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Who Is Truly Responsible for Sexual Violence?

In 2018, we have seen substantial change when it comes to how allegations of sexual harassment and assault are handled. Unfortunately, far too many people continue to doubt victims, and may even openly blame and attack victims for their own abuse. While we have made considerable strides, there is much work to do — particularly when it comes to victim-blaming.

One of the most pervasive myths surrounding sexual harassment and assault is that if a woman or girl is dressed a certain way, she is “asking for it.” Recently, protests erupted across Ireland after a defense attorney in a sexual assault case cited the 17 year old victim’s lacy thong underwear as evidence of consent — and the jury ultimately acquitted the 27 year old man of rape. In response to the protests, Ireland’s prime minister stated, “Nobody asks to be raped. And it’s never the victims fault. It doesn’t matter what you wear, it doesn’t matter where you went, who you went with, or what you took — whether it was drugs or alcohol.”

While many people agree with this statement in theory, they may argue that the way that a person dresses invites sexual harassment or assault. These two statements stand in direct opposition to each other. If you truly believe that sexual violence is never the victim’s fault — as we do at Blackburn Center — then the statement must end there. The only person to blame for any type of abuse is the abuser.

Moreover, claims about clothes provoking sexual violence are nonsensical. One only has to look at pictures from any of the many exhibits featured at museums and universities around the world to prove that what a person wears has no bearing on whether they are a victim of sexual violence. In an exhibit at the University of Kansas, the range of clothing displayed included a bikini, a young boy’s collared shirt, a t-shirt and jeans, and khakis and a dress shirt. An exhibit in Brussels that was inspired by the University of Kansas display featured a police officer’s uniform, a man’s shirt and jeans, and a child’s My Little Pony shirt.

One of the more challenging aspects of any discussion about clothing choices, particularly for women and girls, is how our culture impacts the way that we dress. According to a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, women’s bodies are scrutinized and evaluated to a greater degree than male bodies, with a focus on appearance rather than personality. Social groups, peers, families and media images all teach girls to objectify themselves. The media can be particular damaging, with exposure to magazines and the internet leading to higher rates of girls and women objectifying themselves and engaging in harmful behavior, such as disordered eating and self-harming behavior.

The expectations that society places on young women — to value their appearance over every other attribute and to become the sex object that our culture places such a premium on — are incredibly hard to resist. We need to recognize that these pressures exist without slamming the young women who succumb to them. Teenage girls dressing in a manner that some may consider to be provocative is not a sign that something is wrong with them. We need to allow for young women to have agency in how they choose to dress — and recognize that what drives them to wear revealing clothes is more about societal pressures and expectations than about any shortcoming of their own.

Finally, an issue that often crops up when discussing violence is the question of false rape allegations. While these do occur, they are rare. Approximately 5% of all reported rapes are deemed to be unfounded, which is the same percentage for other felony crimes. Note that unfounded does not mean false — there are a myriad of reasons why the police may deem a report unfounded, many of which are not related to the truthfulness of the allegation. The overwhelming majority of victims of sexual assault never file a police report: between 77 and 92% of rapes are never reported. Given the incredibly high percentage of unreported rapes in this country, the rate of unfounded allegations is closer to 0.5%. Based on these numbers there is a far greater likelihood that an American man will be sexually assaulted (3%) than he will be falsely accused of rape. Finally, of the incredibly small number of sexual assaults reported to law enforcement, a minuscule percentage of rapists will ever spend a day in jail. For every 1,000 rapes, only 4.6 rapists will be incarcerated.

Ultimately, if we are to end all forms of sexual violence, then we have to hold the perpetrators responsible. To do so, we cannot blame to victims for how they dress or act. The only person responsible for harassment or abuse is the abuser — period.

Learn More: Sexual Harassment

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