The Right Coast

May 18, 2004
Prager on Women's Dress
By Mike Rappaport

Dennis Prager, the radio talk show host and writer, is one of the most intelligent social conservatives around these days. Prager has recently written two columns (here and here) on the provocative nature of how women dress. Here is how he starts the first column:

You may have noticed that many young women wear less, and more sexually provocative, clothing in public than they did a generation, or even 10 years, ago. It is easier to notice, however, than to explain.

But explaining it is crucial to understanding what has happened to men and women in the last 40 years and where male-female relations are headed. Women exposing their bodies in public is a big deal. Playing with the sex drive, the most powerful force in nature, is far more dangerous than playing with fire. Even if one welcomes this development -- and for the record, as a male I am turned on, while as a man I am turned off -- it begs for explanation.

I will offer at least five reasons that may be less obvious but more important than the valid ones usually given -- peer pressure, women buy what stores sell and the sexual revolution.
The five reasons are: 1. The movement towards equality, or rather sameness, of the sexes; 2. the death of femininity; 3. powerlessness due to the lack of a feminine role; 4. sexual harassment laws; and 5. a desire to attract men.

I don't necessarily want to endorse Prager's analysis, but he certainly has something important to contribute. Consider his analysis of the fourth reason, sexual harassment laws:

Women feel freer than ever to dress provocatively in part because men can say nothing about it. Omnipresent sexual harassment laws and "consciousness raising" seminars in businesses and schools have frightened men into not making any sexual comments to a woman.

As a result, the normal check on a woman flaunting her body is gone. A woman can reveal her breasts or cross her short-skirted legs near a man, but he is forbidden to say so much as, "You have great legs." In fact, he can be fired or sued for saying nothing and merely "staring." One reason women dressed more modestly in the past was fear of men's verbal reactions. No more. There are vast checks on his sexuality, none on hers.

We should either drop all sexual harassment laws (except those prohibiting threats -- "Sleep with me or you're fired") or apply them equally to women. If men create a sexually charged work environment when they talk sex, women do the same when they show sex. "Hostile work environment" -- a trial lawyer enrichment program created by feminist anger at men -- should be either dropped as a legal concept or applied equally to women's dress.
Interestingly, Prager seems to be implicitly making the claim that women who dress provocatively "assume the risk of" or at least "induce" certain kinds of harassment. Clearly, this is a view that is at odds with both the prevailing and the elite view. I suppose that one can always argue that men must restrain their speech and behavior even when exposed to provocatively dressed women. While this may make sense, it places strong social and legal sanctions in the service of allowing provocative dress, and the question is whether the benefits of such dress exceed the costs. While liberal feminists and much of American culture would appear to argue that the benefits are worth it, there are others -- social conservatives, more radical feminists -- who would argue that permitting provocative dress is a dubious value.

In the end, I am not sure what to think. I do not favor most sexual harassment laws, preferring such inappropriate behavior to be addressed by firms and schools. But whether or not such laws are in place, private and public institutions must still determine the appropriate norms of conduct. Prager’s argument is important, but so are the considerations on the other side. Living here in San Diego, where provocative dress sometimes seems to reign supreme, I am conflicted.