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Unwanted attention

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2012-07-07 07:52

Unwanted attention

While women should defend their right to dress, unconventional or outrageous dressing in public could send a signal the subject may not intend.

It takes a genius to add a new perspective by splitting a single word. A dozen years ago, someone did it to the Chinese word "crisis" (weiji), illustrating that the first Chinese character in the word means "danger" and the second "opportunity". Then, thousands of seminar participants jumped on the bandwagon.

In June, someone in Shanghai miraculously split the Chinese word for "harassment" (saorao). "I can be sexy (sao)," says a slogan, "but you should not hassle (rao)." It was a public response to a notice put out by the Shanghai Metro authority, which advised female passengers to dress conservatively to avoid sexual harassment.

This has caused quite a stir. Feminists and their friends defend it as woman's right to dress in whatever way they see fit. They say there is no data associating the manner of dressing with the probability of becoming a victim of harassment.

On the other hand, as much as 80 percent of 100,000 respondents in an iFeng.com survey disagree with the above argument, saying the two are correlated.

Now, you have to have firsthand experience of China's subway to know the topic. During the rush hour, the phrase "packed like sardines" does not even begin to describe the situation. For some legs of some lines, you may be squeezed against your neighbors so tightly you can hardly breathe. I've always wondered how one can correctly tell apart intentional groping from inappropriate touching as a result of overcrowding.

Unwanted attention

"Oh sure, we can," said several women I queried. Women seem to have an intuition for this kind of errant behavior. I've seen the frequent gag in Chinese movies when a male bus passenger is slapped on the face by a woman who mistakes him for a pervert. It dawned on me these movies must have been made by men, who see the funny side of mistaken conduct. For women who are victimized, this is no laughing matter.

In an ideal world, what women wear should not be judged, let alone be the cause of lascivious hands preying on them. We have come a long way since "decent" women had to have their feet bound or had their arms cut off if touched by a male stranger. But we are still a long way from wardrobe freedom of choice for women. Or we may never reach that stage.

In addition, we are living in a time of flux regarding social decorum. There is little broad consensus of what is proper to wear for what occasion. Even in a cosmopolitan like Shanghai, women stroll around the street in pajamas as if it were high fashion. (In their eyes, it is.) People don casual wear to formal meetings and put on suits and neckties for a weekend getaway to the park.

I still remember how shocked my grandma was when she first saw women wearing evening gowns in the early 1980s - in imported movies, that is. To her understanding, that kind of low cut and exposure was simply too private to be seen by anyone other than your spouse.

The way I see it, there are two superficially interlocked yet fundamentally different questions here: First, women do not deserve to be harassed no matter how they are dressed in public. Let's push the scenario to the extreme: If you stumble into a nudist colony and see a bunch of women without any clothes, do you have the right to touch them? Of course not.

That said, dressing with no regard to social conformity usually comes from ignorance or defiance. To address ignorance, you can launch awareness programs. Tell pajama-wearing senior citizens that the rest of the world wears pajamas at home. But if you cannot change their minds, I guess you'll have to accept it as an unanticipated function of private attire.

But defiance is a whole new beast. When Madonna donned her bra outside her evening outfit, she meant to shock. Non-conformity in dress codes does not necessarily mean revealing body parts. You can cover every inch of yourself with Peking Opera regalia, including facial paint, but if you go out and ride the subway you'll turn heads.

Whether one admits or not, dressing for defiance is designed to catch attention. It takes a trail-blazer to start a new fashion - if it clicks into the group unconsciously and gains a wide following. If not, it just turns weirdo. Or you can find an excuse by saying it is a costume for theater, in which case people will give you all the leeway or even a nod of appreciation.

If you wear a see-through dress on the subway, as was shown in one of the Shanghai photos, it may be the result of several possibilities: The woman in question did not think it unusual; she wanted everyone to look at her and be amazed at her figure; most likely, she wanted to enhance her sex appeal but was not inviting lotharios. She might well desire admiration but not leering.

What she may not know is, it is really hard to achieve such nuances with a huge and unruly crowd in a subway car. For one thing, she might not even be able to pick who stands around her.

There are occasions for dressing to kill, such as parties. The target audience tends to fall into the favored category. The crowd is never so dense that one cannot maneuver around. And there is an innate competitiveness as to whose garb draws the most eyeballs.

It is preposterous to deny that how one dresses affects one's sex appeal. It's true of both women and men. Although interpretations may vary from culture to culture or era to era, it is not surprising the woman in the photo got more attention than she probably wished for. Of course there is a line between gawking and groping. The subway environment makes it easy to turn the former into the latter.

I have to add a caveat here: Most women who are victimized on the subway or other public spaces did not do anything to provoke it, including not wearing anything remotely unseemly. But common sense tells us that wearing something extremely thin and transparent will enhance the chances of being sexually harassed.

Of all the reader responses on iFeng.com, one piqued my interest. It was a man, who claimed he had been sexually groped on the subway. "I felt good when it was a good-looking woman touching me," he wrote, "but I'd be repulsed if the woman was ugly."

The guy may have stumbled into the logic: There is wanted attention and unwanted attention. When people say they can wear anything they want in public, they have in mind the kind of attention they seek. But in a public sphere like the subway, wanted attention is usually drowned out by unwanted attention.

Contact the writer at raymondzhou@chinadaily.com.cn.