Wearing Skirts Is Dangerous in India and North Dakota

Photo: William Campbell/Corbis

Hope you weren’t tired of reading about how women risk being raped if they wear short skirts in public. Today, a front-page story in the New York Times reports that the victim-blaming trope trotted out in response to rape cases in Indonesia and India also has a grip on the United States. At least in Williston, North Dakota, where an oil boom brought “droves” of young men to its labor-intensive, high-paid jobs, upsetting the region’s gender balance and leaving women feeling unsafe and harassed.

One recently divorced waitress said her mother and stepfather have advised her to stop wearing skirts and heels so she doesn’t stand out. She told the Times she will leave soon, because “there’s no money in the world worth not even being able to take a walk.” Many other women told reporter John Elgion that they also felt unsafe. Some “could not even shop at the local Walmart without men following them through the store.” One woman complained about being eyed like she was a piece of meat; another told of being grabbed and dragged away by two men as she was walking to her car, until a third man driving by in a truck stopped and scared them off.

A deputy state’s attorney confirmed that there has been an increase in domestic and sexual assault, which was attributed to the influx of men. “There are people arriving in North Dakota every day from other places around the country who do not respect the people or laws of North Dakota,” Ariston E. Johnson, the deputy state’s attorney in neighboring McKenzie County, told the Times in an e-mail.

The story is reminiscent of the demographic discourse prompted by the gang-rape of a 23-year-old Indian student last year. In October, the Times warned that “India has a glut of young males, some unemployed, abusing alcohol or drugs and unnerved by the new visibility of women in society.” As the world was made aware (again) of the shocking commonness of rape in India, Time, The Atlantic, and others began to note that India’s 2011 census had revealed the most skewed gender ratio since India’s independence. (Some linked this to a preference for male children and selective-sex abortion.) In the same year, the number of cases of women raped rose by 9.2 percent and kidnapping were up 19.4 percent, The Atlantic reported. No one was prepared to link the two trends definitively, but Unnatural Selection author Mara Hvistendahl told Time that “it is clear from historical cases and from studies looking at testosterone levels that a large proportion of unmarried men in the population is not a good thing.”

(Except, possibly, for sex workers. Williston’s strip clubs and bars attract dancers and prostitutes from around the country for its growing population of cash-rich, lonely guys. Those men, meanwhile, are treating non-working women like they’re for sale. One woman told the Times her girls’ night out was interrupted by a proposition from a stranger: “$3,000 to strip naked and serve them beer at their house while they watched mixed martial arts fights on television.”)

Hvistendahl stressed that more studies needed to be done, and the connection between male-skewed population and crime against women is still a “correlation, not causation,” situation. Add the correlation between what’s going on in India and what’s going on in Williston to the list.

Wearing Skirts Risky in India and North Dakota