Why ‘A Mile In Her Shoes’ Falls Short (And What You Can Do To End Sexual Violence)

walk a mile in her shoes shoes

Every spring, one of my old university’s fraternities would set up an event known as
“A Mile In Her Shoes,” wherein the young men would slip their feet into some high heels, sometimes in dresses and wigs, then walk approximately half a mile to signify the increased social risks women experience simply by being a woman.

Here is the gist of it, according to the march’s home page:

Each year, an ever-increasing number of men, women and their families are joining the award-winning Walk a Mile in Her Shoes: The International Men’s March to Stop Rape, Sexual Assault & Gender Violence. A Walk a Mile in Her Shoes Event is a playful opportunity for men to raise awareness in their community about the serious causes, effects and remediations to sexualized violence.

There is an old saying: “You can’t really understand another person’s experience until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” Walk a Mile in Her Shoes asks men to literally walk one mile in women’s high-heeled shoes. It’s not easy walking in these shoes, but it’s fun and it gets the community to talk about something that’s really difficult to talk about: gender relations and sexual violence.

Here is their promotion video:

Haha, get it? They’re “man enough” use the phrase “man enough,” commonly used to degrade or criticize guys who do not embody stereotypical masculinity! They’re hip! They’re cool! Look at them represent women, all of whom wear patent red leather heels with pointed toes! They’re “man enough” to wear heels because — wait, what? Never mind, they’re just guys wearing high heels while the beginning of that ridiculous Shania Twain song plays over and over and over.

Wearing high heels doesn’t signify the fundamentally different way women and men are treated by society with regard to sex and violence. Higher rape rates, higher rates of molestation, street harassment, workplace discrimination, domestic violence…I could go on, but we all have heard this before, and you are a busy person with things to do.

My issue with these marches isn’t that they are meant to help raise awareness (although many, many events that use the phrase ”raise awareness” are ludicrous and primarily used by pseudo-altruistic groups with self-involved leaders). I’m frustrated that they use pathetically stupid humor, alienate the trans* community and compare clumsily wandering around in high heels to the bemusement of a general community with, say, a single moment of what it’s like to experience violent or threatening behaviors of sexual nature.

walk a mile in her shoes run

Unfortunately for women, it’s not quite as entertaining to have somebody yell at you, chase after you, become irate if you ignore them or get aggressive when you reject them. Do I think men should have to experience that? Hell no, that’s absurd. The answer is never “let’s make things equally terrible.” But do I think they should take it seriously? Yes, and the incredible lack of seriousness for an event surrounding the ”raised awareness” of rape (for the, oh, three or so people who are not already aware of it) is disheartening and unsettling.

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    • anna

      Yeah, the main problem with these is that they “raise awareness”. The whole world is aware. We know rape exists and we know breast cancer exists. Question is, what are we going to do about it?

    • http://poorgoop.com/ Samantha

      Thank you! These sort of awareness raising marches are condescending, especially since this one in particular focuses on women’s appearance – like only women who wear heels get raped. I’m glad you’re pointing it out. And I’m glad you’re offering real-life suggestions. Sexual assault is not a thing that happens. It’s something someone does. Stop the someone’s doing it.

      Also, can I add “stop referring to rapists as ‘good men’” to your list? Rape and sexual assault aren’t some one-time oopsies. Even in my own social circles, I’ve had to stop hanging out with certain people because they continue to invite a guy who attempted to date rape a girl we know because he’s a ‘good dude.’ My ass…

      • anna

        Yeah, I remember in high school my friend woke up at a party to a guy attempting to molest her. I was so incredibly shocked when my other friend began hooking up with him, and said “oh, he’s never done that to me.”
        Really? He’s a known creep who tried to molest a girl he thought was drunker than she was. (Not to mention has an STD). Just because he hasn’t done that to YOU doesn’t mean it’s ok??
        She still hooks up with him occasionally but I am no longer friends with her, so I know little of the saga.

    • Eileen

      In some ways, I think that men dressing as women – and I mean convincingly dressing as women, the way that people preparing to undergo MTF trans treatments do – for long enough to gain the experience of being a woman in society is not a bad thing. Many men, no matter how many times they are told that they experience male privilege, don’t really understand what that means because they have never experienced life without male privilege. Present as a woman for awhile, on the street, in a restaurant, at the bank, maybe at work if you work in retail/sales instead of a place where all of the people you come in contact with will already know that you are a man – and it might help you to understand what it’s like not to have male privilege.

