Clothing style doesn’t indicatepromiscuity, prof’s study says

by Bei Hu

Contrary to popular belief, a victim of sexual assault who wore a short skirt and plunging neckline on a date should not be blamed for instigating the attack, said University professor Kim Johnson.
Many people think the way in which someone dresses speaks volumes about his or her personality, according to Johnson’s recent studies. A number of sex offenders have used their victims’ revealing clothing to justify sexual assaults.
Johnson currently teaches in the University’s Department of Design, Housing and Apparel. Ever since her graduate school years, she has been intrigued by the social psychology of clothing.
Her interest in the connection between apparel and criminal litigation stemmed from a number of high-profile lawsuits in which the victims’s dress was cited as evidence of her consent to sex.
In a 1989 Florida rape case, a jury unanimously acquitted a man charged with kidnapping and sexual assault. “She was obviously dressed for a good time, but we felt she may have bit off more than she could chew,” a juror was quoted as saying of the victim.
Johnson has collaborated with University Law School student Theresa Lennon and Ohio State University Professor Sharron Lennon since 1986 to examine people’s attitudes toward women’s clothing and how such perceptions have been applied by judicial and law enforcement professionals. Their studies were recently published in publications, such as Law and Equality, Textual Research Journal and Home Economics Journal.
“Basically what the research shows over and over and over is that clothing is a very powerful nonverbal communication key that people use,” said Johnson. “And they infer a variety of types of information about other people based on their clothing.”
“But the problem is that (the public) never finds out whether or not the inferences are accurate. But they act as if they are,” she said.
Johnson combined her own studies and previous research to show that people often mistake revealing attire, such as low-cut tops, tight jeans or short skirts, for an indicator of a woman’s promiscuity.
A 1984 study found that 39 percent of respondents believed that women wearing “provocative dresses” were more sexually active and hence more susceptible to sexual assault.
More disturbing to Johnson is the fact that many judges, counselors and police officers share this belief, she said. A 1991 study stated that some judicial and law enforcement officials think sex crimes could be reduced if women could stop teasing men and dress more conservatively.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1986 reversed a court of appeals decision rejecting the use of a victim’s clothing as proof of her implicit consent to her boss’s sexual advances.
Only Georgia, Alabama and Florida have rape shield statutes that specifically disallow the victim’s dress as acceptable evidence in litigation.
Perpetrators of sex crimes, however, may not necessarily select what others might consider provocatively dressed women as their prime targets. “I want to say right away that clothing does not communicate your consent,” said Johnson. “And … we have to educate the public about why it doesn’t work that way.”