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He says what I wear is slutty: what should I do?

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c10el asks:

My boyfriend sometimes tells me what I wear is "slutty." I've tried to explain to him that I find this possessive, sexist and objectifying but he can't understand why. When I give up on that argument and try to just tell him that the only thing that should matter to him is that I feel good wearing it, he responds that he doesn't understand why I need to dress "slutty" to feel good. How can I articulate my feelings to him in a clearer way? Should I just compromise and not wear the offending articles (it really is only one or two things in my closet).

Heather Corinna replies:

I wish that I knew more about your relationship and your boyfriend than just this particular conflict.

It'd also help to know what a word like "slutty" even means to him. After all, slut is one of those words that's a lot like the word god: what it means to one person can be radically different than what it means to another. (Of course, it's very different in that no one ever has their grandma yell at them for using the word slut in vain. But only because I'm not anyone's grandma.)

I can still give you some helps with this without knowing these things, but I think making sure you know and evaluate them yourself is really important.

I'm assuming you're pretty invested in this relationship, otherwise I'd expect that you'd probably just walk away from anyone who isn't supportive of you dressing as you prefer to and doesn't grok how what he's saying about how you dress sometimes involves some pretty big stuff and instead choose someone who doesn't give you grief about what you wear, and also gets what's problematic about this whole slutty business. While you say you've given up on trying to get him to get it, you obviously haven't, since you're asking for some help on how to express your feelings about this to him clearly. For sure, just not wearing what he calls slutty is an option, but it's not your only option and, I'd say, probably not the wisest one, since that really doesn't resolve this conflict, it just would make it easier for you both to avoid it.

The very first thing I'd suggest you do is to try and get a hold on what matters most to you here, and what you think -- for him and for you -- lies beneath all of this. You obviously get that -isms can be, and probably are, involved, and some control, too. Because both of those things can also be markers of an unhealthy relationship, and because I'd hope you're invested in only being involved in healthy relationships, let's address that right off the bat.

Wanting to control how a partner dresses, or putting a partner down can be a part of abusive or controlling behavior in a relationship: both are red flags. So, if other behavior of his, other dynamics in your relationship are abusive, unhealthy or controlling, this issue with the way you dress sometimes may be a much smaller problem than the real one.

Check in with yourself about this. For instance, is your boyfriend often jealous, like when you give attention or love or get it from friends, family or other guys? Has he ever, or does he, try and control you in other ways, like by not allowing you free, unmonitored (as in, he's not there, nor is he texting you every five seconds) time with other people in your life, room to explore your own life goals and dreams that are separate from his?

This particular issue has to do with sexuality: how healthy are the sexual dynamics in your relationship? Do you both really share making sexual choices, both get to call the shots and be in the driver's seat of your sexual life, both feel pretty able to be the sexual person with each other you feel you are? Or, does he put himself in charge of your sexual life and sexuality, make most of the decisions for both of you himself, or seem to ask (or demand) you have or enact a sexuality that's really his, or mostly about what he wants, rather than yours and about what you want, too? If and when sex is a part of your relationship, is it what you really want and on both your terms or not? What about his ideas about women and sex, period: do they seem healthy and affirming to you or not?

If any or all of those things that aren't healthy sound familiar, then choosing what you wear with this person isn't where I'd suggest you invest your energy. Instead, I'd strongly advise that you put your focus on getting away from this person and out of this relationship. We can't ever just do the right things, or the things a partner says to do, to change or stop abusive or controlling behavior. In order for those dynamics to change, the person or people being controlling or abusive has got to change themselves, and usually need to do it with ongoing, qualified help and when out of any intimate relationships it was happening in. The only thing anyone who someone is abusing or controlling can ever effectively do to stop one or both of those things is to leave the relationship or situation where they are happening.

If none of those things, or anything else here have ever gone on, then maybe this is a standalone issue, one out of character for him and your relationship, rather than one symptom of a much larger problem. And if your relationship has been loving, supportive, beneficial and felt like a good fit for both of you, then it may be you can have some conversations about this, draw some limits, and work it out.

