Provocative Dress and Sexual Responsibility

26 Pages Posted: 15 May 2016

Date Written: May 12, 2016


Numerous studies have found that many people believe that a provocatively dressed woman is at greater risk for sexual assault and bears some responsibility for her assault if she is attacked. Furthermore, in legal, academic, and public debates about sexual assault the appropriateness of the term ‘provocative’ as a descriptor of certain kinds of women’s clothing is rarely questioned. Thus, there is a widespread but largely unquestioned belief that it is appropriate to describe revealing or suggestive women’s clothing as ‘provocative’ and that women who wear such clothing could provoke sexual assault and harassment from men. Yet it is rarely noted that only women’s clothing is described as sexually provocative. Men’s clothing, no matter how revealing, is never described as provocative. Why is this the case?

This Article challenges the assumption that it is appropriate to describe women’s clothing as provocative. Drawing on models of the legal defense of provocation and research on objectification, this article argues that the social interpretation of women’s clothing as provocative arises from the privileged social and legal status of men’s sexual arousal and the objectification of women’s bodies. Continued use of this term thereby normalizes and entrenches deeply problematic attitudes about women’s responsibility for men’s sexual behavior. These beliefs and attitudes not only affect women’s everyday experiences but also have a profound impact on how the law treats the sexual assault and harassment of women. Describing women’s clothing as provocative thus reinforces a problematic conception of women’s bodies and sexuality that is connected to women’s experiences of their bodies, their clothes, and shapes their vulnerability to sexual assault and social and legal attitudes to such attacks.

Keywords: provocation, sexual assault, responsibility, sexual harassment,

Suggested Citation

Wolfendale, Jessica, Provocative Dress and Sexual Responsibility (May 12, 2016). Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law, Vol. XVII, No. I, 2016, Available at SSRN:

Jessica Wolfendale (Contact Author)

Case Western Reserve University ( email )

10900 Euclid Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44106
United States

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