For Whom Doth The Sexy Bell Toll?

My very dear friend, The Only Slightly Sleazy Lobbyist, and I deluded ourselves into thinking that we were still athletes one recent Sunday.  We played a couple of hours of “hang-over tennis” on a gorgeous afternoon.  After removing protective knee braces, ankle supports, and our respectively bruised egos, we made our way back across the river to grab some beer and sit on his patio with his neighbor and our friend, The Pistol.

The Pistol earned her nickname because of her fierce mind, liberal politics, staunch feminism, irreverent wit, and more than occasionally profane vocabulary.   She is near the top of both of our lists of favorite people.

As we were leaving the corner store with a few six packs of Bell’s Oberon in tow, OSSL told me that he had recently received an email from Southern Charmer, once a relatively recent college grad who OSSL helped land a job in his field.

“Refresh my memory, which one is the Southern Charmer?” I inquired.

“You met her that night at Cashion’s.”

“OSSL, over the years, I’ve met more than a couple of women with you at Cashion’s, more information please.”

“She was the one with the really see-through shirt and the great rack.”

“Oh, yeah, yeah, I remember her now. How’s she doing?”

“Eh, she’s alright I suppose… she’s just contacting me because she wants to change jobs.”

“Refresh my memory about why you stopped dating her?” I asked.

“We weren’t dating, I was just helping her out.”

“You took her to a nice restaurant, you each dressed for the occasion, you paid the tab, you two flirted.  Call it whatever you want but it still smells like a rose.”

“Fine, whatever, but it stopped that night you two met… it was the hypocrisy that really turned me off” OSSL declared in a partial confirmation of the rosy aroma.

“What hypocrisy?” I asked.

“Well, she wears this see through shirt with her rather large rack on display in some fucking Victoria Secret Wonderbra, and then bitches about how ‘gross’ it was that men always leered at her.  I mean, you can’t have it both ways.  When a woman wears a shirt like that it’s because she wants men to leer at her.”

“Pump your brakes for a second” I replied.  “I’m not saying it’s likely you’re wrong, but it is dangerous to ascribe motivations to the actions of others.  I’ll concede that she might have been foolish not to expect the looks, but it’s not appropriate to suggest that she actively wanted them.”

“I call bullshit on that” OSSL fired back, “Women who dress that way want that kind of attention.”

By this point, we were parking the car. I tried to make my point more clear – “I’m saying that you’re probably right in your assertions about Southern Charmer, as you are probably right about most women who attire themselves that way, however, it is a bridge too far to suggest that all women who wear something revealing or particularly sexy do so for the attentions of men.  Perhaps they dress for themselves, perhaps they wear something like that because it makes them feel sexy.”

We argued for a few moments more before I said “Let’s let The Pistol weigh in on this… and I’ll bet she’ll agree with me.

The Pistol was already sitting on OSSL’s porch when we rounded the corner of his building.  We popped three bottle caps and immediately delved into the conversation.

“I gotta say, I am more aligned with OSSL on this one” The Pistol said in a declaration that surprised all three of us.  “For most women, sexy is inter-related with how other people react to us… and I would bet that the same is true for men too.”

“I’m not saying that reaction from women isn’t a part of it for men, and vice versa for women, just that it is only a part of it.  More importantly, I am stating that surely some women, and men too, dress exclusively for how it makes them feel.  She surely would be a fool to expect that with her boobs essentially on display that men wouldn’t look.”  It was another unsuccessful attempt to convince OSSL and The Pistol of my point.

“Refugee, are you seriously telling me that when you wear one of those fancy suits of yours” The Pistol began before pausing briefly and concluding with “You really don’t wear them for how women respond to you in them?”

“Pistol, I have three kinds of suits in my closet: good suits, great suits, and meeting ex-girlfriends suits.  When I wear the latter, there is an extra spring in my step but that spring exists on my way to the Metro before I have seen another person.  I wear those suits for me first, and any extra attention I get from women is just the cherry atop the sartorial sundae.”

