A woman’s outfit is often used during a rape trial to discredit her reputation and suggest she is the “sort of woman” unlikely to refuse consent to sex.

Some common opinions about dress

  • Different points of view:

    1. I feel great in this outfit – the vest looks so much better without a bra.
    2. I see a scantily dressed woman, asking for it.
  • Different points of view:

    1. I know I have a good figure and like to dress sexily, that doesn't give any man the right to sexually abuse me.
    2. Her clothing leaves nothing to the imagination. She is asking for trouble in my opinion.

The Myth

The way women dress is routinely cited as an incitement to rape. References to sheer and clinging fabrics, low-slung jeans and low-cut tops, bare midriffs, short skirts and liberally applied make-up are common in the context of rape trials.

Women are often judged on the basis of the way they present themselves, as though the presence of a bra or a subtler shade of lipstick might have made all the difference between an uneventful occasion, and one on which a sexual assault took place.

The assumption that such choices can lead to rape – that clothes can speak for women who say no – are ludicrous and extremely damaging.

Although she is the complainer in the case, which means that there is every chance she has been raped, it is the woman, and not her alleged attacker who is held up for public examination.

Scrutinising the way in which a woman was dressed at the time of an assault is one of many ways in which common myths and prejudices are exploited in order to damage her reputation and credibility in the interests of the defence.

Although the accused’s behaviour and intentions are of far more relevance than any clothing, in Scotland, he rarely takes the stand or is made to account for his choices or behaviour.

The Impact

There are many, many examples and different manifestations of the way in which dress is used in this context against women seeking justice for rape.

Sue Lees describes the real function of dress in rape trials: the way it is used to shift the focus away from the perpetrator’s actions, towards the character and reputation of the complainer:

“In rape trials exactly the same criteria for judging a woman’s reputation emerge again and again. The young woman who dresses quite normally in today’s fashions is put on trial because of it. The purpose of such distortion is to give jurors the impression that the woman is provocative and therefore to blame for the assault.

The identification of women as ‘prey’, liable to be attacked on the basis of how they dress or as a result of all kinds of perfectly normal behaviour, is a reflection of women’s subordinate situation in society at large. The misogyny behind such depictions may not be apparent to most jurors, it is so taken for granted.”

[Sue Lees in Carnal knowledge: Rape on Trial; London, The Women’s Press, revised edition, 2002]

Dress used against women seeking justice for rape

Examples which demonstrate this, occur almost daily, in Scotland as everywhere else:

In March 2008, at the trial in Perth of a 24-year-old man who was convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl, his defence lawyer had told the court:

"I don't think it is fair to say this was a very vulnerable person. There was a suggestion the girl had been sexually active before. The complainer was wearing shorts, black boots and a white top. She was trying to dress older than her years. She behaved as if she was over 16".

Tainsch was sentenced to three years probation and community service.

The imputation was clear: although she was a child, the complainer’s clothes said enough about the sort of girl she was – to allow the suggestion to be made that she had forfeited her right to protection from or justice for being sexually assaulted.

Judgements on dress during a rape trial

Lindsay Armstrong was raped in Ayrshire in September 2001. At the trial of her attacker, Lindsay was asked to hold up the pants she wore at the time of the attack. Although this was supposedly to allow the defence to argue that the pants had not been damaged, Lindsay was asked to tell the court what was written on them: the words “Little Devil”.

Putting Lindsay though this public humiliation served no purpose other than to allow the defence to try to smear her reputation – it allowed them to suggest that her pants and the motto they bore were enough to demonstrate that Lindsay was the “sort of girl” unlikely to refuse consent to sex and therefore unlikely to have been raped. Although the person who raped her was convicted, Lindsay Armstrong killed herself three weeks later.

The Facts

The proof: some facts about public attitudes

A fifth of the broad cross-section of the Scottish population (700 interviewees) who took part in research carried out by Progressive on behalf of Rape Crisis Scotland in August 2007 believed that women contribute to rape if they wear revealing clothing.

This was entirely consistent with other research findings:

  • Research conducted by Amnesty International in 2005 found that 27% of people believe that a woman is totally or partially responsible if she is wearing ‘sexy or revealing’ clothing.
  • A survey of 986 Scots carried out by TNS System Three in February 2008 for the Scottish Government found that 27% thought that a woman bore some responsibility if she wore revealing clothing.

What you can do

Challenge assumptions about women and dress, and woman-blaming attitudes that centre on their appearance

Stop thinking in terms of “respectable” women and those who are “asking for it” – no woman wants or deserves to be raped, and every woman who is assaulted is entitled to justice without having to suffer humiliation or the destruction of her privacy and dignity

Don’t try to second guess the significance of a woman’s dress or demeanour – women are entitled to make whatever choices they please when choosing what to wear – just as men are free to choose whether or not to commit a rape

Don’t impose your own values or codes on someone else – you may consider the way a woman has decided to present herself as inadvisable or even beyond the pale, but you have no right to judge her less worthy of consideration than you would be

Ask yourself some questions:

What does the assumption that dress can contribute to rape say about men?

That they are so completely unable to control their sexual behaviour that it is quite possible for them to launch a sexual attack if sufficiently provoked at any time? Is this how men want to see themselves?

What are the real reasons for raising issues around dress and physical appearance in the context of rape trials and putting women through the type of ordeal that Lindsay Armstrong (and many women like her) have suffered?

How can anyone defend the view that some women deserve less consideration and protection than others?

That because it is somehow so easy to exploit common prejudices by suggesting that some women (and as we have seen, children) lack modesty, have exercised poor taste or bad judgement, or been deliberately provocative, they can be blamed for rape and made to forfeit their right to justice and a fair trial?

Finally … if you’re really committed to helping us change the minds of people who think this way, download a briefing pack to take this message into your community.