Wednesday, January 23, 2013

"He Couldn't Help Himself": The Myth of Rape and Provocative Clothing

“He had sworn to remove the feminine evil of the cestus form the world so that all men, Scion and mortal alike, could finally control their lust."

Josephine Angelini, Starcrossed

One of the prevailing myths of rape is that women who are provocatively dressed entice men to lose self-control, thus blaming them for their own rape. The attitude that the way a woman dresses invites her to be sexually assaulted is damaging to our entire culture. What’s even more alarming is when this attitude is reflected in YA or “New Adult” novels in which the love interest hints or flat-out tells the female protagonist that her outfit will cause him to “lose control”, i.e. commit rape. He tells the woman he supposedly cares for that he’s telling her to change clothing for her own good, sometimes under the guise of protecting her from other men:

“Travis's mouth fell open. "Oh, hell no. Are you trying to get me killed? You've gotta change, Pidge."
"What?" I asked, looking down.
America grabbed her hips. "She looks cute, Trav, leave her alone!"
Travis took my hands and led me down the hall. "Get a t-shirt on... and some sneakers. Something comfortable."
"What? Why?"
"Because I'll be more worried about who's looking at your tits in that shirt instead of Hoffman," he said, stopping at his door.
"I thought you said you didn't give a damn what anyone else thought?"
"That's a different scenario, Pigeon." Travis looked down at my chest and then up at me. "You can't wear this to a fight, so please... just... please just change," he stuttered, shoving me into the room and shutting me in.”

― Jamie McGuire,
Beautiful Disaster

Not only does this perpetuate the myth that sexual assault can be blamed on provocative clothing, but it depicts men as having little to no control over their desires. They’re portrayed as ticking time bombs of raw sexuality, essentially positioning them as victims of the sexual prowess of women. Basic understanding of human decency, as well as any shred of free will, is eradicated in the presence of a hot chick baring her skin – even if it’s something she’s wearing to sleep in:

“I only have so much willpower, Helen," he whispered. "And since you apparently sleep in the most ridiculously transparent tank top I've ever seen, I'm going to have to ask you to get under the covers before I do something stupid.”― Josephine Angelini, Starcrossed

“Fine! I'll throw on some clothes. Turn around. I'm in my pj's."
"I'm a guy. That's like asking a kid not to glance at the candy counter."
― Becca Fitzpatrick, Silence

The argument of “boys will be boys” doesn’t apply here. Enough research on sexual assault shows that clothing does not influence rape, although the argument persists. Take a look at the details of a 1977 case in Wisconsin, in which Judge Archie Simonson flat out blamed the victim for her own rape:

“The judge called for women to ‘stop teasing’ and for a ‘restoration of modesty in dress.’ Additionally, the judge stated that ‘whether women like it or not, they are sex objects. Are we supposed to take an impressionable person 15 or 16 years of age and punish that person severely because they react to it normally?’”

Simonson was removed from the bench when the community (assisted by the National Organization for Women) fought back, but the argument persists. Clothing that shows off a woman’s figure is seen as consent to being treated as a sexual object. 

The University of Minnesota Duluth has a class on the sociology of rape and also has an online list of rape myths, an example of which being this one:

Myth:Rape is an impulsive, uncontrollable act of sexual gratification. Most rape are spontaneous acts of passion where the assailant cannot control him/herself.

FACT:Rape is a premeditated act of violence, not a spontaneous act of passion. 71% of rapes are planned in advance. 60% of convicted rapists were married or had regular sexual partners at the time of the assault. Men can control their sexual impulses. The vast majority of rapists are motivated by power, anger, and control, not sexual gratification.
These fictional depictions of “desirable” men (and boys) who can’t be trusted to stop themselves from committing assault if they’re tempted by sexy girls is perpetuating the myth that rape is a sexual act. Rape is in fact an act of violence and control. By giving these men pity and placing the blame on the women who dares to wear something she thinks is cute, it tells the reader that the hero is in fact the man, who is a helpless creature, and the woman and her sexuality is the villain. The blame is shifted to the woman. 

As Clementine Ford states in her article "Clothes Don't Cause Rape - Rapists Do", “Rape is possibly the only criminal act in which the victims are expected to take partial responsibility for the choices of the perpetrator. Victims of muggings aren't asked why they were flaunting their wealth in 'bad neighbourhoods'. Banks aren't expected to hide the fact they have vaults of money because some people might be tempted to rob them.”

Ford hits the nail on the head. If clothing alone provokes an uncontrollable violent outburst, does that mean that if someone wears a Yankees hat in Boston, he or she deserves to get beaten or killed? What if, when I go to Wrestlemania in a few months, I buy and wear a CM Punk shirt – does that mean that a wrestling fan who hates CM Punk gets to assault me?

The answer, of course, is no.

If anyone doubts that outfit choices will endanger them to being raped, take a look at tips from RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) for avoiding dangerous situations :

·         Be aware of your surroundings. Knowing where you are and who is around you may help you to find a way to get out of a bad situation.

·         Try to avoid isolated areas. It is more difficult to get help if no one is around.

·         Walk with purpose. Even if you don’t know where you are going, act like you do.

·         Trust your instincts. If a situation or location feels unsafe or uncomfortable, it probably isn’t the best place to be.

·         Try not to load yourself down with packages or bags as this can make you appear more vulnerable.

·         Make sure your cell phone is with you and charged and that you have cab money.

·         Don't allow yourself to be isolated with someone you don’t trust or someone you don’t know.

·         Avoid putting music headphones in both ears so that you can be more aware of your surroundings, especially if you are walking alone.

Nowhere in there does it mention not to dress a certain way.  

The “clothes can provoke rape” argument is absurd, as it argues against free will, which is the basis for having laws (there is no point in making crimes such as murder, rape, and assault illegal if human beings are not able to make sound decisions and exert self-control), it’s insulting to everyone. It tells us that women are objects who are either too stupid to recognize their sexuality or who are aware of their sexuality and use it as a weapon. It also tells us that men are hapless slaves to their desires.  

What’s sad is that in the books quoted above (and many others like them), the male love interests are in fact STATING that they cannot control their urges. Even sadder, these love interests are being heralded by the fans of these books as their “fantasy man”. This is profoundly disturbing.

There’s a difference between a man saying something like “You looked so beautiful and sexy the other night, I couldn’t stop thinking about you,” and him saying something like “If you wear that again I can’t be held responsible.” Wrong. We are all responsible for our actions, and the law exists to protect us from those who choose not to control themselves. An important step towards putting an end to this kind of victim-blaming is to have these “romance” stories stop putting these types of men on a pedestal. Those fictional women and girls – and far more importantly, real women and girls everywhere – deserve much better than any male who can’t control himself.