Sun-Herald (I wouldn’t normally watch this show, but I was waiting for PopAsia to come on, naturally). Arndt’s article basically frames women’s sexy dressing as a power often wielded unwittingly, that keeps men in “a state of sexual deprivation, dealing with constant rejection”.

Arndt's formula: women put it out there, men ogle

Unlike Kennedy, who frames his entire discussion around concerns of violence, Arndt only briefly touches on the issue, stating that “of course” men shouldn’t be sexually violent towards women because of the way they dress. The article paints women (especially the “young” women she refers to) as the naive commanders of sexuality, with sexual weaponry at their disposal (read: boobs). Men don’t fare any better, with Arndt stating that men are “lousy” at picking up on non-verbal cues in courtship (apparently all they see is boobs).

Aside from the binary-stereotype-reinforcements going on, there are so many problems that I have with this article that I can barely express them. Here’s a few: 1. It reinforces the idea that women are the only ones that put sex on display and that men are the only receptors of this (ignoring that men might also be negatively sexually objectified or that women might  be more than just “givers” of sexuality). 2. It doesn’t seem sex positive– rather than making some suggestions about how we might healthily negotiate the sexual power that Arndt accuses us of, she effectively condemns it, “with so many women now feeling absolutely entitled to dress as they like”. 3. It overlooks the many other directions sexuality might go in, not just orientation-wise (women can find women sexy too), but issues of domination and how these might figure in conversations about sexual power are not discussed.

An image from Chicago's SlutWalk

4. Last but not least, it only vaguely considers sexual violence and really does seem to suggest that women “invite” attention through the way they dress- yet I get wolf whistled at by men even when I’m dressed in tracky dacks and a baggy old t-shirt, it’s disgusting and I hate it!

I am deeply disheartened by this article, and can only hope that it invites greater discussion about sexy dressing in a way that moves beyond the simple and sensationalist stereotypes that Arndt presents.

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