On Short Skirts
This week, the results of a recent British study revealed that over 50 percent of women believe that rape victims are partially responsible for their own assaults. In the wake of the news, Jenni Murray tells her story of being raped as a 19-year-old. Murray insists she doesn't blame rape victims. But she does blame herself.
Murray lists three "extremely stupid" things she did on the night she was raped: (1) She "had been drinking in the pub" and was "not used to alcohol"; (2) she "went with a group of friends to the home of a much older man"; and (3) she was wearing "what my mother described, disapprovingly, as an extended belt, but what to me was just a fashionable mini skirt."
Each of Murray's "mistakes" fall under the category of normal teenage behavior. But unlike Murray's first two sources of self-blame, wearing a short skirt has little actual connection to a person's personal safety—miniskirts are an entirely socially constructed vulnerability. So let's focus for a minute on that extended belt Murray was sporting.
A good percentage of the study's victim-blamers think Murray should take responsibility for what happened after she stepped out in the mini: Her friends drifted away, the older man began "violently molesting" her, and then, when she gave him a firm "no" and attempted to fight him off, he punched her in the face and raped her. According to the Daily Mail, 24 percent of women aged 18 to 24 believe that "wearing a short skirt, accepting a drink or having a conversation with the rapist made victims partly responsible [for their rapes]."
The study doesn't detail why these people believe that wearing a miniskirt makes you responsible for your own rape. (For those who do hold this belief, feel free to amuse me with your explanations). Murray floats one theory: When Murray's rapist punched her in the face and then raped her, it was just a natural response to Murray's own subliminal messages.
"When a woman says no, she means no. And that's true, even if her clothes are saying the opposite," Murray writes, as if a piece of clothing could provide consent for any sex act with any person. "I believe we all have a right to wear whatever we choose, whether it's a mini skirt or a burka. Sadly, I'm not sure that the highly sexualised society in which we live offers young people much of a choice. Children are lured into 'sexy gear' before they're old enough to be trusted to take a bus on their own. . . . Is it a surprise that in such a society assumptions are made about a woman's availability?"
Under Murray's theory, wearing a short skirt signals that a woman is sexually available to anyone who happens to see her wearing the short skirt. The social cue provided by this inanimate object is to be trusted beyond a woman's actual words ("no") or actions (desperate attempts at escape). Furthermore, this sartorial secret code (short skirt = down to fuck anyone) is accepted not only by rapists, but by society at large—including rape victims, police officers, and jurors. And what if a woman who does not want to have sex with any and all bystanders decides to put on a short skirt? Her punishment for breaking the code is getting punched in the face and raped.
So, how do we combat this absurd belief that short hemlines carry the power to override a woman's right to consent to sex? Ridiculously, Murray suggests that the way to cut down on short-skirt-related-rapes is to militantly reinforce the false connection between miniskirts and automatic sexual availability. Murray notes that many, many people who wear short skirts—including little girls heading off to school—are not dressing with any intent to provide preemptive consent to sex. Instead of embracing this as a positive sign, Murray's solution is to force younger generations who do not associate short skirts with a get-out-of-rape-free card to re-code their clothing choices along the victim-blaming spectrum. "If I had a daughter I would be telling her to . . . be aware of the signals she may be giving out that may be read as a licence to take liberties," she writes. "It's not an ideal world, but it is the real world."
Tellingly, Murray doesn't bother to address what sort of anti-rape advice she'd be dishing if she had a son. The next generation of potential rapists will have to receive their social cues by eavesdropping on the advice we're providing to the next generation of potential victims. This is what they're hearing: If she's wearing a short skirt, it's not your fault when you rape her.