It’s a Dress, Not a Yes

“It’s a dress, not a yes,” is a rallying cry at the SlutWalk marches, which demand an end to rape and victim blaming. The movement started in January 2011, when a Toronto constable warned students that to avoid getting raped they shouldn’t dress like sluts. Within months, anti-rape activists began taking to the streets in SlutWalks from New York to New Delhi.

“It’s a dress not a yes” is more than a catchy rhyme. It means that what a woman (or a child or a man) is wearing is never an invitation to rape. Sexual assault is never caused by sartorial display. Too bad Charlotte Allen doesn’t know that.

Allen is a contributing editor to the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank. On October 30, 2011, Ms. Allen wrote an OpEd for the Los Angeles Times equating women’s skimpy SlutWalk outfits with sexy Halloween costumes, writing,

Feminists are in denial of a reality that … men’s sexual responses are highly susceptible to visual stimuli, and women, who are also sexual beings, like to generate those stimuli by displaying as much of their attractive selves as social mores or their own personal moral codes permit.

In response to Allen’s politically negligent OpEd, writers such as Amanda Marcotte, Lindsay Beyerstein, Jill Filipovic, and Hugo Schwyzer lit up the feminist blogosphere with commentary and myth-debunking information.

SlutWalks are a spectacle to grab attention. The name alone makes people sit up and pay attention. But these marches do so much more than shock. SlutWalks provide information about sexual assault prevention and resources for recovery. SlutWalks are safe space to publicly speak out against sexual assault. People show up in sweatpants, jeans or everyday shorts, carrying signs that read, “This is What I Was Wearing When I Was Raped.” They wear flip-flops, thigh-highs, clogs, and running kicks. A particularly heartbreaking sign held high at one SlutWalk announced, “I was raped when I was 4. I didn’t know that footsies were slutty.”

The problem is that rape is compounded by myth—like when Charlotte Allen blames scantily clad women for provoking their own sexual assault. This ignores the fact that boys and men are also raped, and it is insulting to adult men everywhere. Men are not helpless slaves to their own sexual sight lines. Men have the power to make ethical, rational decisions about everyday matters, large and small.

The problem is never what she (or he) is wearing—data shows that women are raped wearing running clothes, jeans, miniskirts, burqas and sweatpants. The real problem is dangerous misinformation about sexual assault that diverts our attention from finding good solutions.

The statistics about rape and sexual assault in this country should serve as a wakeup call. The United States has among the highest rate of rape among industrialized countries. Nearly two people are sexually assaulted every minute. About 17.6 percent of American women and three percent of American men experience attempted or completed rape at some point in their lifetimes. According to The National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, one in four girls will be sexually assaulted by the time they turn eighteen. For young boys, that figure is one in six. Yet only 26 percent of sexual assaults are ever reported to the police. Though most men do not rape, as anti-violence expert Jackson Katz points out in his book, The Macho Paradox, over 95 percent of rapes are committed by men, regardless of the victim’s gender.

Yet as a society, we don’t send a clear message about rape. A survey conducted by M. Koss, C. Gidycz and N. Wisnieweski found that one out of twelve college men had committed acts that met the legal definition of rape. Yet most of those men did not believe that what they did was rape. Toss together an alcohol-soaked culture with fuzzy understandings about sexual consent, and rape myths only add to this serious confusion about what constitutes a criminal act.

Currently, the FBI only counts rapes that include penetration of a penis into a vagina by force. This means that coerced rape, men’s rape, drugged rape, anal or oral rape, and rape by objects or fingers don’t even count as rape to the FBI. After eighty years, the FBI is finally considering a change to this archaic definition. (You can urge them to do so by signing the petition below.)

It’s time we are clear about what constitutes rape and it’s time we respond appropriately. We need to change our culture to one that asks not, “What was the victim wearing?” but, “Why is he raping?” This will remain the focus of SlutWalk when it returns to cities around the globe next spring. Perhaps it can get the message across to pundits like Charlotte Allen: Fight rape, not other women.

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Photo of sign at SlutWalk by flickr user cascade_of_rant under Creative Commons 2.0


Shira Tarrant is an unconventional feminist redefining gender rights. She is the author of Men and Feminism (Seal Press), When Sex Became Gender (Routledge), and editor of the provocative anthology Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex and Power (Routledge). Her newest book, Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style (SUNY Press, with Marjorie Jolles), will be published in 2012. Shira Tarrant's writing appears in Bitch Magazine, BUST, Ms. Magazine, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Huffington Post, and in various anthologies, blogs, and encyclopedias. Shira Tarrant is a popular speaker at college campuses and public venues across the country and she is quoted widely in print, radio, television, and online media. Shira Tarrant received her doctorate in political science from the University of California, Los Angeles. She is an associate professor in the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department at California State University, Long Beach. Read more at