Kerala Judge’s Remarks: Her Guilty Dress and Other Lies Men Tell Each Other About Sexual Assault
The world into which boys are born has men as heroes. They can be good or bad in their assigned roles in society or in their profession, but they are heroes nonetheless. A hero can proclaim that another was provoked into committing a sex crime under the spell of a woman’s dress, and both can get away with it. In any case, we must love our heroes with their flaws and flaws.
But should we?
While recently granting early bail to a defendant, a court in Kerala observed that on the face of it a sexual harassment charge would not be drawn if the woman was wearing a ‘sexually provocative dress’. The sighting was met with righteous rage. But while the bump of outrage on our social media calendars will flatten out in days, the daily misogyny of this legal argument will endure. It’s always like that.
The obsession with the attire of a sexual assault victim is not new, nor is our collective failure to detach women’s clothing from sex crimes. Do a web search on sex crimes and you’ll see the blame compass pointing to a woman’s dress in an assemblage of cases across geographies. In 2006, a woman was raped on a highway in Manitoba, Canada. The judge spared the defendant jail time by blaming the victim for creating “inviting” circumstances, noting that she and a girlfriend wore “tube tops with no bra”. An Italian priest, in 2012, said in a neutral tone that women trigger violence by wearing “dirty clothes”.
There were countless moments of a similar nature in India too, but the questions they raised did not for once cause men to seek answers. Because you see, “but what was she wearing?” is a hero’s question, born out of an acrid patriarchy harder than it seems.
To dismantle it clinically would require reversing the question itself, to ask “why do men do this?” Perhaps engaging in this way can replicate with near-perfect resonance the lies men tell themselves, including the woman’s “guilty” dress trope. The dismissive examination of women’s clothing is based on the premise that by dressing in a particular way, women can arouse men into a heady buzz where they lose all control of themselves.
Sexual arousal between the sexes comes in the form of complex color codes, but experimental studies have generally supported the idea that a visual spark matters more in the case of men. But can it break through the barriers of self-control? Do not doubt that men can control themselves unless that ability is impaired by injury or poisoning. But drinking is a man’s choice, and so are its consequences.
As for those who invoke dress as an excuse after the crime, it is well documented that such responses are deliberate “thinking errors” (cognitive distortions) that offenders use to absolve themselves of guilt or shame. It’s a cover.
Beyond the use of causal defamation, the other argument circulating is that men sometimes confuse clothing with consent. There is no debate here. Those who read a t-shirt slogan or a short skirt as a swipe in their favor are engaged in a self-deception that leads them to put a supposed sartorial cue above the words – yes or no – or an actual wigwam of resistance.
Why are our efforts to counter such behavior in a botched mess? Perhaps because societies and cultures have cut the cost by surreptitiously accepting sexual violence as endemic – something you simply learn to live with. The only way then is to get dirty in the trenches and fight the atomized misogyny in hand-to-hand combat.
For a long time, young girls were taught that their dresses were either meant to attract men’s attention or to distract it in some way. Look around and you won’t find boys fear-conditioned enough against such objectification.
Dismantling the myth that the female form is a dangerous and corrupting weapon aimed at all men would require a new emotional language. One for courageous daily conversations in schools, homes, and safe spaces where “darling sons” are raised. A mass traveling text of metaphors against patriarchy that can occupy arenas beyond the echo chambers of existing converts.
Not that big bang efforts aren’t necessary. For starters, how about guidelines for explicitly addressing the admissibility of a woman’s style of dress as evidence in a sex crime case?
In the meantime, until we recast the messy inequality storyline, let’s rewrite our heroes’ dialogues.