There was a recent controversy about a police officer who is reported to have suggested:

Women can avoid sexual assault by not dressing like a “slut.”

If we leave out the derogatory word and focus on the substance of the claim, is there any research that supports his claim or debunks it?

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    Research may be difficult to come by. It is impossible to make a controlled study of rape ("all other factors being equal"), and observational studies are hard because it's nearly impossible to quantify how slutty victim's clothing was at the time of the crime. In the end, clothing probably has an effect, but it might be small compared to other factors under victim's control (e.g. being drunk, going out alone at night in a dangerous neighborhood). – dbkk May 10 '11 at 13:18
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    Well, it's clear that his claim is false, as it is absolute- he does not say "help avoid" or "reduce the risk of" but simply "avoid". So all that is needed to disprove his claim is to find a single instance of rape where the victim was not dressed "like a slut". This is not very difficult. However, it's still worthwhile to investigate the less absolutist version of the claim. – Brian Schroth May 10 '11 at 14:36
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    Having been in police work for 40+ years, I can say that how a woman is dressed has little or nothing to do with sex crimes. It's about opportunity. Our local serial rapist, The "South Side" rapist, attacked some 30 women in their homes. He could not even see them before hand, he forced his way in through a window and raped the victims at knifepoint. – M. Werner May 10 '11 at 15:01
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    It would be interesting to explore whether the answer to this question is any different for acquaintance/date rape than rapes involving a stranger. – JohnFx May 11 '11 at 0:10
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    If this were true then women wearing burkas would never get attacked. But they do. I suppose they wear slutty burkas? – RedSonja Mar 30 '15 at 13:11
up vote 80 down vote accepted
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This is a touchy issue. I think it is important to note that the question of "Is a woman who dresses sexually suggestively more likely to get raped, at least in some instances" which is the question being asked from "Is a woman who dresses sexually suggestively at all to blame if she suffers from rape" which is often the question people respond to.

There are many studies showing that people will be more likely to attribute blame to women who are provocatively dressed without saying anything about whether or not the chances of rape are increased in some situations. Those studies are linked in the other answers to this question.

Some studies have shown that provocative dress can have an affect on the likelihood of sexual assault, at least in some instances.

Antecedents of sexual victimization: factors discriminating victims from nonvictims.

Synovitz LB, Byrne TJ., J Am Coll Health. Jan;46(4):151-8. (1998)

Partial abstract:

The variables found to be related to women's being sexually victimized were (a) number of different lifetime sexual partners, (b) provocative dress, and (c) alcohol use.

An Examination of Date Rape, Victim Dress, and Perceiver Variables Within the Context of Attribution Theory

Workman JE, Freeburg EW., Sex Roles, Volume 41, Numbers 3-4, 261-277 (1995)

This study found in part that the way a woman choose to dress is sometimes taken as a statement about her character including vulnerability, desire and/or willingness to have sex and provocation of males which consequently affects the likelihood of rape, including date rape.

The effects of clothing and dyad sex composition on perceptions of sexual intent: Do women and men evaluate these cues differently.

Abbey, A., Cozzarelli, C., McLaughlin, K., & Harnish, R. J. (1987) Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 17, 108–126.

Partial abstract:

A laboratory study was conducted in which subjects viewed a photograph of two students in a classroom. As predicted, male subjects rated female targets as more sexy and seductive than did female subjects. Also as predicted, female targets who wore revealing clothing were rated as more sexy and seductive than those wearing nonrevealing clothing. Female targets were rated higher on sexual traits regardless of the gender of their partner.

The study went on to infer that provocative dress can lead to an increased chance of date or spousal rape in some situations (primarily spousal and/or date rape).

Conclusion

While it is an unpopular view, I think it is safe to say that provocative dress may increase the chance of rape in some situations.

At the moment it is hard to say anything for sure, as there are too many variable factors. Rape statistics are often misreported or not reported at all. We don't know enough about how people interpret or respond to clothing. There also seems to be a lack of studies focusing on this area, which is understandable given the problems in obtaining data.

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    The skeptic in me is biased, paradoxically enough, to think that saying that clothing can affect the chances of being raped is a post-hoc explanation, and therefore is incorrect. However, this is the only answer that has directly cited multiple studies on the issue. I look forward to additional answers that take the subject seriously and are well-referenced. – Andrew Grimm Jan 30 '12 at 10:45
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    At least the last study is irrelevant. What they go on to infer is irrelevant. The only relevant thing is what can be corroborated by data. Their claim about a connection between dressing and rape cannot. It’s pure speculation. Furthermore, the abstract of the first study is contradicted by the Sophia Shaw study in all points. – Konrad Rudolph Mar 29 '12 at 15:55
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    I would suggest to Freeburg and Workman that it's at least as likely that the rapist's evaluation of clothing is motivated by a desire to get away with it, because he knows implicitly that many people will discount a woman's word if she is wearing anything that can be construed as "provocative". – Dave May 10 '12 at 16:29
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    I think this is a really poor answer. The second paper cited is about the degree to which people blame rape victims for their assault based on their dress, which is irrelevant, and the third is just about whether or not people perceive dressed sexily as being seductive. Frankly, I'm really annoyed at skeptics allowed this question. These answers are weak and ultimately only contribute to victim blaming. – Tacroy Oct 18 '12 at 16:29
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    Considering Convicted rapists' vocabulary of motive and Why do rapists rape?, clothing choice can affect a woman's chances of being raped. It's not that she causes such actions, only that it can push someone already on the brink over the edge. It's also possible that such a choice in clothing will tip the scales when the perpetrator is seeking a stranger (reportedly rare). – Paul Rowe Jun 23 '15 at 19:18

While at first it might seem obvious that women who dress provocatively "ask for it", this is not true. It is a poor excuse. In her dissertation for the degree of MSc, Sophia Shaw found:

We have found at the minute that people will go slightly further with women who are provocatively dressed, but this result is not statistically significant. Basically you can’t say that’s an effect, it could easily be the play of chance. I told the journalist it isn’t one of our main findings, you can’t say that. It’s not significant, which is why we’re not reporting it in our main analysis.

