"Don't Wear That!" The Evolutionary Roots of Daisy Dukes, Victim Blaming and Patriarchy

Monday, August 17, 2015 by Meg   •   Filed under General

“Hey, Harry, put on longer shorts. You don’t want the neighbors talking.”  

“John, why don’t you wear a sweater over your tee-shirt?”

“Kyle, are you really wearing your ‘fuck me’ heels to the office? You’ll never be taken seriously dressing like that.”

We’ve got a lot of sexual baggage, ladies, and some of it revolves around what we wear. We are overtly, and subtly, told that our clothing choices can lead to attacks, to pain, to shame. Because our bodies are not a normal part of our existence. They are ticking time bombs. We must keep our sexuality under wraps, lest we get what we deserve; just this month a Virginia university demanded a rape victim provide a list of her past sexual partners. What in the actual fuck? 

MEN! Amiright, ladies?!? 

But, sexism and elements of fear and blame are also furthered by well-meaning women. And we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Without addressing our own role in the perpetuation of some of these elements, we are unlikely to be able to enforce real change, particularly in a culture where these elements are so ingrained that they are essentially invisible. 

Let’s start with us and a better understanding of our shame and our fear. Change comes from education, from finding common ground and banding together. Change starts with us.  And while I can’t cover it all in one post, I can start somewhere. 

Okay, so first things first. Why might we think that women are advertising with skimpy clothing?  

The Evolutionary Roots of Daisy Dukes and Patriarchy

In Female Power and Male Dominance: On The Origins of Sexual Inequality, anthropologist Peggy Sanday notes that male-dominated societies tend to have the following elements in place1

  1. Food scarcity with meat from large game more valued than other foods 
  2. Danger in daily life 
  3. Men do not participate actively in childcare
  4. There is limited female representation in cultural symbols or creation myths, ie, the vagina is seen as dirty, not sacred.

Whereas more egalitarian cultures rely on gathering for food sustenance, and thus on female provisioning, male dominated cultures tend to have a different set of values that reflects the way it functions in terms of food and resources. 

While the importance of “meat from large game” is debatable, Americans do tend to lean more towards “men as providers” due to the fact that women tend to make less money and because of the overall way we treat families and working mothers in general. We are also told that life is dangerous whether or not it actually is (more here in How The Nightly News Triggers Anxiety). 

But women, working or no, do tend to shoulder the burden of childcare responsibility, as strides towards equality have not caught up in other realms, according to Helen Fisher in The Anatomy of Love4. And while we do have that whole “Mother Mary” and “Adam and Eve” creation myth thing going on, Mary is still a passive vessel and Eve is the bitch who made childbirth suck ass. And look at how we treat the female body: vaginas are scary and dirty and shameful, so much so that most men can’t find the G-spot to save their life. We meet numbers three and four without even trying. 

Okay, duh, we live in a male-dominated society. What does that have to do with how we dress? 

Well, in those male-dominated societies, men tend to have more sexual leniency. And according to anthropologist Elizabeth Cashdan, women who see men as promiscuous (or unwilling to invest in one women and family) are more likely to be sexually promiscuous themselves. And Cashdan notes that women may advertise this availability through provocative clothing2, a phenomena that is not isolated to the western world with our overt sexualization of females.

So there might be a socialized or evolutionary predisposition to advertise sexual availability through how we dress, though what is deemed “sexy” or “provocative” is also a matter of the society where you currently find yourself. And it tends to happen more in male dominated societies or where men are seen as bastards who like to sow their wild oats, and notions of womanhood tend to revolve around the physical and elements of “childbearing attractiveness” mainly youth and specific body types, as opposed to our potential as providers. Come on, little girls. Better get while the getting is good. 

"Yo, patriarchy! You know how you are all uppity about women covering up? Occasionally, you might be the trigger, mother fucker! And also, holy shit, hide your teenager’s short skirts! She’s advertising! She’s on the prowl!"

Uhhh, not quite. 

Often we simply wear things because we want to, because they’re comfortable. Just because there may exist a drive to advertise in no way means that this is always what we are responding to. General rule of thumb is that between drives, environment, hormonal influence, genetic factors and other crap, any one part is probably influential at a rate of around fifteen percent3.  

My main motivation for my tank tops is comfort. I like skirts because they let the air get to my legs and make me less sweaty in the car (though it still sounds like I’m ripping duct tape off a hyena when I get out). I like bikinis because I dig the sun on every possible area of my body. (Vitamin D, baby!) And trust me, I am in no way advertising. I can barely keep up with my husband.

