Wolfendale, Jessica - author imageJessica Wolfendale is Associate Professor of Philosophy at West Virginia University. She has published extensively on topics in applied ethics including terrorism, torture, and military ethics. Her current project is a book on war crimes (co-authored with Associate Professor Matthew Talbert). In addition to her work in political violence, she has a long-standing interest in fashion as it expresses values, sexuality, and identity. She is co-editor of Fashion: Philosophy for Everyone (Wiley-Blackwell 2011) and is currently completing an article on sexual modesty. Her most recent article, “Provocative Dress and Sexual Responsibility,” is forthcoming in the Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law.

 Dangerously Provocative [1]

The provocatively dressed woman is dangerous. She is disruptive; a distraction and a temptation. She can lead good men to thoughts of infidelity; she can distract men and boys from the important tasks of work and education. The dangers posed by the provocatively dressed woman mean that she must be monitored and controlled. Girls must be forbidden from wearing provocative clothing to school, so that they don’t distract boys.[2] As a principal of a Canadian High School wrote in a letter to parents: “Girls wearing short skirts should think about how they sit and what is revealed when they bend over …. It’s my job as principal to keep students contained in an environment where they [boys and teachers] can learn [and teach] without distraction.”[3] Likewise, women should wear “good, modest, conservative dress” at work because “[r]emoving one more distraction will help everyone keep their focus”.[4]

But the provocatively dressed woman also needs to be warned about the dangers she poses to herself. A Canadian police officer told students at Osgoode Hall Law School that: “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized,”[5] and in the wake of a series of sexual assaults in Brooklyn in 2011, police officers advised women not to wear shorts or skirts that were “too short”.[6] Because the provocatively dressed woman sexually arouses men, she risks attracting unwanted sexual attention. It is therefore up to her to make sure that she doesn’t send the “wrong message” with her outfits.

This means that if she is sexually assaulted or harassed, the provocatively dressed woman only has herself to blame. As a commentator in a CNN discussion about the SlutWalk movement put it, “You women that dress provocatively will attract the pervert/rapist whatever nearby. Simple as that. When they see boobs and thigh and butt they all go nuts. So don’t entice them as much as possible.”[7]

This narrative of the provocatively dressed woman is persistent and widely-held.[8] It is implicit in numerous school dress codes, in media coverage about sexual assault and harassment,[9] in the advice given to women and girls by police officers, and in advertising depictions of “sexy” women.

The narrative of the provocatively dressed woman seems to offer an enticing and uniquely female form of sexual power. Just by wearing revealing clothing, it appears, a woman can sexually arouse men; she can make them forget their girlfriends or their marriage vows, and she can even threaten their commitment to their work and their education. She is the classic femme fatale: the woman who uses her sexual appeal to control and manipulate men to get what she wants. Men, in this narrative, are hostage to their sexual desire. At the mere sight of a short skirt or tight top, they can’t control themselves. Against their better judgment, they can become powerless in the face of a woman’s allure.

Perhaps, then, the provocatively dressed woman is a sexually empowered woman: she embraces and celebrates her power to arouse men rather than fears it. She is dangerous not because she is a threat to sexual morality but because she knows she is powerful, and she exercises her power when and how she sees fit. She consciously chooses to wear what the author Annette Lynch refers to as “porn chic”– the short, tight-fitting, and revealing outfits worn by female celebrities such as the Kardashians.[10] She is the sexy, cheeky, scantily dressed young woman we see frequently in advertising who doesn’t feel the need to hide her sexual appeal, as exemplified in a Calvin Klein ad in which a scantily dressed model reclines on a couch looking enticingly at the camera, with the slogan “I seduce in my Calvins”.[11]

But once we unpack the beliefs and attitudes that are expressed and reinforced through the narrative of the provocatively dressed woman, we see that she is not empowered. She does not have genuine power or sexual agency. In contrast, her apparent dangerousness and sexual power is embedded in and reinforces disempowering and objectifying conceptions of women’s bodies and women’s sexuality.