      But no, I don’t think that a bunch of guys awkwardly putting on women’s clothes and walking half a mile is going to address issues of sexual violence.

    • Elizabeth

      while I completely agree with everything you said on the last page, i don’t entirely agree with the premise of this article. I believe that picking on groups that are trying to help by saying “you’re not helping properly’ isn’t really fair. Is it perfect? No of course not. But at least they are trying. They put the word out there in a way that doesn’t scare people off. It’s no secret that people avoid depressing news, so having it be “fun” might actually be a good thing! Again, not the best situation, but at least an effort is being made. It makes more sense to me to be angry about people who do nothing and ignore sexual violence, rather than be upset at groups like this

      • Tara

        Just because someone has good intentions with raising awareness for a cause doesn’t mean their way of going about it can’t be problematic. It’s best to call them out and tell them why their efforts aren’t as helpful as they think they are. Shutting up and being grateful for any kind of support isn’t how you move things ahead.

        And rape isn’t “fun”. It shouldn’t be dumbed down as such if people are supposed to take it seriously.

      • Elizabeth

        I in no way meant to imply that rape is fun or anything less than the serious issue it is. i’m very very sorry to you (or anyone) that took offense to that. All I meant to say is that I think for any issue it is easier to garner attention and support by hosting your events in a way that makes people feel safe instead of scared or upset. I wish this were not the case, but that’s the reality of human nature; if it hasn’t affected us directly we tend to ignore things that are too depressing. (There’s a psychological theory called “belief in a just world” that kind of explains this phenomenon, in that we need to believe the world is just for our psychological well being)

        In any case, I think your opinion is very valid. It is just my opinion that when we start to call out people who have good intentions it deters other people from getting involved. I think it’s unfortunate, but I don’t believe as a society we have the luxury of turning away people who are making an effort even if it is problematic (which I won’t deny it can be). I’m not saying shut up and be grateful, I’m saying focus our energies on making everyone involved, and then we can weed out events like this.

        But then again, maybe those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. So, I am very happy for anyone to prove me wrong.

      • Elizabeth

        I would also like to add that I don’t think the intention of this event is to say that they understand what it’s like to be a victim just by dressing like a woman (I mean just because I am a woman who wears heels and dresses doesn’t mean I can even begin to understand). I think what they are trying to accomplish is to give men a very small taste of what it’s like to be gawked at, stared at, insulted or harassed by other people. And then they will internalize (hopefully) what it’s like to go through that every day of their lives, or at least on a larger scale. And thus they will be able to have some empathy, and therefore the desire to end sexual assault, violence and rape.

    • Sabrina

      The point behind these marches is to feel that our men stand behind us, that they’re making a public gesture to say “I’m doing something to support women and to show the public that I am against violence against women.” And that seems like a really good thing to me.

    • cassie

      what these men are doing is expressing to the world that they personally think rape/violence is wrong. while you may think this is an obvious moral stance, if all people thought this way, rape wouldn’t exist. these men are sending a message to rapists, saying “i think your actions are unconscionable.”

      now, you have a problem with the light-hearted way they’re going about it. if you want a serious rape walk, you can participate in “Take Back the Night” or “Slut Walk,” which many men do. however, you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. if you say “want to come to my dark, serious, depressing rape protest activity?” people are going to hesitate. if you say “want to do a fun, silly activity to communicate to the world that rape is wrong?” you’ll get more participants.

      on the subject of this “slight to the trans community” do you think all crossdressing should be eliminated, unless it is very serious crossdressing? should Rocky Horror be banned because the comical lead is a transvestite? barring men from wearing women’s clothes is silly, especially under the context that they can’t wear them for fun. plenty of men crossdress just because it’s funny and entertaining, that’s why we have drag queens.

      • Tara

        Rape is “dark, serious, depressing”, and isn’t close to being taken seriously enough. The last thing it needs is to be treated with lightheartedness. When it’s commonplace for people to make rape jokes, blame the victims and sexually harass women in practically every circumstance, you know that in order for people to get the message that it’s wrong it needs to be communicated in a serious manner. Because a lighthearted attitude towards rape is why so many rape victims are the subject of derision. People brush it off as no big deal.

