Is it dangerous for a woman to wear party clothes on a bus at night?

My friend's boyfriend doesn't want her riding city transit in going-out clothes. Is he abusive and controlling? Or just protective?


Cary Tennis
November 9, 2006 5:17PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

Once when my friend and I were making plans to go out, she stated, as if it ended the discussion, that her boyfriend didn't "want her taking public transportation in going-out (i.e. revealing) clothes." This troubled me because it seems like the kind of controlling behavior that can lead to abuse. I also take issue with her boyfriend's apparent belief that women dressed in revealing clothes invite attack. (I don't know that anything other than stigma supports that belief.) We were planning to take the bus around 9 at night and return in a cab. It's not a trip I would think much more than once about making even alone.

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My friend was in an emotionally abusive relationship for some years prior to this one. While I want to believe that she is now fully aware of and in power over her life, I know that the risk of repeating destructive patterns is great. But who knows? Maybe my friend just didn't want to take the bus. Maybe I'm inflating the issue because I think her boyfriend is boring and not good enough for her. He also grew up in a country where women daily risk violence for wearing things far less revealing than our nightlife attire. (Does that mitigate the situation, or worsen it? Or am I racist/colonialist for attempting to judge the practices and attitudes of one culture by the standards of another?)

But those were not my questions for you. I'm just wondering.

Colonialism Is Just a Bus Ride Away

Dear Colonialism Is Just a Bus Ride Away,

We who live in cities go about in zones of tacitly granted invisibility. We conduct our private business in full view of all, on buses and subways, on city streets and in cafes. We begin and end marriages. We seal business deals, talking on cellphones and e-mailing each other, all while pretending not to hear, not to pay attention to each other, not to be interested, not to be visible.

At the same time, we signal each other constantly in intricate codes of our own devising. We signal each other about how much money we make and where we live, what our political beliefs are and what groups we are attached to, whether we are single or married, sexually active or not, interested or not interested. We signal where we are going, whether to a party or to a friend's house, to a club or a museum, to work or to a workout. We watch each other's signals, trying to decode them. This happens in silence, with glances and gestures.

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By and large we enjoy being together on the bus and on the subway, knowing that we constitute this grand thing that is the city itself. But there are threats, too. There are people who are not participating in this grand dream, who just want to follow us out into the dark and take what is most precious. There are people who stare at us in malevolence, who speak out of turn.

Ideally, each of us ought to be free to do as we like, you might say, as long as we are not harming others. A woman ought to be able to dress on a bus exactly as she pleases. No one ought to tell her how to dress. In an ideal world, from the standpoint of personal freedom, a woman ought to be able to get on a bus stark naked and dance in the most provocative manner imaginable without a word being said or a glance being taken. She would be within her tacitly granted zone of invisibility. No one would pay her any mind.

But women do not have that freedom. If a woman claimed that she ought to be able to get on a bus naked and dance provocatively, she would not be taken seriously. If she actually did so, she would be removed by the police. She would have exceeded the limits of her invisibility by becoming hyper-visible, overtaxing our ability to ignore her.

Is it a good thing or a bad thing that she would be removed by the police? Would you feel the same way about it if a man got on a bus naked and started dancing provocatively? Where is the line, and who decides it? Are our customs and manners sexist? Or is it the public expression of sexuality that we wish to keep down and control?

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Let us look at your friend's boyfriend for a minute.

You say that her boyfriend "grew up in a country where women daily risk violence for wearing things far less revealing than our nightlife attire." That certainly does raise the possibility that he is acting reasonably according to his own experience. If he is accustomed to living in a world that is more dangerous and more unpredictable than the world you and I live in, then his assumptions about what is safe and not safe may indeed be far different from yours and mine. A man who has witnessed beatings and knifings, who has seen women raped and beaten by strangers on the street: Such a man sees the world as a hostile place against which one must take precautions.

He may be wrong about exactly what precautions to take. He may be wrong about the causes of the crimes he has witnessed. But when he tells her not to dress provocatively on the bus is he acting as her oppressor? Is it a kind of abusive, sick control, a prelude to violence? Or is he trying to protect her from malevolent forces?

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There is something to be said for being invisible. For the city is also a stage, occupied by actors trying to become real. Suffocated by the sheer numbers around us as we sit on the buses and subways day after day, we sometimes feel that we are less real than others, less powerful, less important and respected; we dream of doing something to take some of that power and visibility away from them. So we attack them, take their money and spend it, take their credit cards, take their lives.

How do we pick our victims? We pick the ones who catch our eye, the ones whose bright colors enrage us, whose sexual attractiveness fills us with resentment and anger.

Who will be the victim? That pretty one there.

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Perhaps this is what your friend's boyfriend understands.

Legally it should make no difference what a crime victim wears. The attacker is to blame. Women should not have to hide. They should not be penalized by the law for what they wear. And yet sometimes they are. This is wrong.

Or perhaps her boyfriend is not really thinking about crime per se, but about something a little more subtle. Perhaps it is his own discomfort at knowing what men think when they look at his girlfriend in her party clothes. He knows because he is a man and thinks certain thoughts, and knows from talking with other men that they think these thoughts too, when they look at women whom they do not know. He knows that on the subway men who do not know his girlfriend will look at her in a certain way and think these thoughts. He does not like these thoughts. They are an outrage.

He does not want men thinking these things about his girlfriend, but there is not much he can do about it. A man's thoughts are private. No law can say what a man may think. Only if what he is thinking shows in his eyes can one know. So what can he do?

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Men are complicated and emotional. Sometimes we are deeply uncomfortable. But we do not say, "Dear, this situation makes me deeply uncomfortable." We are taught not to say such things. We are taught to fix the problem. So we think of a solution to our discomfort and we say, "Don't wear that dress on the bus."

We don't add "... because, dear, it will make me profoundly uncomfortable thinking about how other men will look at you, and the thoughts they will have." We just say, "Don't wear that dress on the bus."

Does that make us tyrants, obsessed with control?

Is it possible to end colonialism, racism and sexism by finely regulating social behavior? If we ourselves behave with great and scrupulous care toward others, never exhibiting any of the residual sexism and racism that are in our hearts, never exhibiting anything but the finest and highest regard for all our brothers and sisters on the planet, never giving in to the temptation to judge or assume that one person is lower than another or higher than another, could we actually change the world in that way? Or is our casual social behavior unlinked from the behavior of governments and institutions that results in colonial wars? Can saints effect change if they say nothing but simply act saintly?

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These are the questions your letter gives rise to.

I do not know the answers. I am just another man on the subway, invisible, hungry, alone, watching.

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