In January this year a Toronto police officer suggested that women could avoid sexual assault by not dressing like ‘sluts’. Made during a safety information session at York University, the officer’s remark provoked a storm of protest. By May the protests had spread as far as Australia.
Many people — including some Troppo readers — think it’s obvious that women who wear revealing clothing are more likely to be raped. But most researchers who study sexual assault regard this as a myth.
As it turns out, there’s some research that suggests women are less likely to be assaulted if they wear provocative clothing. In a paper titled ‘Sexy dressing revisited: does target dress play a part in sexual harassment cases?’ (pdf) Theresa Beiner writes:
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. (140) 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. (141) 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)." (142) 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.
Troppo commenter Meg argues that the police officer’s advice is worse than unhelpful. She writes "This ‘common sense’ advice is restricting the agency of one group to the point of inhibiting everyday living. That’s just ridiculous and it’s bad advice."