But the thing is, even if a girl or a woman IS advertising, she is well within her rights to do so, and it isn’t really that much of an issue if we don’t see it as potentially dangerous. But we rarely acknowledge her right to consent aside from the outright, “No means no,” because we’re taught to be fearful. We also have some pretty deep shame issues related to the notion that we are responsible for the way men think about us. It’s the same culture that makes us feel like we must excuse sexual behaviors in committed relationships, citing, “I have a headache,” instead of saying, “I don't want to.” Because being ill is better than being a frigid bitch, and really it’s probably our fault that the men around us are in the mood anyway.

Isn’t it? 

It’s not just the men, ladies. We perpetuate these issues as well.  

Victim Blaming and "Cover up, you look like a whore."

Of course the assumption here is that if one looks like a whore, it might be okay to treat her like one. These words, and other phrases like them are ways to trigger shame or fear. Will she be attacked for wearing short shorts? “She needs to change that shirt, it invites trouble.” “You don’t want anyone to think you’re loose, baby. Get a sweater.”

Younger and younger girls are being sent home from school for wearing clothing that is "too distracting,” placing the blame for supposed lack of male self-control firmly on the heads of female youth. Not only is this a disservice to women who must tailor their choice of clothing  around what someone else “might” perceive, it is a disservice to men by promoting the notion that they are out of control maniacs who can’t keep their dick in their pants if they happen to see a little leg or gasp a bra strap. Most men aren’t all that shady, regardless of what we're taught to believe.

We even see this danger in random celebrities, though rarely the right ones.  When we saw a photo of a fully-clothed Willow Smith watching television on a friend’s bed, child protective services was contacted because, “it’s inappropriate, it’s indecent,” the underlying assumption being that she’s in danger. Her parents must be investigated. She needs to learn that this is not okay behavior. She is complicit. She’s asking for trouble.  

We come by it honestly, under a guise of assistance. We cite the girl who passed out or wore a tank top as explanations, as justifications to protect the rest of those young women who might be victimized. “Don’t go out after dark, and for the love of god, don’t wear that.” 

But these are not tactics of mere protection. They imply blame for all those who don’t follow such ordinances. There is so much shame in rape at least in part because of the myth that the victim is somehow at fault because of what she was wearing, or how she behaved even as we allow rapists to go back to their schools, back to their football teams. Places where some males have no idea that they are rapists at all, because screwing someone who is passed out is like…consent, right?

We are worried for these girls. But in our worry we are perpetuating the very thought process that triggers the culture to continue, a virtual cycle of shame and degradation where we place fault on girls for laughing too hard, for being in the wrong place, for wearing the wrong thing, for allowing it to happen if she actually ends up in a situation where an attack occurs. 

I should never again have to tell a girl pregnant after a rape that, contrary to what her father told her, it is not her fault for wearing a sundress to a friend’s house. I should never again have to look a fourteen-year-old girl in the face and tell her it wasn’t her fault after a police officer said, “Looks like you got what you deserved for being somewhere you shouldn’t have been.” 

But I surely will. Surely. And it fucking kills me a little bit every time.


Women are not attacked because of that they wear. Ever. They are not attacked because of where they happened to be or because they didn’t happen to be wearing nail polish that detects date rape drugs. 

Women are attacked because someone attacks them. Period.  

Women are not sluts for wearing revealing clothing. They can be naked and not be asking for it. Imagine if we saw every man without a shirt as one who is beckoning us. Only in women is skin a sexual invitation. 

“Dear god, Jim, don’t take your shirt off! They’re going to think you’re a tramp!”

Skin is not shameful. It just isn’t. It’s normal, it’s a body, it’s part of being human. But still we hear: ”Self respecting women don't dress like that.” But they do. 

How is it okay for any of us to attack a woman’s self worth based on what she feels comfortable wearing? And make no mistake, enough negative comments about your body and you feel it emotionally (more here), though that shame may not translate into changing your shirt, particularly if you are a rebellious teenager. Because screw that noise.

Shame is so deeply ingrained that even nursing mothers are asked to cover themselves, as if exposing a breast to feed a child is a sexual act, one that will somehow trigger young men into excitement. But only those who see breasts as purely sexual tend to be excited by them in this way, something that is becoming more common as more and more women are told to wear less revealing clothing or to nurse in bathrooms. Without exposure to normal acts such as breastfeeding, men are more likely to sexualize such things as they get older, not less.

