Why do people blame sexual harassment on women's outfits?

Elise Solé
Why are sexual harassment victims still questioning their clothing choices? (Photo: Getty Images)

If it were socially acceptable to wear anything, what would you wear?

That’s what one woman, who was shamed for wearing a pencil skirt to work, wants to know. The question was recently posted on Quora by a woman named Pia Sari, who wrote, “I know it doesn’t sound like a big deal to see a girl wearing a pencil skirt. However in my experience, it does. I was once wearing pencil skirt to work. Little did I know that it would somehow bring me trouble.”

She added, “Since the beginning of the day, I can’t say how many eyes were staring at me, not to mention my ass. I even got tons of comments from co-workers (particularly men) saying that I’m seductive and looking sexy and have a nice butt.”

“I don’t know if this can be categorized as sexual harassment as I didn’t feel comfortable with it,” she wrote, “but I found myself crying in the office toilet realizing that I can’t even wear pencil skirt without comments from guys and glowering from girls.”

She concluded with a plea: “I just want to wear pencil skirt, guys. Just a pencil skirt.”

Women’s wardrobes are often cited as the cause of sexual crimes, from an Indian politician blaming a mass molestation on women wearing “Western clothing” to a Canadian police officer telling a group of law students, “Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized,” and Donna Karan associating women’s clothing with the #MeToo movement. “Look at everything all over the world today and how women are dressing and what they are asking by just presenting themselves the way they do,” she told the Daily Mail in October. “What are they asking for? Trouble.”

Women also receive this message from a young age — across the country, teens are pushing back against the notion that school dress codes are necessary to divert male attention.

So it’s not too surprising that some women who are victims of harassment or other types of sex crimes second-guess their clothing, or in Sari’s case: “Little did I know that [the skirt] would somehow bring me trouble.”

The notion of “victim-blaming” was studied back in 1966, when two behavioral scientists at the University of Kentucky, Melvin Lerner and Carolyn H. Simmons, published groundbreaking research on the need for humans to live in a “just world” by rationalizing that victims, even their own, were somehow deserving of their circumstances.

Per the study, “It seems obvious that most people cannot afford, for the sake of their own sanity, to believe in a world governed by a schedule of random reinforcements. To maintain the belief that there is an appropriate fit between effort and outcome, the person must construe this as a relatively ‘objective’ belief—one that applies to everyone (Festinger, 19S4). If this is true, then the person who sees suffering or misfortune will be motivated to believe that the unfortunate victim in some sense merited his fate.”

In the same vein, if we can point to controllable, outside factors (such as a skirt) as the reason for her assault, it makes us feel safer.

“We often see this with rape victims — often the first question they’ll ask is, ‘Why me?’ It stems from the human need to find an explanation for injustice and distance themselves from the feeling that life is random,” Sandra Shullman, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in harassment and hostile work environments, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

“Women’s wardrobes have long been used as an excuse for sex crimes. However, when you look at the data on why people rape, that doesn’t hold up,” she says. “One study showed that rapists stated clothing as the reason for their crimes but their victims were wearing a range of outfits from revealing to snowsuits. These are arguments to transfer the responsibility of control and power from the perpetrator to the victim.”

When it comes to sex crimes, Shullman says, “clothing just doesn’t matter.”

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