The Skirt Effect

The self-blame cycle of cycling in a skirt.

Sexism in cycling is nothing new. Ask any woman in your life who gets around on two wheels, either casually or professionally, and she’ll tell you about the times she’s been mansplained at the bike shop (“Do you know the difference between presta and schrader?”), patronized on the MTB trail (“You know this is a black route, right?”), or harassed at a red light (“Hey baby, why don’t you show me what’s under that dress?”).

I ride despite the sexism and harassment I encounter, because the freedom and autonomy that biking gives me greatly outweighs the dickheads who honk, objectify, and patronize. (For the record, there are plenty of non-gendered dickheads that cause cycling stress: drivers on phones, pedestrians on phones, fellow cyclist on phones).

But there’s one thing that I can’t get over. Let’s call it The Skirt Effect. When a cyclist wears a skirt, no matter what they have on underneath (granny panties, cargo shorts, nothing!), men are going to look. They’re not going to glance. They’re going to rubberneck, crane, and unblinkingly ogle-eye until you’re all the way around the block.

The allure of a woman in a skirt on a bike is not correlated with the length of her skirt. In fact, it’s completely unrelated to the amount of thigh exposed. Stares result from the presence of the skirt itself, irrelevant of the skirt length or leg ratio. I’ve had men gawk at me when the only epidermis I’m showing is my upper knee (i.e. boots up to the lower knee, long skirt to upper knee, huge thrift store parka, and giant helmet — and still, the googley eyes).

This does two things: it makes me feel disgusting, like I’m literally covered in slime; and it makes me feel that I’m to blame. My internal dialogue runs thus: If I didn’t wear this skirt, I wouldn’t get these looks. If I didn’t wear this skirt, they couldn’t make me feel so slimy. If I dressed more modestly, they’d behave.

So…what is it about skirts?

How to explain a skirt’s ensorcelling effect? We’ve got to ask the bonzo-eyed asshats themselves. But don’t worry, reader, I’ve researched it for you, combing the nether regions of the internet for confessional testimony. And I’ve developed three theories:

1. The “Freebee” Thesis
It’s like the dude gets to see your hooha without having to go through the pesky mess of consent.

“‘I’m going to see it, and she will never know.’ I guess that’s the best way to describe it? Like I saw something forbidden…you feel like you got away with something.”
-Scar Face, user (now indefinitely banned) on the Total War Center forum

2. The Possibility Factor (aka VAA)
Because the potential of peeping an unsuspecting vagina is much higher in a skirt than in shorts, the possibility of catching a fortuitous glance is too exciting, too overpowering, that the man can’t compel himself not to gape.

This dude on Quora coined the handy phrase “VAA”:
“When a woman’s wearing a skirt, you know that somewhere in that room, shifting all the time, there is the VAA: the Visual Access Angle. A clear line of sight back to base camp.”

3. The Reptilian Brain Hypothesis
After all, we’re all just sex-crazed mammals wired for reproduction, right? Long legs are a sign of sexual maturity and physical health. Unwittingly, the man’s baby-making compulsion impels him to burn your skirt off with his X-ray laser eyes.

This “science blog” columnist recommends “making the best of it” by “wearing sunglasses”:
This is all unintentional, instinct-driven behaviour. Next time a girl is mad at you for staring at her body […] tell her you can’t help it. It’s not about her, or about you, it’s about your future offspring. She might take it as a compliment!

Which theory is right? Maybe none of them…maybe all of them?

No matter the reason, there’s no denying the naughtiness of a fluttering skirt hem (thanks Marylin), or the aphrodisia of the tease. The mystery of whatever’s under there, even if it’s Amish bloomers, gives such a thrill of theft, it makes the banal erotic.

Now…what do we do about it?

How do I feel less disgusting, less to blame? I want to wear whatever I want. I want the ogling reptiles to be punished, not my confidence. But that’s not the way it works…yet.

Slowly, we’re dismantling rape culture. Slowly, we’re changing the system that blames the woman for walking at night, not the man for attacking. We’re changing the hierarchy that protects penis-flashing news anchors. We’re knocking down the misogynist elite, one balding, rapey Hollywood exec after another. We’re working on it, one #metoo at a time.

In the meantime, do this: If a man ogles you, throw an empty LaCroix can at him. Or, shout, “Eyes off, Lizard Brain!” If you’re close enough, kick him. Better yet, run him over, Meet Joe Black-style. But most importantly, keep wearing your skirt. No matter its length. No matter what’s underneath. Keep wearing your damn skirt.

Perhaps in the process of toppling the patriarchy, we will stigmatize the rubbernecking, rather than eroticizing the upper knee.

In the meantime, I’ll be here, riding bikes in skirts.

Health and wellness journalist. Chronic expat. Cyclofeminist.

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