In addition:

We found no evidence that that women who are more outgoing are more likely to be raped, this is completely inaccurate, we found no difference whatsoever. The alcohol thing is also completely wrong: if anything, we found that men reported they were willing to go further with women who are completely sober.

The Daily Telegraph turned her words completely around and reported that provocatively dressed women were more likely to get raped, whereas the actual story of the thesis was that promiscuous men were more likely to rape.

So why does this myth persist? Because it is so convenient to put the blame on the victim. Even if it was true that women dressing provocatively were more likely to get raped, it would still not be their fault. It is presented as if men had no power over their actions and just couldn't help themselves at the sight of a scantily clad woman.

A good writeup and starting point for inquiry is the article on Ben Goldacre's blog: http://www.badscience.net/2009/07/asking-for-it/

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    The idea of putting the blame on the victim is not a necessary implication of the idea. While some Neanderthals may express this sentiment, most people would posit the advice (right or not) as defensive advice. Like having uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage. In many areas it is not required, and it is not "your fault" if someone without insurance runs into your car, but it's still a good idea to have it. – Adam Robinson May 10 '11 at 16:08
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    @Lagerbaer: That's a non-sequitur. It's entirely possible that "all she had to do not to get raped was not dressing 'slutty'", just as it's entirely possible that "all she had to do not to get raped was take a different route home". Neither implies it is her FAULT; they both imply that there are things that contribute to something occurring--in this case, a rape--and that changing or eliminating one or more of those factors could result in it not occurring. Neither of these implies that these things are direct causes, but rather contributing factors. – Adam Robinson May 10 '11 at 16:16
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    In the badscience article there's the quote from Sophia Shaw: “I’m very aware that there are limitations to my study. It’s self report data about sensitive issues, so that’s got its flaws, participants were answering when sober, and so on.” It's not clear that her study had enough power to pick up relevant effects. I don't think that it makes sense to draw clear conclusions from her work. – Christian May 10 '11 at 17:45
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    That this particular study didn't find that dressing provocatively made rape more likely doesn't mean such such an effect doesn't exist. Merely interviewing, and only interviewing 100 men doesn't seem sufficient to debunk this claim. – Andrew Grimm May 11 '11 at 13:34
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    "we found that men reported they were willing to go further with women who are completely sober". But this applies to men in general and not to, say, convicted rapists. Maybe, most men care about consent and are therefore willing to "go further" with women who are perfectly capable of giving consent. Why does this have to apply to rape? "Importantly, not a single participant remained in the encounter until the end; therefore, none of the participants committed a hypothetical rape." (thepsychologist.org.uk/archive/…) – Michael Greinecker Jun 27 '12 at 6:02

The odd thing about this question—of whether women who dress in a more sexually provocative way are more likely to be raped or otherwise sexually abused—is that people's beliefs about it have been researched extensively (e.g., Cassidy & Hurrell, 1995; Kanekar & Kolsawalla, 1980), but there's been little empirical work to answer the question itself. I guess that either the issue is considered too politically sensitive, or the answer is considered too obvious.

I know of one relevant experiment. Recall that while a true experiment might not use a realistic setting or scenario, its use of random assignment of subjects to experimental conditions means that we can estimate the causal effect of the experimental manipulation. Flowe, Stewart, Sleath, and Palmer (2011) had 157 heterosexual-identified men imagine they were in a sexual encounter with a woman whose photograph they saw. The randomly-assigned photograph had the woman wearing either revealing or non-revealing clothing. Subjects read through a 29-line story in which the encounter got progressively closer to coitus but also the woman evinced progressively less consent. At each line, subjects chose whether to continue or to stop. 22% of subjects shown revealing clothing chose to continue even after the woman said outright she wanted to stop, compared to 4% of subjects shown conservative clothing. Thus this experiment supports the notion that revealing clothing increases one's odds of being raped.

For the broader question of whether more attractive woman are more likely to be raped, see this section of my book Empirical Sexual Attitudes, which I drew on for this answer. Again, there isn't a lot of research, but what exists implies that the answer is more likely to be yes than no.


References

  1. Cassidy, L., & Hurell, R. M. (1995). The influence of victim's attire on adolescents' judgments of date rape. Adolescence, 30(118), 319–323.

  2. Flowe, H. D., Stewart, J., Sleath, E. R., & Palmer, F. T. (2011). Public house patrons' engagement in hypothetical sexual assault: A test of Alcohol Myopia Theory in a field setting. Aggressive Behavior, 37(6), 547–558. doi:10.1002/ab.20410

  3. Kanekar, S., & Kolsawalla, M. B. (1980). Responsibility of a rape victim in relation to her respectability, attractiveness, and provocativeness. Journal of Social Psychology, 112(1), 153–154. doi:10.1080/00224545.1980.9924310

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