The narrative of the provocatively dressed woman tells us that women are responsible for men’s sexual behavior. Male sexual desire is depicted as an omnipresent and potentially dangerous force that women must learn to avoid arousing if they don’t want trouble. The attitudes expressed in the narrative of the provocatively dressed women encourage men to feel entitled to act on their sexual desires, even if the women who are the object of those desires reject them. Social and cultural attitudes, such as those expressed in media discussions of sexual assault and harassment, reinforce this privileged status of male sexual desire. The privileged status of male sexual desire is also reinforced in the law, for example when a Canadian judge referred to a victim’s “suggestive” clothing as grounds for leniency for a defendant convicted of rape, since such clothing “sent signals that sex was in the air.”[12]

This narrative of the provocatively dressed woman also reflects and reinforces the belief that women who wear revealing clothing want sexual attention from all men, not just from men they are attracted to or from whom they would like sexual attention. Thus the narrative implies that men who sexually harass or assault women aren’t fully to blame for their behavior because women who wear revealing clothing are “asking for it.” Men’s diminished responsibility for their actions toward women is implied by the very use of the word “provocative” to describe women’s clothing. Men’s clothing, no matter how revealing or tight-fitting, is never described as provocative. Women’s sexual arousal is not depicted as a potentially dangerous force that men must be wary of. Men are not warned against tempting or distracting women, and men are not blamed if a woman sexual harasses or assaults them.

So the “power” of the provocatively dressed woman is an illusion. The power attributed to the provocatively dressed woman is based on the belief that women’s bodies are inherently sexualized: that clothing that reveals sexualized women’s body parts is an open invitation to any man, an invitation that men are entitled to act on regardless of the intentions and wishes of the women in question. This reveals the insidious message of the narrative of the provocatively dressed woman. When a woman’s outfit is described as provocative, she is reduced to a collection of sexually charged body parts (breasts, buttocks, legs). In addition, a specific subjective desire is attributed to her—the desire for sexual attention from men. Because of what she wears, she must want sexual attention, regardless of what she says. Her actual preferences, if inconsistent with the intentions that men attribute to her, are dismissed as not reflecting what she “really wants”—she says “no,” but her outfit says “yes.” Thus, it is men’s interpretations of her desires and intentions that are taken as authoritative.

Contrast this with the narrative of the male seducer – the debonair playboy (exemplified in the character of James Bond) who actively seeks sexual attention from women, only to use them and leave them. The playboy figure, despite his dashing attire and seductive behavior, is never accused of sending the “wrong message,” nor is he viewed as deserving or “asking for” unwanted sexual attention. If he rejects a woman’s advances, his rejection is taken as authoritative. She cannot then claim that his “no” means “yes”.

But the provocatively dressed woman’s supposed sexual power over men can be turned against her at any moment. A woman who embraces provocative dress and decides that she wants sexual attention from men will still be denied her own agency if she chooses to reject a particular man, or objects to certain kinds of sexual attention. Instead, she will be accused of “sending the wrong message,” and the desires of men who sexually approach her will be attributed to her, and her own desires will be denied and overridden.

Thus women are in a bind. Both women and men sometimes want to be viewed as sexually desirable, but for women the wish to be attractive is tinged with the threat of unwanted sexual attention. Both men and women use clothing to attract others, but only women are punished if they reject men’s sexual advances, whatever they are wearing. And only women will be blamed if they are sexually harassed or assaulted by men. The provocatively dressed woman, it will be said, knew she was playing with fire when she decided to go out dressed like a “slut.” Since, in this narrative, male sexual desire is a powerful force that can cause men (poor creatures) to be overcome by their urges, it’s not their fault if they get “carried away.” It is the provocatively dressed woman who is to blame for attempting to have it both ways: sending the invitation that she’s “up for it” but then complaining when men take her up on the invitation.

