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Material Evidence: Sexual assault, provocative clothing and fashion

Material Evidence: Sexual assault, provocative clothing and fashion
Material Evidence: Sexual assault, provocative clothing and fashion
Inspired by Mary Simmerling’s poem ‘What I was Wearing’, Jen Brockman and Mary Wyandt Hiebert created an art installation as part of the University of Arkansas’s RESPECT programme (‘What Were You Wearing’, 2013) that literally redressed the pervasive myths surrounding rape in western cultures. The installation combined student testimony of sexual assault, which was recorded and displayed next to garments that represented the clothing they were wearing during the time of the assault/s (and in some instances there were more than one). By exhibiting clothing worn alongside the words, memories and experiences of ‘survivors’, the exhibition aimed to demonstrate that popular conceptions surrounding dress and rape were problematic and inaccurate. Here, the focus was on debunking rape mythologies; myths that ultimately result in victim-blaming, whilst simultaneously reinstate gender and clothing stereotypes that originate from perceptions of Victorian morality, i.e. women who dress ‘provocatively’ are ‘asking’ to be raped (Moor, 2010; 116). Indeed, by viewing the clothing on display, the spectator became acutely aware of the preposterousness of this statement or attitude; the clothes exhibited were bland, ordinary, mundane, jeans, t-shirts, jumpers, clothing that anyone, of any age, background, or anywhere could be wearing at anytime. The significance of the ‘What Were You Wearing’ installation can be read through statistics, with the Rainn Organisation recording that 11.2% of all US university students (men and women) experience some kind of sexual assault, and an overall total of 23.1% of women students experienced rape or sexual assault through force or coercion. Sex crimes are the most prevalent of all crime on campuses nationwide, yet 4 out of 5 students don’t report the crime. (https://www.rainn.org/statistics/campus-sexual-violence). Off campus, the situation is equally bleak. Rape is a serious crime and one that is endemic in contemporary society. The Rainn Organisation state that ‘every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. Every 8 minutes, that victim is a child. Meanwhile, only 6 out of 1,000 perpetrators will end up in prison’ (https://www.rainn.org/statistics) statistics that were apparent in the ‘What Were You Wearing’ installation, which included a child’s summer dress, and comments from respondents who just wanted to return to ‘watching cartoons’ (Exhibition, Brockman, 2017) Likewise, in the UK, and in relation to statistics from 2009, Grubb and Turner note that ‘approximately 4.2% of women in the UK have been raped at least once since the age of 16 and that 19.5% of all women have suffered some form of sexual victimisation since the same age’ (Grubb & Turner, 2012; 443), although they acknowledge that these figures are likely to be grossly under-estimated as very few victims report the crime . In each example, the focus is on the ubiquity of assaults versus the infrequency of reporting, and this is a culturally constructed problem that is exacerbated by discussions of victims clothing, i.e. our attention is focused on the actions of the victim and not on those of the perpetrator. This is a much wider issue and one that cannot be addressed here, but one that highlights a gender bias and disparity that favours male dominance (power/control over others) over female agency (choosing what to wear and getting dressed). In the light of this statistical data, and in a climate where sexual assault has been central to Women’s political activism and media debate (Women’s March on Washington, January 2017 and the Metoo# campaign, 2017, sparked by the exposure of serial sexual abuser and Hollywood media mogul Harvey Weinstein ) this chapter considers the ways in which clothing has been considered an indicator of sexual availability, be it provocative or immodest, and how this has been used as a semiotic or sartorial clue in daily life as well as in courtrooms in the US and UK. As criminal acts are central to this investigation, legal representations and uses of clothing as evidence in the procedure from reporting a crime through to trial are discussed in relation to wider understandings of the meaning of clothes. The significance of clothing as a player in the culpability of women as sexual predators or victims is important here, because dressing is not an unconscious act, whilst encouraging sexual assault is something considered horrific and not sought consciously. We are all accomplished semioticians and are only too aware of sartorial codes that allow us to project particular identities (Barnard, Davis) that facilitate our ‘dressing for success’ , that enhance our physical appeal, make us feel better about ourselves, and ultimately allow us to fit in with or stand out from the crowd. At no stage do our clothes ‘ask’ to be violated, for crimes to be committed against us, yet these narratives dominate our understanding of sexual assault in the media, in general conversation and in the courtroom. In addressing how and why these concepts persist, the chapter will discuss how clothing is used in legal settings as a means of ‘standing in’ for the victim of sex crimes, and how undressing the victim allows her to be redressed as the representation of a particular kind of morality based primarily on the clothes she was wearing. Clothing here becomes a guise; a substitute for the real, lived body, a material witness that is also material evidence. The aim is to consider clothing as embodied and disembodied, but also as representative of Eco’s ‘clues’ that leave clothing and its meaning or intent open to misinterpretation. Finally, the chapter aims to consider why women might want to dress in a manner that might be considered ‘provocative’, and how this relates to notions of fashion, fashionability and attractiveness. By analysing sociological studies on provocative clothing and its perception by both men and women, the discussion aims to align fashion with sexiness within a post-feminist, neo-liberal cultural climate, in which the objectified female body is central to mainstream expressions of beauty and female empowerment.
171-191
I.B. Tauris
Turney, Joanne
7693d7d8-fa70-42ef-bd6e-a7fd02d272ab
Turney, Joanne
Turney, Joanne
7693d7d8-fa70-42ef-bd6e-a7fd02d272ab
Turney, Joanne

Turney, Joanne (2018) Material Evidence: Sexual assault, provocative clothing and fashion. In, Turney, Joanne (ed.) Fashion Crimes: Dressing for Deviance. I.B. Tauris, pp. 171-191. (In Press)