We argued for a few more minutes before I admitted the failure of my persuasion and changed the subject to that day’s edition of Meet the Press…. But, Gentle Readers, I pose these questions to you:

  • Does a woman wearing something revealing inherently want the eyes or attention of men, or women if she is so oriented?
  • Is it possible for women to wear something risqué just because of how it makes them feel and not as a cry for that attention?
  • Or does the answer exist in some other explanation?

19 Responses to For Whom Doth The Sexy Bell Toll?

  1. rondamarie says:

    I think it is possible women wear revealing clothes and it makes them feel good about themselves, but almost always they are wearing those things for attention. It is possible it is not the attention of men in general that they are looking for, rather, one man in particular. The frustration may come with getting attention from every man but the intended man.

    There is a difference between revealing clothes and clothes that make a woman feel good. Sometimes clothes that make a woman feel good are also revealing and sometimes clothes are just revealing.

    There is nothing in your comment with which I disagree. I thought it at the time but the distinction that I tried to make with my friends was that even though it was highly unlikely that Southern Charmer wasn’t attention seeking, just that there was a very small chance.

  2. k8 says:

    Part of the game of wearing something revealing is complaining about the “attention” you receive.

    Is that similar to guys being “forced” to go see “chick flicks?”

  3. Vie says:

    Clothes that make a woman feel sexy largely make her feel that way because of the response it elicits from others around her. If I wear an outfit that I believe I look great in and get zero stares in, I’m less likely to wear it out on occasions when I want to feel irresistible.

    Having said that, there are multiple forms of attention, some far more respectful than others. A look is one thing; a cat call is something entirely different.

    Perhaps this is a point on which you and I differ. If I am wearing something that makes me feel particularly good, and I get no added attention from women, and I were to take note of that lack of attention, it would not affect me one way or the other the next time I selected that suit.

  4. Jean says:

    I see your point about women wearing certain clothing for their own gratification and not to attract attention. I agree with you that this can be the case, but I disagree with you on it being the case when attire is blatantly revealing – like a see through shirt. Two ideas on that:

    1. You make the analogy of when you wear a snazzy suit. However, there is a difference between looking nice and looking provocative. A suit, by definition, covers a lot of flesh. Yes, you look good in said suit, and I’d assume it accentuates your appearance. However, I doubt it has, for instance, a padded crotch. A woman wearing a tasteful, well-tailored cocktail dress would be the parallel of your suit, not a woman with her bra on display.

    2. A woman wearing something sexy but only wearing it for herself and not for the appreciation of others is a woman wearing sexy lingerie beneath an outfit that covers all said lingerie. Then, she’s wearing it, and she knows she’s wearing it, but no one else is the wiser (save someone who she’d remove her clothes for).

    A woman with tits on display is a woman who wants people to notice said mammary glands. Now, it can be a judgment call regarding what constitutes display – is that sweater just snug because it’s snug, or because she chose it to be – but a transparent blouse is awfully blatant.

    Jean, thank you for your very thoughtful comment. I wasn’t necessarily suggesting that my suit and her see through shirt were analogous, rather just answering The Pistol’s question. However, I completely agree about what would be an apt comparison. So for the record, more of the latter part of number one, and for the love of bacon, yes more of number two in the world, please.

  5. Red says:

    Sometimes a woman can’t help but be on display. If the rack is a certain size… it just is and can’t be hidden. Then again a see through blouse is entirely different and attention seeking.

    Certainly there are women of a certain size (and god bless all the sizes) who cannot help but attract attention merely by walking out of the house. However women of all sizes can do things to draw varying levels of attention to that area.

  6. lacochran says:


    Possible but highly unlikely.


    In this circumstance, I certainly agree that it was “possible but highly unlikely.” I guess I was making the argument more in the abstract of assumptions made about women wearing anything revealing.

  7. kitty says:

    I also think the analogy of the suit is apples to oranges. Having not met you in person, I can only generalize, and say that a woman wearing a short skirt or a see-through shirt is more like a man wearing a shirt that is tight on the shoulders, or good-butt pants. Sure, you wear them because you FEEL hot, but those clothes are slightly uncomfortable, so you wear them FOR the reaction. The woman in question would likely not hang out at home by herself in the same outfit.

    Uhhhmmm, yeah, I don’t have attire that is tight in those areas… because if Cary Grant wouldn’t wear it, generally speaking, neither will I. But I do understand your point.

