The Stereotype and Stigma of Sexualized Style Endures
As a career sex crimes prosecutor I've heard the question for years, asked after a sexual assault, "What was she wearing?"
Certainly, no one means to blame the victim for being victimized.
Yet the inquiry is made by friends and family, co-workers and classmates, judges, and jurors.
Research helps explain the delicate balance of patronizing and personal responsibility.
Attack and Attire: Perception of Personal Responsibility
Decades ago, Ed M. Edmonds and Delwin D. Cahoon (in 1986) investigated public attitudes related to victim attire.
At the time, participants were shown slides featuring a female model wearing clothes that were either sexy or unsexy, then asked questions about whether the model might be robbed or raped.
Participants believed that the model wearing sexy clothes was more likely to be robbed or raped, more likely to provoke an attack, and more likely to be responsible for her victimization.
Participants also viewed the assailant as less accountable if the woman was assaulted while wearing sexy clothes, than sexually conservative clothing.
Decades later, Jane Delahunty-Goodman and Kelly Graham (in 2011) tested the impact of contextual factors including victim intoxication and attire on how law enforcement handles sexual assault cases.
Recognizing research in different populations, they noted that college students rated women as "more flirtatious, sexy, promiscuous, and seductive" when wearing revealing clothing (Abbey, Cozzarelli, McLaughlin, and Harnish, 1987).
They also cite research by Cassidy and Hurrell (1995) examining the impact of victim clothing on judgements of date rape, finding that participants who viewed a photograph of the victim in "provocative" clothing were more likely to believe she was responsible for the behavior of her assailant, more likely to view the assailant’s behavior as justified, and less likely to recognize rape.
They recognize that a more recent study of date rape found that participants attributed more responsibility for a rape to a victim pictured in a short skirt, as opposed to a skirt of moderate or long length. (Workman and Freeburg, 1999).
Law Enforcement Evaluations of Attire
In their own research, Delahunty-Goodman and Graham (ibid.) sought to investigate whether victim bias was experienced by law enforcement.
Detectives, totaling 125 in number, from New South Wales in a date rape scenario were given witness statements accompanied by a photograph of the complainant wearing either conservative clothing (shirt, jacket, long pants), or "provocative" clothing (midriff singlet top, short skirt); a third category involved a statement without an accompanying photo.
Complainants who were perceived to be more sexually provocative were believed to be significantly more responsibility for the alleged sexual assault, similar to the way such victims were perceived by college students in previous studies.
However, contrary to previous findings, "provocative" attire was not linked with diminished responsibility of the perpetrator, victim credibility, decreased determination that sexual assault occurred, or the likelihood of charging the alleged perpetrator.
Rather, charging decisions were impacted by perceived victim credibility and offender culpability. In other words, while victim attire impacted perceived personal responsibility of the victim, it did not impact the decision to charge the perpetrator.
Attire that draws attention should be accompanied by enhanced perception.
The goal is to protect potential victims, hold perpetrators accountable, and ensure a system of stigma-free justice for all.
This article was originally published in Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick, JD, MDiv, Ph.D., is an award-winning career trial attorney and media commentator. She is host of "Live with Dr. Wendy" on KCBQ, and a daily guest on other media outlets, delivering a lively mix of flash, substance, and style. Read Dr. Wendy L. Patrick's Reports — More Here.
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