Recognize that a compromise isn't one person totally giving over to another. A compromise is a settlement of differences in which each side makes concessions. In other words, if a compromise is going to be made here, that means BOTH of you moving away from what you'd each ideally want, not just you. If it turns out your goal is a compromise, then I'd think through what each of you can do, rather than just what you can.

I'd start by finding out what he really means and where it's coming from. What's "slutty?" What does that mean to him? And what about the apparently-offending items of clothing or style of dress he's describing that way make them -- or you -- "slutty?" What clothing isn't slutty? Why not?

It sounds to me like you're talking about a way of dressing that, as you say, is about making you feel good. Perhaps you can articulate more of why you feel good when dressing that way, and then ask him to talk about what he wears, or a way he dresses, that makes him feel that way.

In that conversation, since it sounds like he's a guy, and you're a girl, it might come up that if "feel good" = "sexy," the ways in a lot of cultures men dress to present feeling sexy good and women do are usually different, because sexual mores, roles and ideas are usually different about and towards people of different genders, as is what any given culture or community holds up as "sexy" for women and "sexy" for men. How people tend to present their gender, period, also obviously differs a lot for those of different genders.

If you two have different genders and different ways of presenting your gender or your sexy, it's not going to be sound for one of you to ask the other to do what you do, nor to suggest that, say, your boyfriend's way of presenting himself via dress in a sexy way is one the right way, or a way that isn't "slutty," and yours is wrong or is slutty. Of course, there's really NO style of dress for men that tends to be considered "slutty," because slut is a term and idea that's quite exclusively applied to and about only women, especially in heterosexual culture. So, it might also help to even talk about that word, period, and the impact it has, and maybe give him an example of something even a little similar for guys, like calling the way a straight guy dresses "faggy," for instance, or suggesting that because a guy expresses a sexuality at all, he's a rapist.

Too, I'd see if you can't get him to identify what his discomfort is with the way you dress when he says that, so you can evaluate the real nitty-gritty of all this together.

Does he feel how you dress in the ways he's calling slutty says something about him? His value? Yours? His sexuality? Yours? (Or his comfort or lack with your sexuality or his own?) Your relationship? Your feelings about him or your relationship? If so, to any of those things, what exactly does he think it says? Do you agree that what he thinks is true in terms of your feelings since, after all, you're the expert on what you're looking to express in the way you choose to dress? Discuss, debunk as needed, and talk it through some more.

A partner of mine might feel uncomfortable if I wear a "meat is murder" t-shirt to the market because, as they're right there with me, it puts a lot of attention on both of us they don't want, and maybe also some negative reactions they just don't want to have to deal with on a mellow Saturday morning when they only want to think about not forgetting the couscous and enjoying domestic life with me. Or, maybe your best friend really would prefer that you not wear a black dress and veil to her wedding, because that, to her, gives the impression her marriage is something to be mourned instead of celebrated.

Now, in either of those situations, it might be no big whoop for either person to just leave the t-shirt or the gothic garb at home for the day, especially with those kinds of motives. As well, in those examples I gave, the person uncomfortable is really owning their own discomfort, not making a value judgment about the other person or putting their own stuff on the other person, and they're also not using disparaging terms.

But it also might still be a conflict for the person who wants to wear the t-shirt or the veil. To a really hardcore animal rights activist from whom wearing their politics out front and out loud all the time -- and perhaps even more in settings where they feel they want people to be exposed to the message -- that might be asking them not to be who they are. Same goes to a person who wears a black dress and veil every single day as a big way of expressing of who they are, and where the way they dress plays a big part in them feeling comfortable. And of course, if the request to wear something different might be about other, bigger things too -- like a loved one really not accepting someone's politics, or a best friend feeling embarrassed her friend is goth, as well as how someone is talking about or treating someone else -- then we're really not talking about clothes so much anymore.

