What Were You Wearing?

by Blessing Heelis, Undergraduate Staff, MCVP

 

Black minidress with puff sleeves, white sneakers, and my hair in pigtails: this is what I was wearing when my neighbor catcalled me. Earlier that morning while getting ready, I felt very cute. But after being catcalled, I felt gross. As my neighbor exclaimed, “Good Lord!” and stared at me, I felt his eyes boring holes into my body. I ignored him and walk-jogged to my car but even as I speedily drove away from my apartment complex, I couldn’t stop thinking about the interaction and how it made me feel. I thought to myself, “Maybe if I wasn’t wearing what I am right now, I wouldn’t have been catcalled.” Almost immediately, I recognized how disturbing this thought was. I was astounded how ingrained it is into our society and therefore my mind that we should blame victims instead of pinning the responsibility on the perpetrator. I blamed myself for being catcalled. It made me reflect on instances of more severe sexual violence and how victims must blame themselves too. So why do we victim-blame when it comes to what someone is wearing?

Victim blaming is deeply rooted in the “just-world hypothesis,” the belief that we live in a just world and that actions have fair and moral consequences. Therefore, when victims get assaulted, the first question that pops into our heads is, “Well, what did they do that caused that to happen to them?” This would explain why victims are often blamed rather than their perpetrators. It is within human nature to think the victims “had it coming.” Instead of seeing what the perpetrator did as wrong, we think the victim must have been “asking for it” in some way so they deserve what happened to them. It is true that actions have consequences; but instead of questioning the actions of the victim, why aren’t we questioning the actions of the perpetrator? Instead of framing everything in terms of the victim, why aren’t we framing things in terms of the perpetrator? What actions did the perpetrator take that had consequences for the victim? Further, we believe nothing bad will ever happen to us because we are “good people.” So when we imagine ourselves in the same scenario, we believe we would be able to prevent the situation from happening, or could even avoid it entirely. This is what I thought prior to my interaction with my neighbor; I believed if someone were to catcall me, grope me, or assault me, I would have the courage to stand up to them. However, in that moment when I was catcalled, I was frozen with confusion, surprise, then discomfort. Now, I’m not so sure how I would react in situations of intensified assault.

But what is the relevance between victim-blaming and clothing? What Were You Wearing? is a traveling art exhibit founded in 2014 by Jen Brockman and Dr. Mary Wyandt-Hiebert. The exhibit is simple yet compelling. Pinned on the walls of the exhibit were the clothes people were wearing when they were sexually assaulted. Contrary to popular belief, there was more than just “slutty” clothing covering the walls: there were baggy jeans, oversized shirts, sweats, swimsuits, men’s button-ups, modest dresses, and most tragically, children’s clothes. A caption next to a little girl’s dress read, “[I was wearing] a sundress. Months later, my mother would stand in front of my closet and complain how I never wore any of my dresses anymore. I was six years old.” This exhibit shattered preconceived notions we have about the situations in which sexual assault arises. Sexual assault occurs not just at clubs when you’re dressed promiscuously and being flirty; it can happen when you’re in everyday-wear and caught alone in a room with your brother’s friend. In both situations there is only one common denominator: the perpetrator’s actions. Under no circumstances does one’s clothes express an enthusiastic, verbal “yes.”

Some might see what my neighbor said as a compliment, and that may be how he intended it. It is also true that what I was wearing elicited the catcalling from my neighbor. If I were makeup-free and wearing sweats maybe he wouldn’t have catcalled me, or maybe he would have anyway. That being said, it shouldn’t matter whether I was dressed to the nines or not. It doesn’t change the fact that the comment made me uncomfortable and wasn’t asked for. At no point during the rest of my day at school did I receive any catcalls from other people. This made it clear to me that the onus was on my neighbor and nothing or no one else. We have to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions and words and stop blaming victims for their assault based on their clothing. By continuing to excuse the perpetrator and spreading the “what were you wearing” myth, we are teaching people that it’s okay to sexually assault someone based on their dress. At the McCluskey Center for Violence Prevention, we are interrupting these myths. Violence prevention does not start with responding to victims, it starts by intervening with perpetrators or those at risk to perpetrate harm before violence happens in the first place. By interrupting these harmful beliefs and educating our campus community members, we can transform our university into an equitable and safe space for all.

 

Blessing Heelis is an undergraduate student majoring in anthropology with an emphasis in archaeological science. When she’s not studying, Blessing likes to hike in her favorite place — Provo Canyon. She is so excited to be among the inaugural staff of the MCVP and feels honored to be a part of something that will make a great, positive impact on the community.