“Yes means yes, and no means no – whatever we wear, wherever we go!”
These words have been chanted by feminists and their allies for decades. I’ve never doubted they described the way things should be, but I sometimes wondered if they described the way things are.
In other words, does the way a woman dress affect her chances of facing sexual or street harassment? A researched answer proved surprisingly hard to find.
Anecdotal evidence seems to support the feminist viewpoint. If you look, for example, at maps of reported incidents of street harassment, you sometimes find annotations about what women were wearing. Often, the women doing the reporting note that they were dressed in a sweat suit or a T-shirt and jeans. At times, they sound surprised, as though they expected to be untroubled in such clothes.
If they were surprised, they would hardly be alone. A web search quickly locates studies that show that a majority of both men and women believe a woman is in greater danger of harassment if she is wearing revealing clothing. In some countries, this belief can be strengthened by the association of such clothing with Western decadence and immorality, but it seems a world-wide assumption that few people care to examine.
But is the assumption true? That is harder to answer, although perhaps it would be easier if more academic research was open access. Probably not, however, given that few search results even sound as though they are relevant to the question, regardless of whether they are freely available for reading.
In fact, after searching for half an hour, I found only one accessible, relevant paper: Theresa M. Beiner’s “Sexy Dressing Revisited: Does Target Dress Play a Part in Sexual Harassment Cases?” There may be more, but it is well-worth summarizing (and reading in full if you’ve followed me this far).
Beiner begins by noting that American rules of evidence prohibit discussing how a woman dresses or acts in sexual harassment cases unless its use outweighs the danger of harm to the victim or is likely to incite prejudice. That may not sound very satisfactory, but, in practice, this means that such evidence is almost never introduced.
The two exceptions Beiner notes are extremes: in one, a victim wore a sign implying she would give blow jobs, and encouraged men to leave impressions of their hands in paint upon her back and buttocks, and, in another, a woman offered private lingerie displays. However, according to Beiner, “even in cases in which the evidence of the target’s dress was admitted, its impact was minimal in persuading trial judges that the plaintiff welcomed the harassment.”
What these practices suggest is that the American legal system (which is hardly a center of radicalism) is generally unconvinced that how a woman dresses or acts is relevant to sexual harassment – and, after all, those with experience with such cases should have a better idea than the majority of us.
However, the most interesting part of Beiner’s article is the last third. There, Beiner establishes a reason to believe that rapists and sexual harassers are on a continuum of behavior and personality, and turns to studies of rapists for insight into harassers.
According to the studies that Beiner cites, what rapists look for in victims is not revealing clothing at all. Instead, “rapists look for signs of passiveness and submissiveness.” Furthermore, not only can men accurately detect passiveness and submissiveness, but tend to regard attractive women as less submissive – and, while attraction is not synonymous with any particular style of dress, the two do have some connection. It might even be that revealingly dressed women intimidate rapists and harassers.
By contrast, passiveness and submissiveness, “studies suggest, are more likely to coincide with more body-concealing clothing.” Sexual harassment, she suggests, “appears to be triggered by power imbalances – the kind of imbalances that might well be triggered by target submissiveness.”
In other words, so far as clothing plays any role in who is targeted, it might actually be that concealing clothing is more dangerous.
As for why people are so quick to believe the opposite, Beiner offers two possible reasons. Both men and women, she says, may want to believe in a just world, where nothing happens to someone unless they deserve it. Possibly, too, they want to blame the victims so they can sustain an illusion of control. They would prefer to believe that if they don’t do certain things or go to certain areas, they will be safe.
“Sexy Dressing” is not definitive, but it does provide a logical argument about who is likely to be harassed. I’d need more convincing that concealing clothing might be dangerous, but, thanks to Beiner, I’m reasonably confident that revealing clothing is not a factor in harassment.