'What were you wearing?'

Sexual violence and the clothes

It has been at least five years since the by now famous tweet of the American actress Alyssa Milano that stated, ‘if all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote 'Me too' as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem’, and which had been followed by a number of posts by celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence and Uma Thurman. The sad occasion for such a calling was the exposure and frenzy of media coverage of numerous sexual-abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein, the until then powerful Hollywood producer, in October 2017. Yet, this was also the historic moment when the #MeToo movement has gone viral as a hashtag on social media on an international scale as a social movement against sexual harassment and sexual abuse of women and femininities by men, affiliated to various degrees with the feminist movement but with its own unique features, tenets, and claims. However, the idea of the #MeToo movement was first articulated almost a decade earlier by Tarana Burke, an American activist from New York who came up with it in an effort to raise awareness of the true extent of the phenomenon of sexual violence in American society. 

After all these years and many criticisms against the movement on the basis of being too white, too heterosexual, and too rich, in other words on the basis of its lack of an intersectional approach, Burke revisits her roots as a youth worker working with Black children and women of color, reflects on the current status of the movement, and speculates about its future. According to Burke, a survivor of sexual abuse herself, while ‘Harvey Weinstein is a symbolic case and to see a high profile, rich white man be convicted of a crime, in general, is always astonishing’, ‘celebrity goes to jail or not, is not sustainable as a movement’, highlighting this way both the classism of movement and the lack of an understanding of sexual abuse as a systemic problem endemic to a heteropatriarchal society beyond the celebrification of a handful of viral and ‘high profile’ cases. And she continues: ‘What we need to be talking about is the everyday woman, man, trans person, child, and disabled person. All the people who are not rich, white, and famous, who deal with sexual violence on everyday basis. We need to talk about the systems that are still in place that allow that to happen.’ In other words, not only is the movement far from over, but in a self-reflective gesture a need for an intersectional, systemic, and from the below approach is a necessary one in order to fulfill its political and social promise. There is a lot of work to be done, and the alarming statistics on this matter testify to the lethal combination of invisibility and pervasiveness of sexual violence in the USA

But what do clothes have to do with it? Despite the fact that the sentimental and sensational media coverages and the sexual criminal laws and legal procedures -that are infamously indifferent or even hostile to the particularities of these cases- cast the further violence of exposure to the victims and they force them to relive a second ‘rape’ in the public eye, we have learned a lot from such testimonies along the way. In a way, these brave cis and trans women, girls, and femininities have made all those who care enough to listen to them closely much better persons, a widespread and unprecedented awareness has been raised, and a certain feminist sensibility has been cultivated. This has taught us how to spot sexual violence, how to name it for what it is, how to stand up for ourselves, and to stand with empathy and in solidarity by those who need our help. In this context, certain patterns have become clear regarding the defense strategies of the defendants with the most infuriating one being the victim-blaming that sets forth a certain psychological trajectory in the victims and manipulates courts and the public opinion by resorting to their sexist reflexes. By saying, implying, or treating a person who has experienced sexual violence like it was a result of something they did or said, the responsibility for this abusive behavior gets misplaced from the person who harmed them to the victims themselves. One insidious yet extremely common and effective form of victim-blaming, from courtrooms to casual conversations, regards the clothing of the victim during the sexual assault. ‘What did you expect going out dressed like that?’ 

Since the #MeToo movement has gone viral and an integral part of our social imaginary, a lot of art exhibits with the title ‘What were you wearing?’ have been organized in many countries around the world in an effort to expose the sexist myths that sustain the victim-blaming of women and femininities based on their looks the day they were sexually abused. In these installations, as you can see in the pictures above, the outfits of the sexual violence survivors are exhibited usually accompanied by a short description of their experiences, feelings, and thoughts. As the visitor navigates the space, the popular narrative that the sexual assault is to be attributed to a person’s choice in wardrobe gets shattered in front of one’s eyes, and an awakening occurs regarding the ideological workings of the normative myths that nonetheless have very material consequences in our lives. This time it is the visitor, not the victim, who gets exposed to the reality of sexual violence as it gets materialized in mundane and sexy-less pieces of clothing. Even in the cases that the clothes in question are ‘revealing’, the imprinted first-person voice of the victim deconstructs her ostensible intentions to sexually provoke the male passers-by by narrating the exceptionally ‘ordinary’ circumstances under which the assault took place. Sometimes, these narratives are full of guilt and shame and stigma to which the psychological mechanism of victim-blaming condemns the assaulted ones in order to silence them. In some other narratives, one finds defiance and empowerment and resistance to the very myths that ascribe to the victims their ‘proper’ place in a heteropatriarchal society or even to the very notion of victimhood.

This type of violence on top of the sexual violence, the violence of discrediting, blaming, and stigmatizing the already traumatized, rests on a series of gendered meanings, assumptions, and expectations inscribed on women’s and femininities’ bodies via the clothes as signs that incessantly transmit non-linguistic yet powerful messages to others about selves as sexual and gendered beings. The problem with these messages made of fabric is that the wearer does not have control over their meanings, and in the case of women and femininities living in a sexist world the ultimate arbiters of these messages are men. In other words, we are talking here about a series of mutually reinforcing double-binds patriarchy forces onto women and femininities: you must dress in a sexy way but not too sexy, you are perceived both active as seductive via your clothes and passive as an object of desire for men to possess without consent, and finally, being sexy is both a means of female agency and empowerment and an inevitable exposure to the objectifying male gaze. However, in the case of sexual violence, this seemingly innocent gaze turns into verbal and physical acts of sexual violence that capitalize on this taken-for-granted objectification. Women and femininities are literally treated like well-polished (and well-dressed) products that lack intentionality and interiority, a soulless and desireless object always available at the whims of a man. Well, as a queer underwear brand, Ecce homo says out loud: fuck this shit once and for all.

P.S. I promise to revisit and expand these thoughts on the #MeToo movement in order to tackle its relation with the LGBTIQA+ movement. Bear with me!