Provocative Attire and Sexual Harassment

Following is an excerpt from a very informative paper 'Sexy Dressing Revisited: Does Target Dress Play A Part In Sexual Harassment Cases' by Theresa M. Beiner. The excerpt deals with popular perceptions about provocative clothing and sexual harassment/rape, discusses how actual evidence reveals that harassment is driven by perceptions of passiveness and submissiveness, and contrary to popular opinion, revealing attire is viewed as a sign of dominance and assertiveness, and therefore those wearing provocative dress are less likely to be victims of harassment. It then discusses the reasons for why this misconception exists in public:

"Underlying rape shield laws is the belief that people, and in particular jurors, mistakenly believe that a women’s dress has an impact on whether she will be victimized. This belief is borne out by research on perceptions of women’s dress. [...] [H]ighly-educated and learned adults believe that how a woman dresses has an impact on whether or not she will be a victim of a sex crime. [...] [In a study involving 200 college students] women rated the model dressed provocatively highest on the likelihood of provoking sexual harassment. However, men and women did not differ in their assessment of the model wearing nonprovocative clothing. This suggests that women are more inclined to believe that provocative dress has an impact on who is harassed.

While people perceive dress to have an impact on who is assaulted, studies of rapists suggest that victim attire is not a significant factor. Instead, rapists look for signs of passiveness and submissiveness, which, studies suggest, are more likely to coincide with more body-concealing clothing. In a study to test whether males could determine whether women were high or low in passiveness and submissiveness, Richards and her colleagues found that men, using only nonverbal appearance cues, could accurately assess which women were passive and submissive versus those who were dominant and assertive. Clothing was one of the key cues: “Those females high in passivity and submissiveness (i.e., those at greatest risk for victimization) wore noticeably more body-concealing clothing (i.e., high necklines, long pants and sleeves, multiple layers).” This suggests that men equate body-concealing clothing with passive and submissive qualities, which are qualities that rapists look for in victims. Thus, those who wore provocative clothes would not be viewed as passive or submissive, and would be less likely to be victims of assault.

Along these lines, research suggests that rape victims are “significantly lower” in “dominance, assertiveness, and social presence.” While members of the public believe that victims of assault attract such attacks by dressing provocatively, attractiveness does not correlate with submissive characteristics in victims. Instead, research “specifically revealed a negative relationship between perceptions of attractiveness and traits which could be construed as contributing to a nonverbal appearance of vulnerability.” [...]

This conclusion is inconsistent with the common belief that how a woman dresses has an impact on whether she will be sexually harassed or sexually assaulted. Why then, do many people, including psychiatrists, assume that dress plays some part in who is a victim of sexual assaults? In particular, why do women believe this? Social scientists believe this is the result of the “just world hypothesis.” As Melvin Lerner explained, 

'for their own security, if for no other reason, people want to believe they live in a just world where people get what they deserve. One way of accomplishing this is by . . . persuading himself that the victim deserved to suffer, after all. The assumption here is that attaching responsibility to behavior provides us with the greater security—we can do something to avoid such a fate.'

Thus, in the context of sexual harassment, this explains why women, more than men, are inclined to believe that provocative dress has an impact on who is sexually harassed. Women attribute the harassment to something the victim has done, such as wearing provocative clothing, as a way to understand how it could happen to someone else and not to them. Thus, blaming the victim, for example, by believing she provoked the behavior by her dress, makes other women believe that dressing differently (i.e., more “appropriately”) will prevent it from happening to them.

This is closely related to another theory known as “harm avoidance.” Women blame victims as a way to exercise control over their lives and to continue to believe that bad things, including sexual harassment and sexual assaults, will not happen to them. Thus, by viewing provocative dress as a factor in sexual harassment, women believe that they can avoid sexual harassment simply by not dressing provocatively. Both of these theories provide explanations as to why women, in particular, may think that harassment or sexual assault is provoked by victim dress."

[Hat-tip: Pakistan Feminist Discussion group on Facebook.]