Women in some indigenous cultures wear next to nothing and do not suffer from this type of objectification. Their bodies are beautiful and not a "distraction" to their male counterparts, primarily because males and females alike are taught to respect them. In other cultures, women are covered from head-to-toe and are not seen as human beings. They are subservient to their husbands and males in their family. The lack of feminine definition, of skin, does not stop males from objectifying them; it is a part of the culture itself to see women as less than autonomous. 

These underlying currents of sexual exploitation are not a matter of skin. It is a matter of an ingrained belief structure that objectifies females at every turn. Because no matter what we tell ourselves now, what justifications we come up with for why such things are inappropriate or indecent, it all boils down to a deep-rooted shame that most of us are taught from infancy. For today it is not the breast itself that has us so up in arms; it is the deep sense of discomfort, of shame that we feel, an emotion that quickly leads us to anger, to attack when someone else makes us feel embarrassed on her behalf. Because her shame is ours to share, certainly. Our disgust comes from this place of honestly attained judgment because of our upbringing and societally held notions of “decency” and fear. 

Now, I am not bashing those who feel this discomfort. We come by these feelings honestly, and our responses surrounding them are normal. However, when we feel the desire to bash or question, “Why is she wearing that, can’t she cover up?” perhaps we should be looking at our own trigger to such an attack. Instead of, “Why would she be doing this?” ask “Why do I feel uncomfortable?” Because the latter is the one that might change your world if you look at it deeply enough. 

What Else Makes Women Afraid? Danger Perception and Sexual Harassment

While most men report that they have never had to deal with sexual harassment, I have yet to met a woman who never has. The same is true of assaults. Nearly every one of us either knows someone who has been raped, or we’ve been attacked ourselves. It is the notion of danger in real life form, particularly since men are actually able to overpower us. Attacks do happen. And we are reminded of it every day. 

But those crimes are usually about opportunity, not about her clothes or her behaviors. And it behooves us to put that fact into the forefront.  A man seeking a random victim in a parking lot probably didn’t pass over the one who wore a sweater because she was just too covered up. He picked the one who gave him the best chance at committing the crime undetected. In treating men who have assaulted women the only (anecdotal) trend I noticed was that they all preferred long hair for yanking into submission (not that short hair stopped anyone). But because our societal  ideal of femininity often relies on long hair, we are primed to ignore such things, lest women be encouraged to cut their locks. Don’t want that shit. 

If a woman chooses to dress conservatively because she feels her best doing it, that should be no issue to anyone. It should also not raise any eyebrows when someone chooses short skirts over a jeans or a low cut tank top over a sweater. Perhaps it should be far more shameful to raise a generation of males who are told that women will change their clothing in order to distract them less, a generation told ever so subtly that we are willing to alter ourselves for their comfort, or that it is our fault if they can’t control themselves in our presence.

Teaching our daughters that they need to be ashamed of themselves or their bodies is not a path that should be taken without regard to the emotional consequences. While the oversexualization of the American female is a dire issue, it is not one to be addressed by shaming individual girls to change their outfits. It would require an undertaking most people would balk at; the systematic alteration of how we see pretty much everything from Cosmo to America’s Next Top Model. A place where girl and boy colors cease to exist, where the aisles at Target do not shove gender roles down our throats because everyone is equal and normal. A society where no little boy would ever be told, “You throw like a girl!” and have it be a bad thing. 

But we are far from such a place. (Except for that Target thing. You guys rock on with your bad selves.)

Sexual responsibility does not begin at "No means no." Responsibility begins with seeing one another as equals, none of whom should be forced to alter themselves for the benefit of the other. 

Speak up. Speak out. It’s time.

Related Posts: 

  1. http://www.amazon.com/Female-Power-Male-Dominance-Inequality/dp/0521280753 
  2. Attracting Mates: Effects of Paternal Investment on Mate Attraction Strategies. Ethology and Sociobiology 14:1–24 
  3. http://www.amazon.com/Darwinian-Psychiatry-Michael-McGuire/dp/0195116739
  4. http://www.amazon.com/Anatomy-Love-Natural-History-Marriage/dp/0449908976

Topic-Relevant Resources

The Woman That Never Evolved: With a New Preface and Bibliographical Updates, Revised Edition
Anthropology, wit and the evolution of the modern female.

Everything you ever wanted to know about the connections between your vagina and your brain. It's worth the read.

The Anatomy of Love
An in depth look at a history of human mating. Sex, anthropology and more sex. What more could you want?