Her Dress Did Not Mean Yes

The Expired Narrative of Sexual Assault

Duke Unfiltered | Karla Colley | March 4, 2016

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“Did you see her that night? She was dressed like a slut with her entire ass and boobs practically hanging out her dress.”

“And she was completely trashed. If she didn’t want to be raped then she shouldn’t have gotten drunk and put herself at risk.”

“I’ve never even seen her sober, and she’s always spreading her legs anyway, so she probably sent the wrong message and led him on.”

“Yeah. Plus, I have had class with him, and he definitely doesn’t seem like that kinda guy.”

One of my family members was raped, but society told her that she wasn’t. I knew that she did not deserve it, but society told me that she did. We both believed that her reputation should not have made her anymore of a target than other women, but society told us party girls wanted it. This is not just her story, but the same tired narrative in which our society works to discredit a lot of sexual assault victims. We are warned about the women who looked slutty that night, so they obviously wanted it and pushed the men too far by wrongfully tempting them. We hear about the blackout drunken girls that should take complete responsibility for putting themselves in a situation to be taken advantaged of. We humiliate the “whores” who we claim throw themselves at anyone and everyone so it was probably their fault for sending the wrong message.

One of the most dangerous parts of this overplayed narrative that has become the archetype of sexual assault cases is our idea that there is no way the accused could have committed such a horrendous act because he “does not look like a rapist.” This is incredibly problematic because there is not a specific description or characterization that all rapists adhere to. I get it, growing up we were bombarded with those images of the creepy old man offering us stale candy from the back of a beat up pick up van; however, not all rapists look like this. In fact, 9 out of 10 college women knew the person who sexually assaulted them, so it is more likely to be that hot guy that smiles at you every Tuesday afternoon than a random old man on the street. These are the unfortunate truths of being a sexual assault victim in our time, and I have a huge problem with this.

For our particular school, I must admit that I can understand where some of the reluctance to condemn the accusers stems from. Despite it being almost a decade ago, when you type Duke into Google’s search bar, one of the articles on the first page is about our lacrosse scandal where players were falsely accused of raping a stripper that had been invited to their off campus house. As discussed in a 2014 Vanity Fair article, despite never being formally charged, the player known for sending the infamous email that referenced the brutal murders of strippers American Psycho style, encountered many difficulties in finding jobs after the case because of what a quick search of his name would reveal. This puts us, both as a society and as a college campus, in a rough spot because we certainly understand the stain that results from being accused of rape, but we also do not want to further punish and alienate victims by assuming that they are lying. We understand the importance of the premise that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but there is also the fact that law enforcement officials believe that only eight percent of rape allegations are false.

I have noticed that when a guy or a particular group of guys are suspected of sexual assault on this campus, the first thing we as a school comment is “Well, remember what happened with lacrosse a couple years ago and how shitty Duke was by immediately turning its back on them.” This is something that haunts us as a university because of how Duke’s quick judgment backfired. We often try to avoid actively prosecuting the men, but that can put us in danger of shaming and not believing the victims in our attempts to remain objective. It is a fine line that we toe. I am not quite sure how we stand on it without tipping over to either side.

As college students, especially students that are women, sexual assault is an issue that has crossed our minds way more times than we can count. The fact of the matter is that we are put at a greater risk for sexual assault on college campuses. As I talked about above, a lot of the discrediting of victims centers around where they were, what they were wearing, how much they had to drink, and what their reputation is. Well? That is essentially college in a nutshell. We love to go out and have a good time.

“We have all seen it for ourselves, across our Facebook feeds, and probably been a part of it: the tight bandage dresses, the crop tops, the short rompers, the mini skirts, the solo cups, and the empty shot glasses. Parties and alcohol are a huge part of the social scene on most campuses and thus, our social lives.”

Whether a woman likes to go out or not and whether she likes to drink or not, do not matter. Either way, she does not deserve to be raped or otherwise forcibly violated. A drunk woman with her boobs out and her legs showing dancing on the bar deserves the same amount of respect as the completely covered woman sitting quietly at a table with her friends. Modesty is completely subjective. Not to mention that fully clothed, “well behaved” women get assaulted too, so what is the justification for that? A woman’s attire, reputation, and overall appearance should not impact how we perceive her story. Our definition of rape should not rely on any of these factors.

When we discredit women in these ways, we are not protecting them or educating them on keeping safe; to me, it sounds like we are really saying, “Follow these strict rules so they rape that other girl who was too dumb to listen instead of you.” Honestly, I am incredibly frustrated by the number of both men and women that defend rape like this and by the fact that we still need to even have this conversation. This is complete and utter bullshit, and I am not fucking here for it.

“Our goal should be to protect ALL women by teaching men not to rape and by punishing them when they do instead of victim blaming and enforcing the idea that some women deserved it.”

No one is entitled to a woman’s body, but yet we continue to shame victims for choices they made that horrific night that ultimately should not have impacted how they were treated.

What is worse, the problem does not stop at shaming the victims. In fact, I believe that there is a cycle that has formed – one that has created a new generation of women who are terrified of walking alone at night or being left alone for too long with a guy that makes them uncomfortable. Women who are terrified because they know that if something were to happen to them, there is a high chance that they would not be believed. There is a cycle that has been spinning round and round of women being afraid to simply speak out about their trauma or against their attacker, much less to even press charges, because they know that people will immediately look for ways to smear their story; our cultural indifference and rape culture created this cycle. Women are no longer just afraid of the act of rape itself, but the victim witch hunt that happens after that often leads to self loathing. As women, we have adjusted to this fear by becoming increasingly cautious almost to the point of being paranoid because that is the only way we feel that we can truly protect ourselves. And you know what the sad truth is? Sometimes all this hyper-awareness and paranoia can still not be enough because one in five women are sexually assaulted while attending college. That could be any girlfriend in your friend group. It could even be you or me.

I, for one, am tired of having to hurriedly cross the street and pretend like I am talking to my parents on the phone whenever I come across a large group of leering guys alone. I am tired of feeling like I cannot fully trust a guy friend to pour me a drink because who knows what he might slip into it when I am not looking. I am tired of having to resort to the popular “I have a boyfriend” line when a guy harasses me because he does not respect my right to say no, but somehow respects the possession of my non-existent bae. I am tired. Us women in general are tired. I imagine that sexual assault survivors must be absolutely exhausted, especially the ones that do not get the justice they deserve because no one believes them. All college campuses, this country, and the world should be tired too.

When is this constant pursuit to discredit survivors and tarnish their stories finally going to expire?