What Was She Wearing? The Dangerous Downsides To Anti-Assault Fashion
© Illustration by INJECTION - Alicia Lupieri
Can clothing that claims to be "anti-assault" really work, or does it actually do more harm than good?
TW: Mention of sexual assault, rape, and sexual violence.
In most cases of rape or sexual assault, I don’t doubt that the question, “but what was she wearing?” was asked. Normally this is used to criticise or blame the victim because of her outfit choice, but what if the clothing in question wasn’t a “sexy” dress but so-called “anti-assault” fashion?
In both Germany and the US, anti-assault shorts and underwear have been designed in order to protect the wearer from being raped. They are made from anti-tear, anti-cut fabric that is practically impenetrable, even with a sharp object. Some have fastenings that are “locked” with an alarmed padlock that sounds at 130 decibels if tampered with, while others have special closure mechanisms that allow only the wearer to loosen. The idea is that a woman can wear them when they are on a night out, for example, and be safer from the risk of sexual assault.
© Safe Shorts - Anti-assault shorts with padlock and alarm
As an ex-psychology student with a particular interest in fashion, I was intrigued when I came across anti-assault fashion. I’ve always found it fascinating to explore how the clothes we wear have an impact on more than how we look, so I was prompted to question how these specifically-designed items could affect us, both physically and psychologically.
The main argument in their favour, and the premise that they have been created on, is that anti-assault clothing can alleviate women’s fear of being harmed when entering a potentially risky situation. If someone wearing them were to be a victim of an attempted assault, these shorts make it physically harder for them to be harmed in this way. The potential for women to feel safe in circumstances where they might not otherwise be by wearing these products seems like a viable argument for their benefit.
Moreover, they may be a useful example in the 'What Was She Wearing?' debate. While I would insist (and I hope most people would agree) that nobody ever asks to be sexually assaulted regardless of what they are wearing, the argument is still used to protect abusers. You can hardly suggest that a woman dressed provocatively is “asking for it” if they are wearing anti-rape shorts underneath. As women are so often condemned for what they are wearing, these products allow the narrative to be reclaimed in support of victims.
But there’s something that makes me feel a little bit queasy about them at the same time. Does it sit well with you that they are so similar to a chastity belt? It sounds dangerously like we are telling women that the only way to avoid being assaulted is to literally lock your sexuality away. And isn’t it a little too much like victim blaming?
It also begs the question - when are these shorts supposed to be worn anyway? When a woman feels like she might get raped? It’s a common misconception that assault only occurs when a woman gets drunk and is left vulnerable, and the makers of these products seem to agree that women are only at risk at certain times of the day or in certain situations (like going on a night out or a run in the dark). Yet, in England and Wales, in over 50% of cases where women have experienced penetrative rape (or an attempt), the perpetrator was a partner or an ex, and in a further 10% of cases, they were a family member. All too often, we see news stories of women being assaulted when they should be safe. It is impossible for women to decide when they are most at risk. The scary truth is that it could be any time.
And what happens if an attacker cannot act how they intend? What if, upon being unable to break through the shorts, they instead act violently in other ways? It’s a sentence that is painful to write and even more terrifying to imagine. I don’t mean to suggest that sexual assault is a lesser crime, simply that if an abuser intends to abuse, they will.
© AR Wear - Anti-assault shorts made from non-cuttable material
Further still, and as I have preached many times, the items of clothing we wear have profound implications not only for how we look but how we feel. For example, the feeling of self-efficacy is the trust in our own ability to influence the things that affect our lives, and clothes are able to influence this.
On one side of the coin, products such as anti-assault shorts, which provide physical safety, could increase a woman’s self-efficacy by empowering them to feel more in control of their situation. However, on the flip side, literally locking women up can make us feel more restricted, under more pressure to make the right choices, and like we are even less in charge of our lives.
Women are already tired of having to fit around society’s norms. Anti-assault products simply add another responsibility to women’s plates - one that is already piled too full - and perpetuate the idea that it is women’s job to protect themselves from rape rather than teaching people not to rape.
And even if anti-assault clothing didn’t have these downsides, its problems would still be two-fold: anti-assault fashion as it exists today is not “one size fits all,” and we cannot fix the problem by tackling it from the endpoint - the moment of assault.
These products seem to be designed only with women in mind. We know that men can be, and are, victims of assault too, yet the designers of anti-assault clothing seem to ignore this. What’s more, anti-assault shorts can only stop an attack from reaching penetration, they can’t stop an attempt at rape, nor can they protect from any other form of assault. Even when penetration does not occur, the scarring effect that a sexual assault of any kind can have should not be downplayed.
Moreover, if we don’t consider the low-level misogyny that prompted products like this to be made in the first place, we cannot make progress. Instead of funding anti-assault clothing, we could be supporting rape education in schools, universities, and workplaces. It was compulsory to attend a consent course before being allowed to matriculate at my university, and every sporting team had to undergo consent classes in order to continue as a society. We could be implementing mandatory education in workplaces too - though it is imperative that an understanding of consent is taught young, the lesson is applicable to everyone. We have to eradicate the “boys will be boys” mentality towards consent and sex that excuses such awful behaviour and replace it with one of respect.
Despite positive intentions, ultimately, anti-assault fashion acts to perpetuate victim blaming, does little to reduce the chances of physical harm, and continues to ignore the bigger problem. Until we teach people not to assault, women will still carry their keys between their fingers, walk with only one earphone in, and fear being alone on a dark street. Until people learn not to assault, assault will still occur, and anti-assault clothing isn’t good enough to stop this.