  8. Hm.

    My guess is that she wore that shirt on that particular evening because she wanted *OSSL* or *OSSL’s cute friend* to leer at her.

    And when a woman gets dressed to go out with a particular person/group, she dresses for that person/group. She doesn’t necessarily consider it an invitation for the general public to take particular notice of her.

    For example, I might wear a shorter skirt than usual if I were going to meet up with my boyfriend, because I know he would appreciate the view. However, catcalls or obvious leers would make me uncomfortable.

    A woman displaying mams or gams may want attention, but that doesn’t mean she wants disrespectful attention that is obvious enough to cross the boundaries of propriety.

    And maybe she said something about it because he hadn’t complimented the ensemble she’d put together specifically for him, and she wanted him to admire the view. Which is passive-aggressive, and not necessarily hypocritical, if that makes a difference.

    -Catcalls are never appropriate because they aren’t even about objectification, they’re about power.
    -Southern Charmer certainly didn’t wear that shirt for me as OSSL and I just randomly ran into each other there.
    -I know that “Mams & Gams” is objectifying from a gentleman’s mouth or mind, but damn I love that phrase.

  9. kate.d. says:

    clothing, in this society, is a performative thing – if i said i dressed a certain way “for me,” i think that deep down what’s pleasurable “for me” is the belief that i look good in those clothes, which implies some sort of audience doing the looking. so i tend to find the sartorial solipsism thing kinda unconvincing on the whole 🙂

    re women and dressing provocatively, i would echo Vie and Dagny’s points about differing kinds of attention. i was just talking with a friend the other day about how i wish more men could grasp the difference between an appreciative look and a leer. the line between the two can be razor thin, but i think what most women who get all done up are looking for is the former, and i honestly don’t know a single woman who isn’t skeeved out by the latter.

    it’s not that the revealing clothes aren’t meant to generate attention, but a short skirt says “notice me,” not “disrespect me.”

    Not for nothing, that “sartorial solipsism” line made me laugh even though I know it was a slight slight.

    You make the point that appreciation and leering exist with a razor thin difference. I would love to hear your explanation of the two… particularly in the context of this comment you left on another post. Though I will concede that the conversation would best had in person rather than trying to quantify nuance in pixels.

  10. complaining…
    is never ladylike..
    and if a woman hasnt figured out how to handle unwanted male attention graciously by the time she is old enough to wear clothing that might generate a bit of it… …well… she isnt much of a lady…

    Do you ever not have the ability to cut through all of the bullshit with beautiful and elegant answers? I love how you do that.

  11. Lazygal says:

    I think it’s both: if I feel good in an outfit *and* it’s gotten me an appreciative response, I’ll wear it again. Having said that, I’ll play the female prerogative card and say that I, and I alone, get to determine what “appreciative” means (second glance = ok, leer… probably not so much). My first goal is for *me* to feel good, but part of that is the response of others.

    It’s also a case of What/Where/When. If I’m dressed up and looking good and getting the responses I want in one environment, I might reprise the effort in another. There’s no guarantee that I’ll get the same responses and I may feel less secure in that outfit after the second time (no matter how good I think it makes me look), or I may feel that it’s a a definite winner.

    Just for the sake of argument, if it is the woman’s prerogative to be the sole arbiter of what is appreciative, and that standard is different for every woman, how is a man ever express appreciation to strangers? Or should we simply never try lest we risk crossing some woman’s line who determines that any notice is in itself too much?

  12. Grace says:

    I wear the clothes I do because I like them. If I get attention because of them then that’s great. But first it’s about me. Am I comfortable? Do I like how I look? Do I feel confident? However, I also know that certain outfits will get me more attention than others. Of course, I am not one to wear see through clothing in public.

    Dressing first for oneself is the only reasonable way to select attire in my mind. I couldn’t agree with you more.

  13. Alice says:

    jean hit the nail on the head. you can wear clothes exclusively for you, because you like the way you look or feel in them, but those will be along the lines of a slinky dress or some really fabulous jeans with a pair of hot heels. a visible bra is entirely about attention from other people.

