Does 'Dressing Modestly' Keep Sexual Predators Away? Ooh, A Tough One!
(Photo: Salt Lake Tribune / Trent Nelson)
Earlier this week, Mayim Bialik caused thousands of women across the country to burn their be-flowered hats in disgust when she penned an article for the New York Times suggesting that the reason why -- unlike the victims of Harvey Weinstein -- she had never been sexually harassed or assaulted in Hollywood was because she dressed "modestly." It was, I think, especially enraging because -- as Blossom -- she did inspire a generation of quirky, feministy women. It was also enraging because she was wrong.
Furthering our disappointment this week are the jarring Weinstein-related comments from Democratic Congresswoman Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, who explained to an NBC news team that she thought it was just as much women's responsibility to prevent sexual harassment and assault as it is men's -- and that they need to appear less "inviting."
“I grew up in a time when it was as much the woman’s responsibility as it was a man’s — how you were dressed, what your behavior was,” she said. “I’m from the old school that you can have behaviors that appear to be inviting. It can be interpreted as such.”
Additionally, Johnson said it was the “responsibility … of the female” to avoid such “inviting” looks that she believes can lead to sexual misconduct.
“We also need to start talking about the power that women have to control the situation. There’s law enforcement, you can refuse to cooperate with that kind of behavior,” she added.
I don't doubt that women in Johnson's time were told that it was their duty to prevent sexual assault and harassment. I know for a fact they were. I've seen Anatomy of a Murder multiple times.
That doesn't make it right.
The only responsibility women have in this situation is to not put the blame on other women for sexual harassment and assault, and to make sure the boys they raise understand consent and understand that sexual harassment is not an OK thing for them to be doing.
I feel like I am supposed to be surprised that these arguments are coming from women, but I ain't. The "dressing modestly will keep you from getting assaulted" argument is one I've actually heard more from women than from men. I think it's because feeling vulnerable to sexual assault or harassment sucks, and those who are vulnerable feel like they need to cling to things that make them feel less vulnerable.
Studies have shown that women on juries are less likely to convict a rapist than men are. I think it's because women want to believe that there are things they can do to avoid being raped, and thus that the victim somehow brought it upon herself. Believing that victims bring assault upon themselves is, unfortunately, the way a lot of women cope with being vulnerable to sexual assault. It's the way they tell themselves, It can't happen to me.
It's superstition. It's a talisman. It's a St. Christopher medal. It's bullshit -- and harmful bullshit at that.
And it's not just harmful to the harlots in miniskirts, either. It's harmful to all victims of sexual assault and harassment, because it puts the idea into their heads that it is something they brought upon themselves, that it is somehow their fault. That maybe they shouldn't even come forward because people will think it was their fault. That maybe they shouldn't come forward because who would even believe they were sexy enough to be raped, violated or sexually harassed.
It is at this point in our journey today that I am going to encourage you to take a moment and Google "Amish sexual assault." Sexual assault is endemic in communities like the Amish, in which women are not only encouraged, but required to dress and behave "modestly." If dressing and acting "modestly" kept women safe from sexual assault and harassment, then surely the Amish would not have this problem. But they do.
Take a look at the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They all wore long, pastel dresses, with long sleeves -- and yet somehow, that did not prevent them from being victims of Warren Jeffs. Were they too "inviting"?
Hell, take a look at children who are sexually assaulted. Look at the problem of rape in nursing homes. One does not need to be "inviting" in order to be the victim of sexual assault. One need only encounter someone who thinks it is OK for them to sexually assault you.
I could walk out of my apartment stark naked and go down the block unscathed, so long as there are no rapists around. And anyone that would attack me would still be just as much of a rapist as a one who sexually assaulted a woman wearing a nun's habit. Women in nun's habits are, by the way, not immune to sexual assault either.
The fault for sexual harassment and assault does not lie with the victims. There is no magical skirt length that keeps sexual assault and harassment at bay. I realize that's a scarier reality to live with every day than one where something like that can protect you, but it is the one we live in.
The fault lies with the perpetrators, with casual wink-wink-nudge-nudge jokes about the casting couch, with parents who shrug off that "boys will be boys!" behavior, with any culture in which it is tolerated or accepted as "just the way things are," and any culture that puts the onus of not being harassed or assaulted on the victims thereof.
Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Previously, she was a Senior Staff Writer at Death & Taxes, and Assistant Editor at The Frisky (RIP). Currently, she writes for Wonkette, Friendly Atheist, Quartz and other sites. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse