Social Worlds in 100 Objects, Themes and Ideas

The short skirt: a symbol of victim blaming culture?

Once a symbol of emancipation and economic prosperity, the mini-skirt today has strong connotations of sexual availability. Dr Clare Gunby from the Department of Criminology examines the implications of such assumptions for the criminal justice system.

Mary Quant introduced the mini-skirt to the masses - an iconic symbol of the 60s that embodied the spirit of the era. It encompassed within it the contradictions of the time: post-war empowerment with vulnerability, maturity with titillation, liberation with exploitation.

The mini-skirt was introduced during a period of renewed optimism for women. A period that included access to birth control pills which undoubtedly paved the way for the ‘sexual revolution’. Both loved and loathed, it erupted onto the political landscape symbolizing the shifting image of a woman from that of a wife and mother to a young, single female confident in her sexuality.

Economists in the 1920s also used the short skirt, or more specifically ‘hemline theory’, to argue that in prosperous economic times, skirt length shortened. For example, when suppliers charged more for their fabrics, this incentivised designers to make skirts shorter in order to cut production costs.

It’s ironic that an object once strongly associated with emancipation and prosperity should come to constitute a short-hand for taken-for-granted sexual availability. Public opinion polls continue to indicate that if a woman is wearing a revealing outfit she is considered in some way responsible for a subsequent sexual offence. In 2005, Amnesty International found that more than a quarter of the 1,000+ adults sampled said a female was partially or totally responsible for rape if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing at the time. In 2010, similar levels of blame were found by the Haven commissioned research project, Wake up to Rape. The political significance of the short skirt in 2013 is now resolutely interlinked with victim-blaming discourses.

Victim-blaming is an integral part of rape culture and as such implies that sexual violence is women’s fault for daring to dress in a certain way, for occupying specific spaces or for behaving in a manner that could antagonise a potential rapist - rather than the fault of the perpetrator. As is the case in many cultures, such ideas are accepted by the society - including police officers, jurors and rape survivors themselves.

A substantial body of social science research now testifies to the relationship between rape blaming attitudes and the problematic progression of rape cases through the criminal justice system, culminating in high levels of case attrition and low rape conviction rates. Rape-blaming attitudes do not coalesce on issues of attire alone; alcohol consumption by the victim prior to a rape has been described as ‘the new short skirt’. This brings with it zealous assumptions around contributory responsibility, sometimes so zealous - as was the case in 2012 - that a rape victim’s name can be publically tweeted in an act of supposed retaliatory justice for the accused.

The idea that clothing or alcohol can cause rape is a gross misrepresentation of the nature of sexual violence and one which enables perpetrators to remain at large. For this reason it is essential we re-examine the assumptions that have come to be associated with the mini-skirt. Social science challenges us to think critically about victim-blaming, power and gender privilege and enables us to identify more clearly the real barriers to justice for survivors of sexual violence.

Dr Clare Gunby

Research interests

  • Sexual offences
  • Gender-based violence
  • Women’s experiences of the criminal justice process
  • Sexuality and the regulation of sexuality

Supervision interests

  • Clare would be interested in supervising PhD research projects in any of the above areas

Contact details

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