The Allure of Either/Or

It’s an either/or world.  The latest evidence is a series of articles making the rounds on mommy blogs.  It’s yet another iteration of the modesty vs. responsibility battle that flares up and dies down without ever really going away.  The latest round went like this: 

One mother of sons pleads with girls to stop posting photos of themselves half-naked in sexy, come-hither poses.  It makes it hard for boys to see you as anything other than sexual objects, she explains.

Is outrage!  responds the blogging world, especially mothers of daughters.  Why aren’t we telling the boys to take responsibility for their own behavior and their own brains?  Why is it always up to the girls to hide so the boys can decide?

I have a different question.  Why does it have to be one or the other?  Why does it have to be either/or?  What ever happened to both/and?  I have boys and girls.  I tell my girls that they need to pay attention to what they wear, both for their own safety and sense of self-respect, and so as not to make trouble for people they meet.  And my husband tells my boys that they must respect women no matter what they wear; that somebody else’s dress or behavior, whether it’s intentional or clueless, is never an excuse for bad behavior on their part.  Both/and.

Yeah, it’s a little more complicated than teaching people, “Just do X, and there will be no problem.”  It really would be easier if we could just tell girls, “Cover up, missy.  The end” or if we could just tell boys, “Do right, sonny.  The end.”  But we can’t do that.  The world doesn’t work that way.

It sounds so bold and stirring to cry, “Girls should be able to walk down Broadway naked at midnight and not be in fear, because boys have been taught not to rape!” or “Boys should be able to walk down a beach at high noon and not have to bat an eye, because girls have been taught to dress and behave modestly!” but come on.  We’re dealing with human beings here.  No one deserves rape, and no one deserves to be tempted.  But if we don’t want to be victimized -- and I'm talking about girls and boys here --  we can help ourselves out by taking personal responsibility, and help each other that way, too.
There is no one who simply reacts, without also making choices.  There is no one who simply makes choices, without reacting to other people.  It’s almost as if we’re all in this together.

This either/or problem doesn’t just turn up in modesty debates.  Last time I wrote about feminism, we got a predictable spate of comments from aggrieved men saying, “If women would just be quiet and obedient and docile, they‘d get all the respect they can shake a stick at!”  And there weren’t on this particular post, but I’ve seen my share of the equally predictable remarks from irritated women saying, “If men would just treat us with respect, we wouldn’t have to tear our shirts off and trash churches and whatnot!” 

If these folks were my sons and daughters, I’d tell them, “The world doesn’t work that way.”  You have to respect people who aren’t respectable.  You have to do the right thing even when you won’t be respected for it.  It’s not either/or.  It’s not “won’t/until.”  It’s both/and – and yes, that leads to everyone being a little bit dissatisfied. It leads to some people doing more work than others, and some people reaping rewards that they didn’t personally earn.

I understand the allure of either/or thinking.  It makes life so much easier when you can identify the problem,and what do you know?  It just so happens to lie in someone else.  I do this all the time, in big matters and small.  I tell myself I’d be much happier about folding my husband’s laundry if he’d just be more grateful.  Well, probably he’d feel a little more grateful if he had folded laundry available a little more often.   And so on.  We could both do better, and then we’d both do better. 

It’s almost as if we’re in this together.