What We Talk about When We Talk about Sexual Harassment

Wei-Chi Su  Nov. 2020



In the article on GUTS—Rape Culture 101(2016), they wrote: “ Rape culture is an environment in which rape is presumed to be inevitable and certain people are taught to fear rape and certain people are not. Rape persists because rape is related to the universal devaluing of people and behavior deemed to be feminine... Rape persists because the language we ascribe to sex facilitates the weaponization of sex into rape.” Despite the fact that feminism is rising, there is still a long way to go. The devaluation of being feminine and the weaponization of sex makes me question our relationship between clothes and the way we dress— Are we still spreading and absorbing these concepts without knowing?

Do people feel a connection between what they wear and sexual harassment? Participating in the interview, a number of people were shown with the images of 'What were you wearing?’ Survivor Art Installation originated at the University of Arkansas in 2013, and The Guilty Clothes Collection held by The Survivors Trust in 2017 without knowing the topic. They described the clothes as “casual clothes for grocery shopping, pajama, bikini for beach or pool parties, and a dress with a green sweater underneath might be for a date.” The responses were quite similar, those clothes are just daily outfits, no difference from what we would wear.

However, after being informed about the stories of the images, the way they look at the clothes have changed. They may believe what those women were wearing somehow impacted what happened to them. “ Maybe the criminal already knew this person or has relation to that person which is often the case. And I think clothes don't play a big role in these circumstances. But maybe in other cases clothes still play a part,” said a 23 years old young man. Besides being startled and denying at the beginning, all the interviewees expressed their concerns that the clothes might still be a factor in the context of sexual assault in general.


Unexpectedly, a young woman mentioned ‘heuristic’ during the conversation, and I found it extremely entrancing. The heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows people to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently in conditions of incomplete or uncertain information. With that said, while looking at sexual assault cases at the first moment, we might use what the information we have been told or learned unconsciously and give an immediate response.

“ When sex was discussed it was to scold young girls for ‘dressing to attract male attention.’ Our choice of dress was either a means to prevent or draw attention. Our bodies were intended for the male gaze but only when it was appropriate for those men to see them.” (Marisa, P., 2016) Growing up surrounded by religion, this is what Marisa Peters has been told.

It is widely known that heuristics include the availability heuristic and the representative- ness heuristic. The availability heuristic means making decisions based on how easy it is to bring something to mind. Since these relevant examples are more readily available in their memories, people will tend to judge these outcomes as being more common or frequently-occurring. The representativeness heuristic involves making a decision by comparing the present situation to the most relevant prototype that already exists in our minds. This is the reason why people frequently ask the sexually assaulted victims what they were wearing. It is based on the more easily approached example and relevant prototype in their mind. The incomplete but subjectively relevant prototype might come from our religion, culture, education, social impact, and personal experiences. For ages, people seem to have a hard time detach the connection between sexual assault and clothes, and fashion may have to take part in the responsibility.

Vogue Ukraine September 2019, Lulu In Kyiv


Whilst looking at the images of the victim’s clothes, the interviewees were also presented with some Vogue covers. These Vogue covers are from different countries, with female models in the photo. Among them, depending on how the interviewees described, all the images seem to be related to sexual information. In one of the covers, a woman is standing in the water with lots of masculine men behind her. Some said it looks very sexual even though she is dressed in a sort of powerful suit. And the other mentioned it looks like those men are competing for her. In another cover, a woman is wearing a very revealing dress, sitting on the ground in a kind of sexy pose with the headline “Power to the youth.” In the words of the interviewees, youth doesn’t sexually need the power, and it’s quite unfair to say power to the youth in that picture.

“ Do you think this is the ideal image fashion wants us to look or be like?” I asked at the end of the interview. Some interviewees decidedly agreed that this is what we see everywhere. Not just on Vogue but in many other magazines and the billboards on the streets. In this sense, they claim that fashion imposes us to feel sexy and they see this as a message. Others seem to be more reserved. They narrated these covers as eye-catchers whose purpose is to catch the attention and sell the dream of fashion, but not directly reflect on what people wear. Still, fashion might give power to the women who are wearing those clothes, but the power they gain is by feeling sexy and more attractive. “Maybe people are not actively looking at the pictures and think they want to look like that, but it might have some impact on the subconscious mind”, said by a respondent.

In the nineteenth century, fashion magazines have established the link between femininity and consumption. (Kate Nelson Best, 2017) As artistic and embodied researcher Chet Bugter mentioned in The Luxury Fashion Magazine as Disciplinary Agent (2019) “Luxury fashion magazines generally portray women as hyper-elegant and sensual beings, who are simultaneously utterly frail and solely present as objects to be looked at.” Luxury fashion magazines enforce gender binary codes, and women are continuously shown to be feminine and sexy. The fashion press started to portray fashionable clothing as a way to access specific and desirable lifestyles since the nineteenth century, and fashion magazines have become an increasingly important factor in shaping people’s identities.

