I should not be molested for my dress

April 13, 2022 | 06:43 pm PT
Nguyen Thi Thanh Luu Literature researcher
In 2008, when I was a 25-year-old researcher at the Institute of Literature, I met a writer at an event.

After a few exchanges he wanted my number so that we could meet to discuss a conference to be held on his new book.

One night he texted me and reminded me about it. He offered to drive me, but I chose a coffee shop near my house so that I could go there by myself. But right before the meeting, he changed locations and wanted us to go to another place that was "less noisy."

The new place was nearly empty, and I noticed there were karaoke rooms deep inside it.

Our conversation started with his new book and went on to a funeral and his personal business.

An alarm went off when he complimented me on my clothes and wanted to hold my hand to do some "palm reading."

I started to feel anxious and said I wanted to go home.

He finally revealed his true intention: He called an employee and asked for a karaoke room so that we could go in and "sing for a little bit". I was terrified by now, said no and walked straight to the door. He followed me and grabbed me, but I managed to push him away.

I cried the entire way home.

A decade later the 'Me Too' movement began and women started to come forward to tell their stories. I told mine as well on social media. Among the comments was one by a woman who wrote something like "clothes could be a signal for men". I explained that there was no "signal," I was wearing a dress that was 20 centimeters over my knees, and also had a sweater on.

But later I thought to myself: Why do I have to explain? Why must I conform to clothing norms decided through the lenses of men? Am I not living in the 21st century, which is supposed to be all about equality? Why do I keep hearing about how women dress for men to look at?

Why can't women wear whatever they like and feel appropriate?

Even in such an episode, where there is absolutely no justification sexual harassment, people find ways to blame the victim.

Today, four years after I came out with my story, a poet said publicly she was raped by a colleague 23 years ago. I know both of them, but no one can verify what happened then and so no conclusion can be reached.

The poet said she decided to come forward with everything now, after 23 years, because more victims have been coming forward these days and their pain reopened her old wounds. She could not stay silent any longer.

No matter what actually happened, 23 years have passed and so no criminal charges can be pressed now. But I see a pattern in our stories. I was blamed for my dress and she is being doubted for staying silent for two decades.

It is exactly this tendency to blame victims that dissuades many people from speaking up, fearing the torrent of unfair criticism that would be directed toward them though they were the wronged ones.

As I was typing these words, I received a new comment in an old post. A stranger, a man, said women should learn to cover up and not "arouse men's biological instincts". I think there are many people, both men and women, who would agree with this statement. They would say it is an appropriate and legitimate suggestion for women to safeguard themselves.

But with all due respect to all the men out there, I cannot accept such nonsensical, backward reasoning.

Wearing clothes has always been a personal choice. Besides clothing standards in certain contexts (like in an office or at formal events), women can choose to wear whatever they want and should feel safe while doing so. It is a fundamental right.

Only problematic communities that do not value people's rights over their own bodies and to freedoms will spout such idiotic advice in the name of self-defense.

It is disheartening to know that this issue exists everywhere in the world and not just in Vietnam. There are so many cases of sexual violations that forever remain in the dark. There will always be those who blame the victims for the pain they suffered. A rape can always happen because of a mere dress.

*Nguyen Thi Thanh Luu has a Ph.D in literature. The opinions expressed are her own.

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