        Tell me, what purpose does men running around in high heels and wigs serve? How does it make anyone (including the men themselves) more aware of rape? Unless they’ve been raped themselves, no they haven’t actually “walked a mile” in the victim’s shoes. Their gender also means they haven’t up with even half of the misogynistic crap that women deal with on a regular basis. They may sympathize, but they don’t REALLY understand. And who’s gonna look at men in wigs and high heels and think “Wow I’m gonna make it my mission to end sexual violence!”

        It’s stupid, disingenuous and kind of missing the point. Like buying pink items to support breast cancer awareness. It’s not really helpful in the grand scheme of things.

    • Erica Westrich

      I LOVE this article. If I had time to write a huge response in defense of it, I would. But just really quick–even if the idea is these men are trying to identify with women and not simply rape survivors–womanhood and the dangers inherent to womanhood cannot be summed/represented/pointed-out by high heels. A lot of women don’t even wear high heels. I do, seldom, but I would never see a guy wearing heels on the street and think to myself “Oooh he’s like me. He understands what it is to be my gender.” Unless it was clear that he was trans*, I would probably think, “Wtf?” It is dangerous to think that the experience of being a woman when she is in danger can be summed up by: high heels.

      And yah, I commend these men for wanting to get involved. That is awesome. But there is NOTHING wrong with pointing out that there are better, yet similar, ways to get involved. (“slutwalk,” “take back the night,” go to a protest, write a politician, etc.) It is okay to suggest that a movement make some improvements/changes to their demonstrations. ESPECIALLY when there is a chance that this demonstration could be hurting rape victims instead of helping them. Because that is where I agree with this author most strongly–identifying with women or rape victims (I can’t tell which one they are trying to do) by wearing high heels trivializes womanhood/rape.

    • http://www.facebook.com/heidi.stephens.33 Heidi Stephens

      While the cause is good, something about this event has always bothered me. The silliness seems out of sync with the seriousness of the issue. Men in drag are generally caricatures of women–and when a group with more power presents caricatures of a group with less power, feelings can get hurt. When it comes to rape, we are talking about power issues. I think it would be more effective if men demonstrated their support in a way other than by wearing the women’s high heels. If they showed they are standing up as men who are fully willing and unashamed to use their complete masculine power and privilege to condemn sexual violence against women.

    • J

      I am a woman who doesn’t wear high heels. I know many women have taught themselves to walk stably in them, but I have never been able to. Plus, even just trying them on makes my leg muscles hurt. I see high heels as a less stable, less functional, less healthy form of footwear. I also see them as a social phenomenon–somehow they became symbols of a woman’s fashionableness, sexiness, etc. I have always been puzzled by this, being on the outside of the phenomenon. Why would women do this to themselves?

      I think it doesn’t really matter why. What does matter is that high heels are seen as solely the province of women. Cis-gendered men do not wear high heels in our society. Why? Not sure, but could it have anything to do with not wanting to be associated with something that’s less functional, less healthy, and less stable?

      The point is, high heels are not an inescapable part of being a woman. They are symbols of one type of femininity, but they are symbols I do not wish to be represented by, and I see men wearing high heels as somehow thinking they can understand what it is to be a woman as totally wrong. Men will get the experience of purposefully making themselves less functional, less healthy, and less stable, but if they think that’s what it is to be a woman…no. It’s not. It’s what it’s like to be a stereotype of a woman, a model of being a woman that I do not want anything to do with, even though I am a woman.
      Look again, men. Think of the most uncomfortable, meaningless thing you do for fashion and in order to seem manly or because society expects it of a manly man. Would you want to be defined by that and have women thinking that if they wear/do that thing they will know what it is to be a man? I’d think you’d rather divorce yourself from the thing totally, or at least from the expectation that it is what makes you desirable.
      You are not your fashion choices, and neither are women.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tom-Maker/653746609 Tom Maker

      yea yea, you women all want it. You get it and realize you will be called a slut so you all yell rape…..

    • Jan

      This article is spot on with how ridiculous this type of awareness-raising is. As if women need more uncultured interpretations of what it means to be a woman (or to identify as a woman) from retarded-looking men stomping around in heels. This is worse than slacktivism.