Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Thoughts on a Word: Provocative

Provocative, from provoke, definition i: To call forth, to summon, to incite to action. Definition ii: To incite to anger.

Provocative has been used to mean sexually exciting since the 17th century, though until the 20th century it needed to be contextualized to be understood as sexual passion rather than just passion of any sort. Music was “provocative to lust” (1676); practices of the Roman Empire showed “intemperance provocative to brutal lust” in 1776, and a 1718 translation of Plutarch tells us that "salt, by its heat, is provocative and apt to raise lust." Provocative was—and still sometimes is—divorced from sex, instead meaning simply summoning a challenge to the viewer/listener without inciting “brutal lust.” Indeed, in this context it might even be assigned to men (“Man is active and provocative; woman passive and submissive,” from The Passions in Their Relations to Health and Disease, 1876) or marginalized groups (“They provocatively dressed in finery and paraded the streets during Holy Week,” from The Jews of Germany, 1936; “The [Gay Pride] parade was a group of provocatively dressed gays...” from The New Yorker, 1987). Even when used to describe women, until midcentury provocative was used equally to describe sexual and intellectual incitement. From 1903’s Pigs in Clover: “If she for ever hit the tin tacks of fact with the light hammer of feminine argument, she would never build a platform...he told her. But she would only write as the mood seized her, and the little provocative woman laughed at his arguments.”

Of course, the word was also applied to sex workers—and women who were deemed to dress like them (or rather, like stereotypes of sex workers). Whether the writer was Flaubert in the 19th century, the American Journal of Pschotherapy in 1948, or early feminist thinker Catherine Gasquoine Hartley pondering “Women’s Wild Oats” in 1920, the provocative woman was understood to know exactly what it was she was provoking. Entertainers, too, were deemed provocative. So in a way it’s both unsurprising and unfortunate that we chose the word provocative in the 1970s to talk about what victims of sexual assault were wearing—we applied the same word to women who provoked with purpose to women who likely didn’t mean to provoke at all. SlutWalks may be new, but the discourse around “provocatively dressed” women is nearly 40 years old, and from the 1970s on the word provocative has been frequently coupled with discussions of sexual assault victims. In 1975 the Journal of Applied Social Psychology examined public reactions to rape sentencing depending on whether the victim was “provocatively dressed,” the same year a House of Lords debate focused on how rapists’ “defence is inevitably one of consent, it being said...she was probably provocatively dressed.” Crime fiction started detailing “young...provocatively dressed” women (The Police Journal, 1980); law journals alerted attorneys of judges who insinuated victims “invite[d] attack by wearing provocative clothing and hitchhiking” (American Bar Association Journal, 1977).

So we went from talking about individuals as provocative, to classes of people being provocative, to one particular profession as being provocative, to provocative dress being an invitation. Which brings us back to the Latin roots of provocative: pro (“forth”) + voke (from vocare, or “call”; vocare is also the root for voice). To provoke is to call forth, to summon, to incite. To dress in a provocative manner is, linguistically speaking, to ask for it.

Before the Internet collectively asks me to surrender my feminist card, I’d like to take a detour to seventh-grade grammar and discuss transitive versus intransitive verbs. Intransitive verbs are verbs that do not require an object: I sleep, you run, he/she/it dies. They stand on their own. Transitive verbs, however, require an object—that is, they need to transmit their action to something else before they can reach their intended meaning. I do not simply spend; I spend money. I spend money, you give a speech, he/she/it breaks a glass. Provoke is a transitive verb. If I am to provoke, in accordance to the rules of grammar, I need to provoke you. I need your reaction in order to meet the definition of provocative.

It may seem a mere point of grammar, but its implications go beyond the textbook. When we call a woman’s clothing provocative, we mistakenly assign her the responsibility—and to be sure, there is a responsibility that comes along with wearing clothes designed to showcase your sexuality. (That responsibility ends well before the point of sexual assault, which is the assaulter’s responsibility, but I’m sure nobody reading this thinks otherwise. Right? Right.) But the very word provocative assigns its power back to the viewer. Provocative needs an object to survive in grammar—and on the street, that object is the viewer. Nobody can be provocative alone.

And when we look at the ways we use provocative, it seems women intuitively understand exactly that. Other people describe us as provocative; only rarely do we use it to describe ourselves. We say what we’re wearing, we allude to hemlines and cleavage, we may refer to an outfit as sexy. Provocative? We don’t necessarily want to involve the object that particular transitive verb requires, so most of the time we just avoid it altogether. I challenge you to find a single instance of a woman describing her clothing as provocative without linking it to sexual assault or harassment, a deconstruction of sexual assault, or the odd piece of erotica. (I was able to find a grand total of one online, buried deep in the comments section of sex and gender writer Rachel Rabbit White’s blog, in reference to how the commenter wore a push-up bra for a night out.) It’s not a word women use to describe ourselves, even in cases when we are indeed hoping to provoke a particular person; in fact, it’s a word often chosen specifically to describe how a woman was not dressed. It’s a word the object of the sentence—the viewer—uses to describe their own reaction. It’s not a word we, the subjects, use at all.


Thanks to Decoding Dress for the word prompt! For more Thoughts on a Word, please click here.


  1. I do love "Thoughts on a Word."

    I'd be interested to see other words women (or men) reserve for OTHER people, never themselves. I've heard women describe themselves as sexy or even slutty, but not as a whore or a skank. Not sure about "trashy."

  2. I found this to be so interesting! The fact that the type of verb "to provoke" is reflects objectification is fascinating.

  3. I am thinking about this post in light of the fact that it's Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I am thinking I should write something.

  4. The power of a particular word. Fascinating stuff.

  5. Rebekah, Alexa, and Beryl, thank you! Yeah, I'd be interested to hear what words we use for others and not ourselves, both words with positive and negative connotations. (I could refer to myself as "cute" but wouldn't use "beautiful"--even though I don't have most of the hallmarks we think of as "cute"! It's just a softer word.)

    Tori, I was thinking of partner violence while writing this--the idea that the victim "provokes" the perpetrator is still too common, and I think Rihanna even has said that she "provoked" Chris Brown. It's a word that's...provocative, I suppose.