Then we're talking about a lack of acceptance for a person as the person they are person, the person someone who loves or cares about them is supposed to love and care about.

There's also the issue of who we want to make concessions like this for. It might help to think about what you'd do in this situation if it wasn't a romantic partner, but a close friend or a family member with this same issue, expressing it the same way. If you think you'd react or choose very differently with those folks than with this guy, I'd say you've got bigger things to think about than what you'll wear.

The next thing I'd consider is how much you value this relationship, how big a place it has in your life, and what kinds of compromises -- and for what reasons -- you think you or partners should or should not be making for each other in a relationship. Since you've also expressed him not understanding some things that do sound like a big deal to you -- sexism, objectification, the idea of him having ownership of your body or sexuality in some way -- I think I'd look at what kind of partner you want to be with, and how important it is to you they do understand issues like these, especially if you've had to explain them and that still isn't having an impact. Then I'd figure out if he seems like that kind of partner to you or not.

Ultimately, though, in your own decision-making process about this, it's only going to matter so much if he understands where you're coming from or not when it comes to what you wear, though if he understands you or not with the bigger issues underneath this is probably going to matter quite a lot when it comes to deciding about this relationship as a whole. In other words, whether he gets it or he doesn't, you still have choices to make, both about what to wear or what not to, and, more importantly, about how you're going to put this whole thing to bed. And whether he gets it or he doesn't, unless you're just going to walk away from being with him, resolving this needs to involve both of you.

If you still don't feel like you know what to do just yet, perhaps consider the following:
1) What way of resolving this seems sound, and in the best interest of the health of your relationship and your mutual comfort and self-respect, and doesn't enable sexism, controlling dynamics, ownership of you by a partner, or compromising yourself as a person or an equal partner?
2) Does this issue involve who you are as a person, either in terms of how you dress expressing who you are, or who you are being very concerned with things like gender and sexual equity? If so, what solution would honor who both of you are best, rather than involving one or both of you trying to be someone other than who you are in order to tolerate the other?
3) How big a compromise do you feel you'd be making with any given choice? In making a possible compromise, are you compromising yourself -- who you are as a person -- or something far smaller than that, or making a compromise you feel you'd grow in a positive way by making anyhow? If you're going to make a compromise, what's his part of the compromise going to be?
4) How do you think your partner would react, and what do you think he would do, if the shoe were on the other foot?

I'd also take some time to think about what your dealbreakers with relationships are, as well as what you think you need to really be compatible with someone, enough to pursue or continue an intimate relationship.

Do know that we all get to set sound boundaries with partners, and by all means, having a boundary that a partner may not use disparaging terms about us is mighty basic. I think we can agree that "We won't talk shit about each other," is hardly a major thing to ask when people care for one another. So, no matter what you choose in the way you dress, you still get to ask him not to use words or terms to describe you or your clothes which are derogatory or put-downs, which any version of slut (like, say, slob or loser or stupid) usually is. And I'm going to safely assume he can expect you to honor that same kind of boundary without a problem.

So, again, you have more options here than just changing how you dress so he doesn't say that, or continuing to dress how you do and dealing with him calling you slutty. You also have the option of asking him to stop calling you or how you dress slutty and dressing how you like (just like he probably does), or perhaps the both of you, after identifying what makes him feel uncomfortable, finding a way to help him feel more comfortable about how you choose to dress. Or, if you're going to compromise with how you dress, maybe his part of the compromise can be to better educate himself -- rather than you doing it for him -- on the issues you already know lie beneath the whole framework of "slut." You also can choose not to stay involved with someone who thinks and acts this way at all: after all, there are potential partners out there who absolutely do understand, without you having to explain it, why this involves sexism, objectification and possessiveness, and who don't see things the way he does. There are potential partners out there who won't call anything about you slutty.

I'll toss out some links which might give you more food for thought if you need it. I hope your own thought and decision-making process with this and any conversations the two of you have go well, and that you can, by yourself or together, come up with a choice that leaves you feeling good about yourself, inside and out.

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