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Kat Neilson — March 24, 2022

Clothing Does Not Equal Consent

Kat Neilson

“What were you wearing?” This is a simple question survivors of sexual assault, abuse, and violence are often asked after experiencing a traumatic incident. By asking this question, well-intending friends and family members can differ blame directly to survivors and away from the root of the issue, a perpertrators negative action. In this blog, we aim to clearly articulate that clothing does not equal consent.

When victims choose to report an assault, they should be met with support and resources. Instead, they are sometimes met with questions and contempt. People try to find a way to understand and justify the assault. Were they drunk? Were they playing hard to get? Why did they wear that outfit if they didn’t want attention? These phrases fall under the category of victim-blaming, a term defined by “someone saying, implying, or treating a person who has experienced harmful or abusive behavior (eg: a survivor of sexual violence) like it was a result of something they did or said, instead of placing the responsibility where it belongs: on the person who harmed them” (Sace). People both intentionally and unintentionally engage in victim-blaming to imply that a survivor could have done something to prevent their assault. They use it to back the argument that what a person wears can dictate what happens to them. This backward thinking suggests that to prevent sexual assault, a person simply has to dress modestly, otherwise they are supposedly asking for it.

Victim blaming makes it harder for survivors to come forward because it shifts the blame towards the victim and away from accountability towards the perpetrator. According to RAINN, only 310 out of 1000 sexual assaults get reported in America, meaning more than two-thirds of all sexual assaults go unreported. Survivors face many obstacles when reporting a crime, including the fear of not being supported by their communities. Survivors have a variety of reasons for not reporting and each situation is unique. The idea that clothing can make a difference in whether or not an assault will take place is ridiculous. The only person responsible for committing acts of sexual violence is the perpetrator.

In November 2018, there was a trial in Ireland regarding the sexual assault of a 17-year-old girl, who accused a 27-year-old of being the perpetrator. The man was found not guilty partly because of his defense argument in which he claimed that what the victim was wearing equaled consent. The defense team indicated that the way she was dressed meant that she was looking for sex. Elizabeth O’Connell who worked for the defense, is quoted as saying “Does the evidence rule out the possibility that she was attracted to the defendant and was open to meeting someone and being with someone? You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front” (Rehumanize). This quote is alarming for several reasons. This defense was a direct example of victim-blaming, and it, unfortunately, worked in favor of the assaulter. This is the hard reality survivors face when coming forward about their assaults. Victim-blaming negates the actions of a perpetrator and furthers the notion that somehow clothing can equal consent.

The conversation around clothing-related consent needs to be normalized in society to stop misinformation. Most sexual assaults are perpetrated by a person the victim knows, including friends and romantic partners. There is a misconception that sexual assaults only occur in dark corners by strangers, but that is not always the case. Consent may feel harder to define if an assault is committed by a friend or partner. A partner may try to gaslight or manipulate a victim into thinking the assault was consensual. For example, a partner might try to say: “You are my girlfriend so it can’t be assault.” However, assault is committed anytime unwanted sexual contact occurs. It doesn’t matter what age a victim is, what gender the victim is, what the relationship to the victim is, or what clothing a victim is wearing. The only thing that matters is if the sexual contact was welcome or not. Education around the topic of consent and support resources for survivors who have experienced sexual assault must be weaved more closely into the framework of our society.

Fortunately, there are some avenues of support for survivors. Our Wave has built a community for sexual assault survivors to receive the support and resources they need to find healing. It is a safe space where survivors can open up about their experiences and help others with similar stories. Our Wave is helping to create change and prevent future violence as we seek to make it clear that clothing does not equal consent. Clothing is an excuse used to victim-blame and it deflects attention from the perpetrator. Poet Brittney Conner wrote in her spoken word poem Consent, “Consent is not the length or lack thereof your skirt.”

You can help fight against misinformation by staying informed, sharing what consent really means on social media, and starting a conversation in your community. There are many resources on the internet that can help you be an advocate for survivors of sexual violence. There are also resources and information to help you better support victims. The myth that clothing contributes to sexual violence prevents justice from being served to those who commit sexual crimes. Until there is a change in society, crimes will go unpunished, and victims will feel unsupported. It is crucial to learn about consent whether or not you are in a relationship. Even if you are not a victim of a sexual crime, you may know someone who is. Learning about consent can help you be an advocate for others and handle difficult conversations appropriately. Help Our Wave in its mission towards a world where survivors are supported, justice is served, and information leads to prevention.

Help change the conversation.

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