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Archive for the ‘sexual assault’ Category

“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.

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Ever since the Vancouver Slutwalk a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about why society is so quick to blame victims for being sexually assaulted. I suppose that many people would attribute the tendency to sexism, and probably they wouldn’t be wrong. But discussion usually ends with that diagnosis, so it still leaves me wondering why.

Logic, of course, has nothing to do with this assignment of blame. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence make clear over and over, that what a woman wears has no correlation to how likely she is endure catcalls or face assaults. Whether a woman is wearing a baggy sweat suit or a mini-skirt and stilettos just doesn’t seem to affect her safety; if clothing did make a difference, then a niqab would be a sensible outfit.

So why is the idea that the victim is to blame so much a part of our culture?

Part of the reason may be that our modern industrial culture usually assumes that women are responsible for all forms of sexuality. Just as women are the ones supposed to be responsible for contraception, so they are assumed to be responsible for being assaulted. The fact that power is at least as important as sex in sexual assault is simply ignored.

But the main reason, I suspect, is connected to the middle-class perception of autonomy. Given the degree of comfort in technological society, middle-class, urban North Americans generally assume that they have complete control of their lives. This assumption is strengthened by the fact that life is so comfortable in our suburbs that many of us are well into our third or fourth decade before we personally encounter serious injury or death. That is why the September 11th attacks were so devastating in the US, even on the other side of the country – people were used to assuming that such violence could never happen so close to home.

In this shielded world view (which affects almost all North Americans, because middle-class values are the ones that the media mostly depicts), the first tendency when faced with a crime is to wonder what you (or the victim) could have done to avoid it. Assuming that wearing different clothes or that walking in a different part of town could have avoided the crime is a way to preserve the belief in autonomy in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is often false.

Faced with the details of a sexual assault, assuming that certain actions can prevent them may be more comforting than the truth that these incidents are random and largely outside anyone’s control. And from there, it would only be a short step to blaming the victim for not following the practices that are supposed to ensure safety.

Never mind that these practices are as useful as carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot. Perhaps psychologically, what matters is not so much whether the precautions work, but that believing in them helps preserve the illusion of autonomy.

Perhaps that is why, too, the victims are ostracized. Just as people who have been seriously hurt or lost someone close often find that friends expect them to get over their problems quickly and will drift away if they don’t, so a victim is shunned because they are living witnesses to the fact that our self-autonomy doesn’t exist. Only those who have seen enough of the randomness of the world to understand it are likely to stand by a victim, because no one else can understand their experience – and because, secretly, everyone else is afraid to see the illusion for what it is.

In other words, what I am suggesting is that blaming the victim is not just a matter of callousness or stereotyping. For some people, the assumption may simply be hiding the fear that something similar might happen to them.

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