My shirt is not an invitation to rape me. My dress is not an invitation to follow me home. My strappy singlet is not the reason you lost your job. My body is not responsible for your behaviour.
Last week a Sydney school principal told students not to wear ‘skimpy or revealing’ clothing because it might be ‘inappropriate or regrettable’. She went on to say that she did not want female students compromising the employment of male teachers.
This principal has been asked to apologise. And while a video apology has been forthcoming, the address by the principal, who happens to be a woman, echoes a deeply embedded cultural belief around the cause of assault or misuse of power, by men, against women and girls.
UK research showed that a majority of men, and two out of every five women held this view; that females provoke assault (or misconduct) via their choice in clothing.
This is a myth, or an assumption that is not born out by any evidence. Women are attacked wearing a variety of clothing. To illustrate the point, back in 2013, Jen Brockman, the director of the University of Kansas’ Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Centrex, and Dr. Mary A. Wyandt-Hiebert, of the University of Arkansas’ rape education center, curated an art project that displayed the clothing that assault survivors were wearing ‘at the time’. Alongside the clothing are accounts by survivors of where they were and what they were doing just prior to the event.
Looking at what we wear, as the first approach to the problem, says it’s our fault. It says the victim is responsible for the behaviour of the perpetrator. It says that the assault could have been avoided if only you’d chosen a t-shirt, or sensible tweed three-quarter length pants. It is not the patriarchy that is at fault. It is not a broken legal system that minimises violence against women. It is not a sick society. It is something that you can change if you change who you are and how you present. Men can’t control themselves. It’s up to you, ladies, to avoid perpetrators by staying under their radar. Society accepts that perpetrators assault, rape and kill women and girls. What we don’t accept is what you are wearing or your right to choose what you wear. Because you have no agency. You are a female, and your body doesn’t belong to you; it is a shop with the OPEN sign in the doorway. Your strappy top says ‘come inside’. Your tiny shorts become the reason. You chose this.
It’s a perception seeded in Christian mythology. Remember Eve in the garden of Eden? She tempted Adam. She made him eat the apple. Let’s not forget she was nude.
See, it’s all about choice. Hers, not his. When you choose those denim shorts and the crop top, you choose to have inappropriate comments levelled at you, you choose to be assaulted, you choose to be raped, you chose to be murdered; to have your little body dragged through grassland, dumped and covered in leaves.
‘What were you wearing?’ It’s a question police ask of female victims all the time. Do they ever ask the perpetrator what he was wearing? Is there a particular type of clothing that makes a man more likely to perpetrate violence? A hoodie? A scratchy trackie? A business suit?
This idea that the onus of female physical safety lies in female clothing choice, rather than the actual behaviour of men is not new. It is a pervasive myth that I believe underwrites the lack of compassion and care for what happens to girls.
When the principal made that address, the group she was seeking to protect were her male teachers. Not her female students.
I hope every girl at that Sydney school chooses their mufti day to wear the skimpiest outfit they have. I hope every girl in NSW joins them and every woman, regardless of age. I’ve been part of the Slut Walk before, but maybe it’s not about small groups gathering to protest in the street. Maybe it’s about all of us wearing our tiniest, tightest, and most ‘provocative’ clothing in our schools, our streets, our universities and our workplaces to make the point that no matter what we wear, or where we are, we have the basic unalterable human right to safety. We might skimp on our tops, but that doesn’t mean we’re skimping on our agency. Instead of us changing what we wear, you need to change the creepy, and often illegal way you behave.