    Hang on just a second, YOU would wear a slinky dress or really fabulous jeans because you like the way you look in them. I am not suggesting it is probably, but certainly isn’t it at least within the realm of possibility that something extremely revealing might do the same for another woman?

  14. magnolia2010 says:

    ooh. this is a tough one. but i gotta say, if the girl’s got lingerie out, she’s dressing for others just as much as she is for herself.

    i will dress to maximize attention sometimes. not gonna lie about it. but a) i am honest about my motives (fishing for attention) and b) i absolutely RELISH the attention.

    WITH A HUGE CAVEAT, that is. the attention HAS to be respectful. just because i’m dressed for attention doesn’t give you the right to be a lecherous cretin. an appreciative look? great. prolonged staring? eh, you’re starting to cross the line. an appreciative comment (“you look great” or similar)? absolutely. a vulgar come-on? nope. touching me in any way without interaction first? oh HELL no.

    I suppose that we are all guilty of attention seeking in one form or another. Choosing to seek that attention from clothes, or lack there of, is a choice entirely belonging to individuals. However, I do argue that it is possible (not really probable) for a woman to wear something like that for herself.

  15. Jo says:

    First and foremost thanks for the Bell’s Oberon shout out, it’s one of my favorite Summer beers and not that many people know about it!

    But on to the actual question. I think a lot of it depends on where she’s going. A woman going to work showing off too much skin is asking for attention, a woman going to a club wearing a cleavage baring tight top is dressing for the occasion and just wants to feel sexy.

    I think there’s a fine line though. I’m a firm believer in balance dressing (i.e. short skirt – more conservative top, small/tight shirt – pants). Too much is too much and very likely looking for attention.

    Regardless, we -should- be able to wear whatever the hell we wanna wear without fear. Too many men believe that a woman is “asking for it” when she skanks it up and that’s just sad/pathetic/really f*ing scary.

    Gotta love the Oberon! If there is a finer beer for spring/summer sipping, I haven’t found it.

    By the by, I find it interesting how many comments made the apparently easy leap from leering to verbal harassment and eventual touching, and worse.

  16. kate.d. says:

    yeah, it is nuanced and hard to explain in broad strokes – full grasp of it only comes from decades of Living While Female 🙂 if pressed for a general rule, though, i would say the difference boils down to the presence of basic respect for me as a human being, not just a bunch of animated body parts. and generally, women can sense that, even if no words are even exchanged.

    (and for what it’s worth, i think the post you linked to via my comment contains four examples of courteous compliments, actions, or conversation – at least from the basic description given and an assumption, based on your blog persona, that there wouldn’t have been a lech vibe going on behind them. that the women reacted poorly, for their own inscrutable reasons, doesn’t necessarily reflect on the appropriateness of your actions imho.)

    i did email you back about soleil – i think i did anyway?? – so drop a line if you ever wanna dissect social mores over drinks, ha.

  17. Lazygal says:

    You’re right: it is a difficult call (to know how to express appreciation without getting a woman upset). Maybe it’s too many years in NYC, but I’ve seen a woman get upset because a man hasn’t held a door open for her – and the woman right behind get upset because he has done so!

    My advice would be Approach With Caution. Unless you know the woman, make the comment general and do *not* sweep down with your eyes when making it.

    I know, I know. Bring back the good old days, right?

  18. Lemon Gloria says:

    Sometimes I dress to amuse myself, sometimes to feel sexy, and sometimes for attention. But the revealing outfits – those are always for attention, to provoke some kind of reaction. I personally don’t think you can be shocked or upset when those reactions extend beyond your target audience (of one or however many).

    Breasts in particular are a weird thing, at least in our culture. I never had any until I had a baby – and so I felt like I could pull of any old revealing thing I wanted to without feeling like I was ever being too provocative.

    But once I had boobs – and in the scheme of things, my nursing rack isn’t that big – I felt like things changed entirely and I had to give more thought to what I was wearing so as not to seem like I was inviting random and possibly negative attention.

    And I love Bells Two Hearted. The Oberon never grabbed me. But then again, maybe I just wasn’t wearing something skimpy enough. (And yes, I cracked myself up there.)

  19. […] quickly settled into our rhythm and began cooking.  About an hour before service, The Pistol arrived to help with final prep and to be the primary […]

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