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"But What Was She Wearing?" The Dangerous Rhetoric Surrounding Clothing & Consent

By Lauren Hutton


In a recent discussion about women’s attire, I grew frustrated at someone’s assertion that women’s clothing can still be taken as an invitation. I was told a flirty t-shirt design was misleading, purposefully objectified women, and, essentially, that female sexual empowerment couldn’t exist in today’s society it was too risky.

I was told, with women dressing like that, “no wonder [men are] confused.”

This comment left me reeling, furious. It called to mind a long-weaponized rhetoric of victim-blaming. Sexual violence survivors are continuously interrogated as to what they were wearing as if a low-cut shirt could possibly substitute an enthusiastic, verbal “yes.” As if shorts say anything other than this fabric makes my legs look great; they make me feel powerful. As if any outfit in human history genuinely means, “I want you, yes, you strange random man, to touch me on any terms you would like tonight.” Our outfits cannot possibly be a message to the entirety of the male population on any given night. That assertion speaks far more to rampant male arrogance than poor decision making on behalf of women. To suggest otherwise, that women are sending confusing signals about their desires, is purposefully ignorant and endlessly dangerous. 

The scapegoat argument blaming women’s attire for sexual violence has been used in court countless times to the detriment of the sexual violence community. A woman was pulled into the woods and raped off a highway in Manitoba, Canada in 2006. Her rapist was given no jail time because her and a friend’s “tube tops with no bra, high heels and plenty of makeup… made their intentions publicly known that they wanted to party,” according to judge Robert Dewar. He concluded that, “This is a case of misunderstood signals and inconsiderate behavior." In 2011, police officer Michael Sanguinetti stated, “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized” to a group of college women. His remark lead to the first ever “slutwalk,” a now transnational movement protesting against excusing rape by referring to any aspect of a woman's appearance and calling for an end to victim blaming and slut shaming. In response to the 118 women killed in acts of domestic and sexual violence in Italy in 2012, Catholic Priest Piero Corsi wrote, "How often do we see girls and mature women going around scantily dressed and in provocative clothes? They should search their consciences and ask: Did we bring this on ourselves?" In short, Corsi, no, and contributing to this dialogue only aids in its continuation as a successful legal defense and popular opinion. 

Many people subscribe to this idea that sexual violence victims have some responsibility for their own assaults. According to one study, 54 percent of women at least partially blame rape victims for their assaults, due to victims dancing sexily, flirting, or wearing provocative attire. This is a dangerous status quo. Dialogue that questions a woman’s role in her own assault creates a society in which survivors cannot come forward and report sexual violence crimes because it is not safe to do so. “Victims are often too ashamed to come forward... because in our culture, we tend to blame victims in general,” according to psychotherapist Beverly Engel. Unsurprisingly, sexual violence is one of the most underreported crimes with more than 80 percent of incidents going unreported according to the Justice Department’s analysis of violent crimes. This culture allows abusers to perpetuate sexual violence because they historically have not, and with current dialogue as it is, likely will not be held accountable for their actions.

If a woman goes home with a man and then decides not to sleep with him, that is allowed. If a woman wears a miniskirt on a date and does not want to go home with her date, that is allowed. If a woman wears a flirty t-shirt on a bus, but says she doesn't want to be touched, that is allowed. There are no circumstances that imply consent other than affirmative, continued, willing permission. Most people live by this common sense. Most men aren’t rapists. Most men aren’t confused by a room full of tipsy, scantily clad women in a club setting and only go home with the ones who consent to it. But some men rape women, and they are the only people responsible for an assault. Why, as a society, are we repeating rhetoric that excuses this violent minority?

Later in the discussion of how this flirty t-shirt was misleading, the design was likened to a man wearing a shirt that said “Come stroke me.” Well, sure. Say it is the same thing. I feel somewhat confident if a heterosexual man wore a shirt that said “Come stroke me” on a bus, on a college campus, to a nightclub, he would, by in large, not be at risk of sexual violence. Let’s stop pretending there is a link between provocative attire and rape; there is a link between a patriarchal culture that allows and excuses male sexual violence and blames victims and a continued sexual violence problem that disproportionately affects women. 

It’s not about the t-shirt, the miniskirt, the heels. It’s about gender norms and behavior that has been systematically excused. A shirt logo is not permission and the folks who will take it as such already feel entitled to other people’s bodies. Stop telling women how to dress and start telling men not to rape contrary statements continue to excuse perpetrators of violence and put women on the chopping block. Engaging in these dialogues makes you a part of the problem; it illuminates an antiquated mentality men have banked on for centuries, despite its logical fallacies. 

Amanda Hess illuminates some of these fallacies in a piece for the Washington City Paper. She describes how provocative clothes are “an entirely socially constructed vulnerability.” She points out that the messaging we are currently receiving (from the likes of police officers, jurors, and priests evidently) states that “wearing a short skirt signals that a woman is sexually available to anyone who happens to see her wearing the short skirt. The social cue provided by this inanimate object is to be trusted beyond a woman's actual words ("no") or actions (desperate attempts at escape).” The results of this dialogue, this prescribed and perpetually defensive state women are expected to exist in, perpetuates the problem rather than fighting to change the status quo. As Hess argues, “The next generation of potential rapists will have to receive their social cues by eavesdropping on the advice we're providing to the next generation of potential victims. This is what they're hearing: If she's wearing a short skirt, it's not your fault when you rape her.”

This socially constructed vulnerability continues to exist in the realm of popular opinion but fails to prove substantial when confronted with scientific evidence. In the International Journal of Women’s Studies, clinical psychologist Avigail Moor investigated whether or not young women’s revealing clothing incited sex crimes. She found “no relationship between wearing sexy dress and actual experiences of violence.” Beliefs that dressing in a certain way may dangerously signal something to the opposite sex persist only because we allow them to; there is no genuine link between these two factors. Studies show that even highly-educated people believe women’s dress puts them at higher risk for sexual violence, and studies also show women’s dress will be used to blame victims for any violence that occurs to them. However, “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.” Evidently, wearing a flirtatious t-shirt or bold outfit might actually make a woman less vulnerable to predators, rather than more of a target. Women are sexually assaulted while jogging through parks with unbrushed hair and in oversized sweatshirts. Women are also assaulted in nightclubs wearing six inch heels, short dresses, and red lipstick. These violent acts occur because some men are sexually violent, not because of a woman's choice of dress. 

I am not saying women cannot think critically about what they wear in certain settings. That we can’t evaluate risks and weigh blending in with the crowd over feeling our best, proudest selves. We don’t live in an ideal society, obviously, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get to be who we are: proudly sex-positive, flirtatious, capable of making decisions on our own terms and being listened to when we speak rather than spoken for by our attire. I am tired of pacifying men’s claims that women are misleading or deceitful for wearing something flirtatious. I am tired of pacifying men who make decisions about women’s bodies that are based on gendered power structures and not some feigned intellectual confusion. I am tired of pacifying men. 

Men, if you’re confused, you’re not paying attention. Ask for consent: Clothes are not consent. Being flirty is not consent. Being sex positive is not consent. It’s not that hard. 


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