Do women have the right to dress however they like? Is modest dressing old-fashioned?

by October 1, 2013

Answer Summary: Yes, they definitely have that right, but the issue is not of rights, but of sending the right message about ourselves to others. When rights blind us to the right, we brand the right – modest dressing – as wrong, as old-fashioned.


Today’s culture makes women believe that they have the right to wear any kind of dress, no matter how revealing. Those women who buy into this belief bristle at any suggestion that their provocative dresses might be a factor in sexual violence against women: “No matter how we dress, men have no right to force themselves on us.”

They are right, of course, that nothing makes sexual violence right. Offenders need to be punished. Swiftly and strongly.

But might bringing the question of rights be blinding us to the right issue?

Suppose a person walked down a dark alley with dollar bills sticking out of his pockets. If muggers rob him, they are culpable. But cops would also offer the common sense suggestion: “Better don’t keep your bills sticking out like that in future.” Suppose that person retorted: “I have the right to keep my money however I like.”

Agreed, that’s his right, but is it the right thing to do? After all, bills sticking out attract the wrong attention. Why attract trouble?

Researchers Carmine Sarracino and Kevin M. Scott in their book The Porning of America give the above example and point out the logical fallacy in the rights argument: “The issue of slutwear is often framed in terms of the wrong argument. ..The question is not, ‘Don’t I have the right to wear a micro-miniskirt and belly shirt?’ The more precise and pertinent questions are, ‘What do I want my clothes to say to the world about me? Do my clothes in fact say what I want them to say, so that others will be more likely to treat me as I want to be treated?”… What we wear, all of us, signals others in society about how we see ourselves… Slutwear (in itself, apart from any behavior) indicates, in the words of the APA [American Psychological Association] report, that girls dressed this way ‘exist for the sexual use of others’.”

The Bhagavad-gita (03.37) declares lust, the dark inner force that impels people to sexual violence, as the enemy of the whole world. Everyone needs to cooperate in combating this Public Enemy Number One. As an essential first strategy in combating lust, the Gita (03.41) urges regulation of the senses. Such regulation implies modest female dresses, for it limits exposure of their skin, which is one of their senses and which is the primary trigger for lust.

Yet today those making suggestions for modest dressing are verbally lynched as politically incorrect, as male chauvinists, as hopelessly outdated self-appointed moral police.

In our obsession with rights, have we ostracized common sense?

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