The Miniskirt Myth

Did you know miniskirts cause rape? It is being reported that Swaziland has criminalized the wearing of “miniskirts, low-rise jeans and midriff-bearing tops” in a supposed effort to reduce rape.

Police in Swaziland, the last absolute  monarchy in Africa and an incredibly conservative nation, have resurrected an  archaic colonial criminal act from 1889 to stop women [from] wearing clothes that  expose their body. Swazi police were responding to a march in  the second city of Manzini last month by young women, some wearing miniskirts,  who were seeking equal rights and safety. In Swaziland women are legal minors and  two-thirds of teenage girls have been victims of sexual assault.

News article in The Daily Mail

“You know what I expect will happen when I’m dressed like a slut? People will want to get with me. You know what I don’t mean when I dress like a slut? That anyone I encounter can literally do anything at all they want to me.”

-Jaclyn Friedman, speaking at a SlutWalk Boston rally

In a previous essay, I wrote about the problematic phenomenon of victim blaming as focusing on the behavior of victims rather than that of perpetrators. Men and women engage in victim-blaming and it comes in many forms. Individuals blame victims when they ask, “What did she expect?” Institutional representatives blame victims (and inspire international movements) when they suggest that to remain safe, women should avoid dressing “like sluts.” Institutions blame victims when they focus rape prevention efforts at potential victims instead of potential perpetrators. Government officials blame victims to protect oppressive regimes.

What’s the problem with focusing the conversation on victims to reduce incidences of rape? (Assuming that’s the actual goal.) In a nutshell:  it’s ineffective at addressing the problem and harmful to rape victims and those who care about them.

  1. It is ineffective. Rape is a violent crime perpetrated across all cultures. Miniskirts are NOT the common thread; misogyny and masculine entitlement to the bodies of women and other vulnerable individuals are. Whether a woman is naked, dressed in a miniskirt, or covered head to toe, she should have the protected right to decide when and with whom to engage in sexual intercourse. Whether a woman is naked, dressed in a miniskirt, or covered head to toe, she is vulnerable to sexual violence due to the prevalence of cultural attitudes that condone rape across cultures and across a variety of cultural modes of dress. This is why sexual violence is an issue in the U.S. military. This is why sexual violence is an issue in cultures that already severely police women’s dress (among other severe forms of gendered oppression). These ineffective approaches waste time and resources and simultaneously perpetuate cultural attitudes that condone the perpetration of sexual violence. They prevent us from focusing on real solutions that promote public health, safety, and well-being.

  2. It is harmful. Victim blaming attitudes make it harder for victims of sexual violence to recognize they are the victim of a crime and report the crime committed against them. These attitudes also increase the level of trauma experienced by victims and can prevent them from making use of available resources and services to overcome the resultant trauma. The harmful effects of this approach result in greater individual, social, and economic costs.

At Louisiana’s most recent annual conference on family violence and sexual assault, Beth Gross Meeks of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence spoke about victim-blaming messages embedded in common conversations about rape and domestic violence. She made the point that whereas the two guiding principles in addressing gender-based violence are advocating safety for victims and accountability for offenders, victim blaming confuses these two principles by advocating safety for offenders and accountability for victims.

Laws and policies such as this passed in Swaziland are yet another example of the latter. They advocate accountability for victims by blaming rape on victim’s behavior and choices. They advocate safety and protection for offenders by displacing that accountability. They punish and police women for the violence (mostly) men commit against them. They do nothing to prevent rape because miniskirts don’t cause rape. Rapists cause rape. Every day, men walk by and interact with women in miniskirts without raping or otherwise assaulting them (a reasonable expectation). Criminalizing the wearing of miniskirts serves to oppress women, not to reduce instances of rape. Rather than focusing on miniskirts, we would do better to focus on and disrupt the social and cultural conditions that create and condone those rapists – conditions rooted in misogyny and masculine entitlement to women’s bodies.

Still not convinced? Let me take this opportunity to share, once again, my favorite public service announcement of all time. It was created by Rape Crisis Scotland and, in 30 seconds, destroys the miniskirt myth. Watch, enjoy, and share. By doing so, you’re taking action, and “small actions x lots of people = BIG change.” So go ahead: make change.


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