So the narrative of the provocatively dressed woman has nothing to do with women’s sexual desire and sexual agency. Sexual agency, at a minimum, involves the freedom to refuse or accept sexual invitations from others. It involves the freedom to understand and develop one’s own sexual potential, and to have one’s sexual desires treated with respect by one’s partners and potential partners. But the narrative of the provocatively dressed woman frames female sexual agency purely in terms of male sexual desire and male sexual entitlement. Indeed, the satisfaction of female sexual desire plays no role at all in the narrative, since the narrative suggests that men’s sexual arousal is the aim and sole object of a woman’s choice of clothing. The narrative depicts women as sexualized objects who have the potential to affect and disrupt men (but not vice versa), and the potential to attract sexual violence and aggression. The narrative suggests that men may be entitled to approach a woman sexually if she is wearing a “sexy outfit,” even if she claims she doesn’t want such attention.

Thus the narrative of the provocatively dressed woman is dangerous not because a sexily dressed woman is dangerous but because the narrative reinforces and reflects attitudes about women’s responsibility for men’s behavior that privilege male sexual desire, and that hold women to blame for sexual assault and harassment.


[1] This article draws on ideas discussed in “Provocative Dress and Sexual Responsibility,” Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law 17 (1), 2016.

[2] Laura Bates, “How School Dress Codes Shame Girls and Perpetuate Rape Culture,” Time Magazine (May 22, 2015), http://time.com/3892965/everydaysexism-school-dress-codes-rape-culture/.

[3] Shauna Pomerantz, “Cleavage in a Tank Top: Bodily Prohibition and the Discourses of School Dress Codes,” The Alberta Journal of Educational Research 53 (4): 373-386, 2007, p. 381.

[4] Jason Hancock, “Missouri Legislators Suggest an Intern Dress Code, but Speaker Nixes the Idea,” Kansas City Star (Aug. 18, 2015), http://www.kansascity.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/ the-buzz/article31374875.html.

[5] Ed Pilkington, “SlutWalking Gets Rolling After Cop’s Loose Talk About Provocative Clothing,” The Guardian (May 6, 2011), http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/06/slutwalking- policeman-talk-clothing.

[6] Katherine Bindley, “NYPD to Women of Brooklyn’s Park Slope: Don’t Wear Shorts or Dresses,” Huffington Post (Nov. 30, 2011), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/30/nypd-to-women-of-south-park-dont- wear-shorts-or-dresses_n_989539.html.

[7] Jessica Valenti, “Why We Need SlutWalk: A Study in Comments,” JessicaValenti (2011), http://jessicavalenti.com/post/5451590186/why- we-need-slutwalk-a-study-in-comments.

[8][8] For example, one third of respondents in a 2005 Amnesty International survey of over 1,000 people in the UK believed that a woman who wore revealing clothing and behaved flirtatiously was partly responsible if she was raped (“UK: New Poll Finds a Third of People Believe Women who Flirt Partially Responsible for Being Raped,” Amnesty International UK (Nov. 21, 2005), https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/uk- new-poll-finds-third-people-believe-women-who-flirt-partially-responsible-being).

[9] For example, a New York Times article on the gang rape of an 11-year old girl quoted residents of the area in which the girl lived as saying: “she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s” (James C. McKinlley, Jr., “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town,” New York Times (March 8, 2011), http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/09/us/09assault.html?_r 4).

[10] Annette Lynch, Porn Chic: Exploring the Contours of Raunch Eroticism (London, UK: Berg, 2012).

[11] This ad was shown side by side with an ad featuring a male model with the slogan “I make money in my Calvins”. (Jess Edwards, “Calvin Klein under fire for ‘sexist’ ad campaign,” Cosmopolitan (22 March 2016), http://www.cosmopolitan.co.uk/fashion/style/news/a42155/calvin-klein-sexist-ad-campaign/).

[12] Mike McIntyre, “Rape Victim ‘Inviting,’ so No Jail: Judge Rules Woman’s Clothes, Conduct Ease Blame on Attacker,” Winnipeg Free Press (Feb. 24, 2011), http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/ local/rape-victim-inviting-so-no-jail—rape-victim-inviting-so-no-jail-116801578.html.