Immodest clothing isn’t the cause of sin, sexual harassment

One frustrating aspect of street harassment and sexual assault is the myth that women must take some responsibility, because whatever they were wearing must have sent the wrong signal and women know what signals they’re sending with their clothing choices. Here’s an easy rebuttal to this myth: research shows that what women wear has absolutely no correlation to their propensity to be sexually harassed or assaulted.

What has recently infuriated me is two links, the first being to a video aimed at women, asking them to dress more modestly to help men overcome the sinful temptation they have inside of them to lust after women. It paints a portrait of anguished men who can’t even walk down the sidewalk without being overwhelmed with temptation, proclaiming that women should know better than to tempt the already sinful minds of men, and it asks women to have Dad screen clothes to make sure they are appropriate.

The second is a blog (brought to my attention via an anonymous commenter) about decrying Toronto’s “Slutwalk” — which was a protest against a Toronto cop who told students that to avoid being sexually assaulted, women shouldn’t dress like “sluts”  — in which a woman in her 20s explains that women know what they’re doing when they dress provocatively, and they should be aware of the consequences of wearing certain types of clothing:

I have, like pretty much every 22-year-old girl, gone out looking like a slut occasionally. And I got a significantly higher amount of leers, cat calls, and uncomfortable attention. I was not surprised; I had no one but myself to blame for the sudden nervous feeling that flared up in my stomach as I walked passed men checking out my shape in my revealing dress. I don’t dress like this anymore for that very reason. I want men to look at me and have thoughts other than, “I could have sex with her tonight if I wanted.”

The problem is that these both miss the point and blame women for something they shouldn’t be blamed for. The first blames women while acknowledging that men are the ones with sinful minds; for a religious-based video, this doesn’t make much sense — shouldn’t men be working to fight this temptation themselves? Isn’t lust a sin? Instead of hoping the temptation disappears and things are easier for you, aren’t you supposed to be challenged and be able to overcome temptation by yourself?

And with the second link, the blogger who says she had no one to blame but herself for feeling uncomfortable: really? You had no one else to blame? How about the guys who were treating you like a piece of meat instead of an actual human being who should be respected? That nervous feeling, I can totally identify with it — but no matter what I’m wearing, I get that feeling whenever I’m walking alone past a large group of guys — because guys don’t catcall you based on what you’re wearing, they do it as a power play. You’re alone, you’re vulnerable, and they feed off that.

Studies have shown that clothing doesn’t make a difference in whether someone is sexually harassed or assaulted. Another blogger has done a great job of addressing this myth, and linked to an article from Psychology Today that explained why provocative clothing isn’t the sexual assault magnet people describe it as:

But studies show that it is women with passive, submissive personalities who are most likely to be raped—and that they tend to wear body-concealing clothing, such as high necklines, long pants and sleeves, and multiple layers. Predatory men can accurately identify submissive women just by their style of dress and other aspects of appearance.

This isn’t to say that all women in modest clothing are targets for sexual assault — it is to say, however, that people think they know what type of clothing invites sexual harassment or assault, when really it’s not just about what she’s wearing. A guy who wants to harass or assault a woman isn’t looking for the girl to politely accept the “invitation,” thinking a girl in a skirt wants the attention or will unquestionably have sex with him — he’s looking to feel powerful, to dominate, and to feel superior, regardless of whether the girl is wearing a skirt or a sweatsuit. And that’s not a myth, that’s a reality.

P.S. If you think that Western dress just isn’t modest enough and that’s what is breeding sexual harassment and assault, think again. Women in Cairo are harassed regardless of what they are wearing. As one Egyptian woman recalls:

“At 15, I was groped as I was performing the rites of the hajj pilgrimage at Mecca, the holiest site for Muslims. Every part of my body was covered except for my face and hands. I’d never been groped before and burst into tears, but I was too ashamed to explain to my family what had happened,” said journalist Mona Eltahawy in a July 27, 2008 article for the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

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5 Responses to “Immodest clothing isn’t the cause of sin, sexual harassment”

  1. Kaliane Moloch Says:

    I’ve noticed that dressing in loose clothes only helped when people thought I might be a male. I’m a bit taller than average at 5’7 and quite harsh and androgynous looking, and I definitely look gender ambiguous in a Vader shirt and loose combat pants. But as soon as people hear me talk in a normal female register it loses its impact.

    What does this tell you? This clearly isn’t about attractiveness. If it were then men would simply leave me alone even when they’d realized I was female.

  2. Abhinav Manas Says:

    well i had a myth that clothing attracts harassment but now i almost believe that ‘beauty lies in the eyes of beholder’. the reason why i am not able to convince myself completely may be the fact that i belong to an orthodox and conservative society, where a woman is judged by her clothing…and the psychological facts provided are osm..keep up the gud work.

  3. Barbara Godding Says:

    It is not the woman’s fault if she is sexually assaulted it just happens so where do you get off saying women who dress like sluts get raped Get a Life!!!

  4. civillascybercafe Says:

    People who think like this miss the point: rapists are not normal people. They are sociopaths and you can’t “get inside their heads” by thinking of them as normal. What normal man sees a sexy woman, or is frustrated because a sexy woman withholds sex, and gets a knife and forces sex on her?? This is a very misunderstood crime. It masquerades as sex, but is not really about sex. And it doesn’t matter if the victim is wearing immodest clothing. The clothing has nothing to do with it. Religious people and feminists alike think that they are dealing with NORMAL men here — the religious ones say, “women should wear modest clothing,” to stop it; the feminists say you should educate men by telling them to listen to the woman when she says No! Both are naive with their magic formulas. WE ARE NOT DEALING WITH NORMAL MEN. These people are psychopaths. Be wary. Stay alert. Martial arts is not a magic formula, either, although it can’t hurt to learn it. Be wary. Be alert.