‘The Hands-on-Hip Pose’, ‘The Expansive Pose’, and ‘The Portrait Pose’ creating the angular postures and elegant silhouettes by the bony female models are the images we expect in the fashion magazines. (Ibid) Virtuous, beautiful, and maternal but also thin, white cisgender, able-bodied, sticky heterosexual, neurotypical are the qualities of the standard of the most respectable performance of femininity in our society. (GUTS, 2016) And luxury fashion magazines have emphasized these characteristics for decades.

What were you wearing?, Survivor Art Installation, 2013


With the arising of feminist consciousness, fashion is now emphasizing women’s power as a trend by putting women in powerful suits, which women have increasingly adopted in an attempt to level up with men at the turn of the century. But on Vogue Ukraine September 2019 Cover, it looks like the power of the woman is still built on being alluring and desirable. The language and the attitude we use to talk about sex is always subject to the forms of power or identity-forming. Instead of giving the power to women that they have acquired for a long time, visualizing the sexiness of women in the magazine increases the violence against women.

The women who are under or close to the respectable standards which were mentioned above are the women we taught to fear rape. However, if you fall further from the standards than the others, such as trans women, or people of all gender, when they are perceived as feminine or not feminine enough, they will still be the target of perpetrators as “corrective” rape. (Ibid) Binary of masculine and feminine is entrenched, and in this binary feminine is less. We deprecate the value of femininity as fragile, vulnerable, and disempowered.

“ So, who is guilty? THE CLOTHES? THE WOMAN? or THE RAPIST?” The question was raised at the end of The Guilty Clothes collectionby The Survivors Trust in 2017. This collection showed what people were wearing when they experienced sexual assault. Those victims have been returning home from work in a suit, running around the park in a tracksuit, or having a cup of coffee with friends in comfortable jeans and a sweater. None of the clothes are erotic, revealing, or provocative. And even if they are, why do clothes matter? It is ironic and also heartbreaking that we still blame or even question the victims.


The universal devaluation of people and behavior, who are considered to be feminine and the weaponization of sex are the reasons sexual harassment and assault continually exist in our society. We formed associations, started magazines, and hold more and more exhibitions and lectures to prevent and protect people from sexual assault. We actively try every way that might guarantee people’s safety. But if we don’t decompose the hierarchized gender binary in our society, change the language and attitudes we use to talk about sex to avoid turning sex into armament, how can we ever warrant sexual harassment won’t continue to exist?

The fashion industry might not be the only one who should take responsibility. Nevertheless, with more than a hundred years of emphasizing ‘the male gaze’, standing in and promoting patriarchal culture by its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure, fashion certainly is part of the instigators who put the easy approach example and relevant prototype in our unconscious mind. It has continuously objectified women, devalued femininity, and nourishing the gender binary for years. Fashion gives women power by letting them feel sexy, endearing, and attractive, but fashion also creates conditions for sex to be used as a tool of power. Maybe it is time for fashion to look at itself and review the way it treated women and femininity. Fashion needs to divorce with patriarchy, starting by detaching from visualizing the male surveyor's view. The bodies in the eld of fashion publication shouldn’t be objects to gaze at anymore, women and people of all gender should be able to look at the magazine and feel related instead of insecure, undermined, and devalued. Overall, we are all part of society, and we should be responsible for the existence of rape culture and resolve it together fundamentally.

Brockman, J., and Wyandt-Hiebert, M. (2013). “What Were You Wearing?” Survivor Art Installation published on the occasion of the exhibition at the University of Arkansas, Arkansas 31 March - 4th April 2014. Arkansas: the University of Arkansas. https://wwyw.forestry.oregonstate.edu/

Bugter, C. J. (2019). ‘The luxury fashion magazine as disciplinary agent’ in Press & Fold #1 The Luxury Issue (ed. Van der Voet, H.), Amsterdam, pp. 129-140.

The Survivors Trust (2017). The Guilty Clothes Collection: The Most Provocative Fashion Show Ever. YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mk18sAJnV_w [Accessed 6 Oct. 2020].

GUTS (2016). Rape Culture 101. [online] GUTS. Available at: http:// gutsmagazine.ca/rape-culture-101/ [Accessed 21 Oct. 2020].

Peters, M. (2016). Why I Lied About My Rape. [online] GUTS. Available at: http://gutsmagazine.ca/why-i-lied-about-my- rape/ [Accessed 21 Oct. 2020].

Nelson Best, K. (2017). The History of Fashion Journalism, Bloomsbury, p. 27.p.30

© 2022, Wei-Chi Su.