When news broke that Deputy Principal Cherith Telford at Henderson High School in New Zealand told female students that their uniform skirts must be knee-length to “keep our girls safe, stop boys from getting ideas and create a good work environment for male staff,” reactions were mixed. Singer Erykah Badu felt that the girls had no business wearing skirts that stopped above their knee to school, while actress Reagan Gomez argued that it wasn’t the responsibility of the girls to avoid being a temptation to grown men.
The idea that clothing has anything to do with assault is global and persistent. In 1999, the Supreme Court of Appeals in Rome ruled that a woman wearing jeans couldn’t be raped, reasoning that a rapist couldn’t forcibly remove a pair of pants. Police question victims of sexual assault about what they were wearing , as though the length of their skirt is an indication of consent. Members of the Missouri legislature responded to reports of increasing sexual harassment with plans to enforce more modest dress codes, as though the problem is a 19-year-old’s first business suit and not the 50-year-old who’s using his power over an intern inappropriately. In 2005, Amnesty International polled Britons and found that as many as a third of respondents thought women were partially responsible for being assaulted because of attire and behavior.
We know that anyone from a nun to a soldier — including men — can be a victim of sexual assault. In fact, men in the military are at a slightly greater risk of sexual assault than women. Now either the three-piece military uniforms and combat boots are leading people astray, or clothing has nothing to do with rape.
Even though 9 percent of sexual assault victims are young men, we don’t insist that they dress differently. We don’t warn young men not to tempt their teachers with their bare biceps, knees or other body parts. When a story breaks about a female teacher preying on a boy, no one asks what he was wearing.
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Women who express their fear of being assaulted as a reason to avoid strange men on the street are often chided for thinking that “all men are rapists.” And indeed, studies show that a small percentage of men are responsible for most sexual assaults. But the anti-rape campaigns that are put forward on campuses, in the military and elsewhere focus on the idea that the only way a woman can be safe from sexual assault is to change her behavior, to change her attire, to never do anything that could potentially increase her risk of being a victim. There’s an assumption that rapists are just one of those unavoidable aspects of life, and the onus is on women, who make up 91 percent of victims, to insulate themselves.
Now, if only 6 percent of men are rapists, wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on changing the behavior of the smaller population? To have anti-rape campaigns that focus on teaching not only what constitutes sexual assault but that actively teach not to be a rapist? Wouldn’t it make sense for schools to focus on training teachers not to see their vulnerable young charges as potential sexual partners? After all, the only one in control of whether a sexual assault is attempted is the perpetrator.
If a teacher can be tempted into inappropriate behavior because of the skin just above a girl’s knee, then the problem isn’t the knee; the problem is the teacher. And if our culture insists on perpetuating the lie that clothing leads to rape, despite all evidence to the contrary, then the problem is our culture.
Mikki Kendall is a Chicago-based writer. This column was published in The Washington Post.