  5. Matt Marion Says:

    This is old but what if the clothing and the person being assaulted aren’t directly related? As in, the usual defense of clothing is that the women that actually were sexually harassed were not the one’s dressed as “whores” as some put it.

    But what if that is a part of it? Let’s take an example: An alcoholic. Deprive the alcoholic for a bit until he’s in withdrawal and deprive hm of the means to get alcohol. Now put him on a street with a bunch of liquor stores. Some are very shiny and lit up, displaying all sorts of liquor in their big and see through windows, lots of people around, security inside. Some don’t even have windows, don’t have many customers and kind of get lost in the big ones (these are polars, there are in betweens).

    Now, as you can easily imagine, being inundated with alcoholic marketing is probably going to drive the alcoholic wild, maybe have him do something he shouldn’t. Here are the two questions:

    -Which stores will be most likely to trigger in the alcoholic the desire to drink, the ones advertising the liquor with big giant windows? Or the ones that look like other stores, aren’t so shiny, don’t have the liquor on display?

    -Which store is the alcoholic most likely to rob? The big shiny one with all the people around it and security? Or the one that blends in better with the background and isn’t as noticeable, has much fewer folk around, etc?

    That’s what I worry about. It doesn’t have to be the victims style of dress that is the trigger, it could come from elsewhere or even consistent exposure to many different women.

    Like it or not, men react physically to women and this is part of our DNA, we have very little control over it. While the vast, vast majority of us have control over causing actual harm, not all men do. Research has also shown that women react differently, aren’t as turned on by pure flesh and I worry that this difference causes a lack of understanding that could put some women in danger, whether intentional or not.

    I just recently read an article in which a woman worked at an engineering firm, mostly with men as can be imagined (all men actually). They then hired a new person who happened to be a woman. This woman liked to be very feminine at work and wore less conservative clothing (more revealing, more makeup, etc). Shortly after starting she had to give a presentation to the virtually all male team. The woman writing the article was the only woman on the team aside from the new woman. During the presentation, the woman writing the article noticed that the men were acting differently than normal. They were not as engaged and focused looking and were moving around more, etc. After a while it dawned on her “I wonder if guys really are distracted by women”. After the presentation she asked the guys what they though of specific parts. Not one single guy could remember the presentation. These are engineers that always take notes, ask questions and remember meetings but they couldn’t recall any details. She then wrote the article which basically came down to: I wonder if the woman had any idea how her choice of clothing and style affected the men and if this could be a reason it’s hard for women to get into these positions. If the men are being distracted when they should be working, they might subconsciously avoid the women that distract them making for a less comfortable environment for women. While unfortunate, if there’s no choice on the part of the men (being a man I can attest to this, being very heavy in thought only to lose it all the minute a woman wearing something smaller appears in the field of view), then unfortunately that choice falls on the women (one can choose tight or loose, high or no heels, makeup or not but one cannot choose to have one’s cognitive thought process interrupted to the point that one cannot get it back without looking away).

    Now, having said all the, I expect there to follow (if anyone even reads it) a lot of bashing me along the lines of the slut walk, etc. It cannot be a woman’s fault. Women in the middle east are forced to cover up and they aren’t raped, etc. What this does is avoids actually talking about the situation. If one could get an honest answer out of most men, they would very much add clothing into one of the driving forces behind sexual assault but the vast, vast majority of men would never give that answer to a woman and the reason? Slut walk for one. If you know that the person you’re talking to will not listen to what you say and will say something different regardless, then there’s no point in being cast out by saying it (especially when our primary goal is attraction, not repulsion, from the opposite sex).

    The argument of the burkas, by the way, is very shallow as the society that imposes said clothing restrictions already has a huge grudge against and hatred toward women, they will oppress them in all ways possible.

    However, a good defense would be nude beaches in spain, for example. There boys and girls frolic around wearing barely anything and I’m very curious to know what their sexual assault stats are like, I bet less than in north america. They are also very open about sex there. Boys and girls will be allowed, with parent blessing, to have the other over for a sleepover with doors closed, something you’d never find here. Look at the priests for context as to what withdrawal of natural human desire can lead to (child sexual assault for example).

    What I’m getting at is that there’s probably some truth to it but it’s not directly as a result of a specific woman’s clothing, for exmaple, but of a larger societal issue of conservatism in that we shy away from sex, we don’t embrace it, and therefore we force the buildup of negative sexual energy. Unfortunately, like the store with the big windows, this can have an effect on men who are not desensitized to it.

    This is my theory, anyway. I have a wife and daughter and they’re being sexually assaulted terrifies me. Being a man, it also scares me the appearance that many women outright refuse to even open dialog on how their looks affect men, saying they shouldn’t have to when it’s not a matter of have to or not. We’re brothers and sisters, why don’t we help each other. Let us men talk about this without having slut walks come down on us. Let the dialog happen and let the completely non-biased, multi-sexed studies happen. If men think that women will go all crazy if they say something, even if it’s the truth, they won’t say it, that’s how men are. We need to work together. DNA has women needing to show themselves off and men needing to look (observable), it’s how we attract each other before there is a mental bonding. We need to explore and figure this all out to prevent anyone at all from being hurt.

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