Record type: Book Section

Abstract

Inspired by Mary Simmerling’s poem ‘What I was Wearing’, Jen Brockman and Mary Wyandt Hiebert created an art installation as part of the University of Arkansas’s RESPECT programme (‘What Were You Wearing’, 2013) that literally redressed the pervasive myths surrounding rape in western cultures. The installation combined student testimony of sexual assault, which was recorded and displayed next to garments that represented the clothing they were wearing during the time of the assault/s (and in some instances there were more than one). By exhibiting clothing worn alongside the words, memories and experiences of ‘survivors’, the exhibition aimed to demonstrate that popular conceptions surrounding dress and rape were problematic and inaccurate. Here, the focus was on debunking rape mythologies; myths that ultimately result in victim-blaming, whilst simultaneously reinstate gender and clothing stereotypes that originate from perceptions of Victorian morality, i.e. women who dress ‘provocatively’ are ‘asking’ to be raped (Moor, 2010; 116). Indeed, by viewing the clothing on display, the spectator became acutely aware of the preposterousness of this statement or attitude; the clothes exhibited were bland, ordinary, mundane, jeans, t-shirts, jumpers, clothing that anyone, of any age, background, or anywhere could be wearing at anytime. The significance of the ‘What Were You Wearing’ installation can be read through statistics, with the Rainn Organisation recording that 11.2% of all US university students (men and women) experience some kind of sexual assault, and an overall total of 23.1% of women students experienced rape or sexual assault through force or coercion. Sex crimes are the most prevalent of all crime on campuses nationwide, yet 4 out of 5 students don’t report the crime. (https://www.rainn.org/statistics/campus-sexual-violence). Off campus, the situation is equally bleak. Rape is a serious crime and one that is endemic in contemporary society. The Rainn Organisation state that ‘every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. Every 8 minutes, that victim is a child. Meanwhile, only 6 out of 1,000 perpetrators will end up in prison’ (https://www.rainn.org/statistics) statistics that were apparent in the ‘What Were You Wearing’ installation, which included a child’s summer dress, and comments from respondents who just wanted to return to ‘watching cartoons’ (Exhibition, Brockman, 2017) Likewise, in the UK, and in relation to statistics from 2009, Grubb and Turner note that ‘approximately 4.2% of women in the UK have been raped at least once since the age of 16 and that 19.5% of all women have suffered some form of sexual victimisation since the same age’ (Grubb & Turner, 2012; 443), although they acknowledge that these figures are likely to be grossly under-estimated as very few victims report the crime . In each example, the focus is on the ubiquity of assaults versus the infrequency of reporting, and this is a culturally constructed problem that is exacerbated by discussions of victims clothing, i.e. our attention is focused on the actions of the victim and not on those of the perpetrator. This is a much wider issue and one that cannot be addressed here, but one that highlights a gender bias and disparity that favours male dominance (power/control over others) over female agency (choosing what to wear and getting dressed). In the light of this statistical data, and in a climate where sexual assault has been central to Women’s political activism and media debate (Women’s March on Washington, January 2017 and the Metoo# campaign, 2017, sparked by the exposure of serial sexual abuser and Hollywood media mogul Harvey Weinstein ) this chapter considers the ways in which clothing has been considered an indicator of sexual availability, be it provocative or immodest, and how this has been used as a semiotic or sartorial clue in daily life as well as in courtrooms in the US and UK. As criminal acts are central to this investigation, legal representations and uses of clothing as evidence in the procedure from reporting a crime through to trial are discussed in relation to wider understandings of the meaning of clothes. The significance of clothing as a player in the culpability of women as sexual predators or victims is important here, because dressing is not an unconscious act, whilst encouraging sexual assault is something considered horrific and not sought consciously. We are all accomplished semioticians and are only too aware of sartorial codes that allow us to project particular identities (Barnard, Davis) that facilitate our ‘dressing for success’ , that enhance our physical appeal, make us feel better about ourselves, and ultimately allow us to fit in with or stand out from the crowd. At no stage do our clothes ‘ask’ to be violated, for crimes to be committed against us, yet these narratives dominate our understanding of sexual assault in the media, in general conversation and in the courtroom. In addressing how and why these concepts persist, the chapter will discuss how clothing is used in legal settings as a means of ‘standing in’ for the victim of sex crimes, and how undressing the victim allows her to be redressed as the representation of a particular kind of morality based primarily on the clothes she was wearing. Clothing here becomes a guise; a substitute for the real, lived body, a material witness that is also material evidence. The aim is to consider clothing as embodied and disembodied, but also as representative of Eco’s ‘clues’ that leave clothing and its meaning or intent open to misinterpretation. Finally, the chapter aims to consider why women might want to dress in a manner that might be considered ‘provocative’, and how this relates to notions of fashion, fashionability and attractiveness. By analysing sociological studies on provocative clothing and its perception by both men and women, the discussion aims to align fashion with sexiness within a post-feminist, neo-liberal cultural climate, in which the objectified female body is central to mainstream expressions of beauty and female empowerment.

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More information

Submitted date: 1 January 2018
Accepted/In Press date: 1 April 2018

Identifiers

Local EPrints ID: 420016
URI: http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/id/eprint/420016
PURE UUID: a74a0268-1b7b-4838-966c-f55880fd4491

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Date deposited: 25 Apr 2018 16:30
Last modified: 13 Mar 2019 18:36

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Contributors

Author: Joanne Turney
Editor: Joanne Turney

University divisions

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