Consent: Hidden in the Length of My Skirt?

by Julia Sperling, age 16
Consent: Hidden in the Length of My Skirt?

“In 2018 the terms ‘victim blaming,’ ‘rape culture,’ and ‘consent’ are buzzwords that constantly get thrown around, but where exactly does the controversy lie in the whole matter? Apparently, within the wardrobe of the victim.”

In 2018, the terms “victim blaming,” “rape culture,” and “consent” are buzzwords that constantly get thrown around, but where exactly does the controversy lie in the whole matter? Apparently, within the wardrobe of the victim. But with a simple understanding of consent and assault, all of the answers seem clear ­­ at least to most. The length of a woman’s skirt is not a measure of consent. Nor is the height of her heels, nor the amount of skin she’s showing. Rape and assault are not two ­way streets; one person inflicts assault, one person is at fault. It’s an active decision made by the perpetrator, and “suggestive” clothing worn by the victim can never justify this by any means.

This is not to say that men’s arousal cannot be triggered visually with provocative clothing as a catalyst, but rather that this does not excuse any actions that follow this arousal. The interpretation of provocative dress that perpetrators propose is that the clothing a victim wore expressed a desire for sexual attention. We’ve apparently forgotten that clothing does not come with tags reading, “Dear men, this is an invitation for invasion of my personal privacy and safety.” Jessica Wolfendale emphasizes this common mis­assumption in “Provocative Dress and Responsibility,” by suggesting a hypothetical in which the roles are inverted. She tells readers to imagine a situation where a women makes sexual advances on a man wearing tight jeans and a tight tank ­top, and though he tells her to stop, she continues while claiming that he must want it, considering what he’s wearing. There is no doubt that if this truly happened, most people would defend the man and not blame him for his choice of attire (and rightly so). But the sad truth of this shows us the very real negative implications of social norms surrounding “provocative dress” in women, and the lack thereof in men.

Victim blamers cite “science,” claiming that men can become so aroused that their actions are beyond self control. A common defense is the belief that since the woman chose to wear the clothing that triggered this “massive, insurmountable” arousal, she is at fault. In short, the facts they reference are flawed. The biological aspects behind sexual arousal are somewhat obscure, but there is evidence of neurological systems connected to visuals that induce and regulate arousal. So while, undoubtedly, arousal in men is proven to be very visual and can be unintentional, there are other neurological systems such as the orbitofrontal cortex that suppress these feelings and can almost “understand” when it’s wrong to have them. But is it possible for these regulating systems to be compromised? Of course. If you’re under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the orbitofrontal complex’s judgement can be compromised and it is possible it would not have the same power to stop actions upon sexual arousal. But let’s revisit the definition of consent again ­­ will this added component of being under the influence really help an assaulter’s case? Experiencing sexual arousal doesn’t justify sexual assault just as being drunk does not justify sexual assault. Having a combination of the two doesn’t magically balance it out either. And while you would think assaulters would not want to flaunt their ability to be so dominated by their sexual arousal that they just “can’t control themselves,” it is an excuse they keep on coming back to simply because they have no other defense.

In other words, there are no justifications for assault or rape. Scientifically speaking, there are no inner forces that drive men to make sexual advancements stronger than the forces that exist to stop them from doing it. And in the case that these forces are impaired, consent is already invalidated because of the involvement of these impairments. If consent is given, one will know it. Consent does not lie hidden within the folds of provocative clothing. The problem does not lie hidden within the folds of provocative clothing either. Commanding women to dress differently as a means to keep them safe is complying with the perpetrators, and essentially names rape and assault as a completely avoidable situation. While, yes, we want to encourage women to stay safe and of course limit the number of opportunities for assault, we have to see how failing to target the problem at its source is leading victims/survivors to watch others place the fault on them ­­ and this can get inside their heads. When horrible and unnatural things happen to humans, the instinctive response is to rack your brain for the answer to one question: Why me? After an assault, a victim is at their most vulnerable, and with accusations and misconceptions publicly thrown around, they too may begin to place the blame on themselves. The awful truth is that harassment can happen to anyone, and the last thing we want are rapists who feel like their actions are justified just because their victims were scared into believing so too. Most of the general public will stand strongly in their belief that victims of rape should not be blamed, but it is important to target the minority that believes otherwise in order to fight the problem at its source. Let’s stop telling victims to change how they dress and start telling assaulters about consent and what it means when there’s a lack thereof. It’s important we all remember that she was not “asking for it” unless she was purposefully, verbally, and quite literally, asking for it.

Bibliography

Burnett, Dean. “How ‘Provocative Clothes’ Affect the Brain – and Why It’s No Excuse for Assault.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 25 Jan. 2018,
www.theguardian.com/science/brain­flapping/2018/jan/25/how­provocative­clothes­affect­the­brain­and­why­its­no­excuse­for­assault.

Costello, Carol. “’Sexy’ Clothes Don’t Excuse Sexual Violence.” CNN, Cable News Network, 9 Oct. 2014, www.cnn.com/2014/10/06/opinion/costello­provocative­clothes­dont­cause­rape/index.html.

Greyson. “’Provocative Clothing’ Does Not Excuse Sexual Assault.” The Collegian, 21 March 2018, sdsucollegian.com/2018/03/21/provocative­clothing­does­not­excuse­sexual­assault/.

Lifestyle, Yahoo. “Why Do People Blame Sexual Harassment On Women’s Outfits?” TheHuffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 21 December 2017,
www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/why­do­people­blame­sexual­harassment­on­womens­outfits_us_5a3bdbeee4b0b0e5a7a06154.

“Why Dress Codes Can’t Stop Sexual Assault.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 13 April 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/04/13/why­dress­codes­cant­stop­sexual­assault/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f6bf40701970.

Wolfendale, Jessica. “Provocative Dress and Sexual Responsibility.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2015, doi:10.2139/ssrn.2591440.

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