What Does Appearance Have to Do with Sexual Assault? Nothing.

by ZontaDoris

During the last election cycle, we heard a lot about how women look. Beautiful women received compliments and acceptance. Women with unsatisfactory body parts defined by men as “flat chests,” “big asses,” and “ugly faces” were derided or dismissed. We also witnessed (albeit in a partisan commercial) how these flippant, casually offered, undermining assessments could affect adolescent girls whose self-image is forming as they look in the mirror wondering if they’re becoming a ten or a six or 2.0.

I bring this up because this topic really disturbs me. There is nothing normal or redeeming about breaking down a woman’s or man’s appearance into body parts and evaluating them within a sexualized, purely physical context. To malign or demean someone–man or woman–because of their appearance is wrong. And to deny that sexual assault has occurred because a woman was “too ugly to be raped” or that the woman “asked for it” with her cleavage or legs showing is wrong, too. It IS sexual assault if she didn’t say “yes”–consent cannot be assumed if the woman is unconscious, drugged, or drunk–before the intimate use of her body commenced.

Stereotyping starts early.

We are inundated with messages that stress the importance of meeting conventional standards of beauty. The damage caused by this preoccupation with appearance starts wounding us at very early ages, with one out of four kids at the age of seven engaging in dieting according to one study done by Common Sense Media.

Common Sense Media, a “nonprofit organization dedicated to helping kids thrive in a world of media and technology” studies the messages that traditional mainstream media (TV, magazines, movies, advertising, and music) and social media give children and teenagers about their bodies–what’s good, what’s bad about their appearance.

Taken from a Common Sense Infograph–https://www.commonsensemedia.org/children-teens-body-image-media-infographic

The messaging starts early for us–girls, boys, men, and women–to be thin, athletic, and sexually appealing. Common Sense Media summarizes the impact on our children here:

Media content both reflects and forms societal values around gender, sexualization, beauty, and body types. Due to the complex and lifelong nature of body image, it’s been hard for the field to tie body-image perceptions and behaviors directly and exclusively to media exposure. At best, we can conclude that consumption of mainstream, traditional media (with its stereotypical portrayals) puts children and teens at risk for developing an unhealthy body image (Ferguson et al., 2014), especially when it’s accompanied by other risk factors.

We must upend stereotypes about body image, appearance, and why sexual assault occurs.

It’s not just parents who must help their children learn what to value about themselves and others. It is incumbent upon all of us to fight “stereotypes about gender, body types, abilities.”

Nowhere is evaluation of women based on their appearance more pernicious than when applied in sexual assault situations. Some men accused of sexual assault try to use a woman’s appearance or their own attractiveness as their defense. They say that they could not have assaulted the woman because her unattractiveness did not merit their attention. Or they label the woman a tramp whose good looks and provocative attire lured them to batter her sexually. Or they say that their own appearance gains them enough sexual partners without having to assault anyone.

Remember this Fall when we heard:

“You take a look. Look at her. Look at her words. Tell me what you think. I don’t think so. I don’t think so.”

This incident involved Natasha Stoynoff, a writer for People magazine, who interviewed President-elect Trump in 2005. She accused him of physically harassing her for sex in that interview, vividly describing it here. She told her editor and asked to be relieved from the “Trump beat” that she had been assigned to for several years. Her editor believed her and granted her request immediately.

Because he had not raped her, only grabbed and kissed her against her will, and he was powerful, and it would have been his word against hers, and he could ruin her career if she exposed this light form of assault, Stoynoff stayed silent. She only revealed the interaction when Mr. Trump’s “locker room conversation” with Mr. Billy Bush became public this Fall. She verified that Mr. Trump had used the sexual assault techniques he described to Mr. Bush with her. Mr. Trump used the “ugly woman” defense to shrug off her claims.

But the too ugly to assault defense belies reality. Julie Bindel’s Guardian article in August 2015 pointed out that women of all body types are raped including “disabled women and girls [who] are incredibly vulnerable to rape and sexual assault and yet are told they are undesirable and asexual.” She also said:

…rape happens to babies, elderly women and everyone in between. And yet we routinely conflate rape and sexual assault with conventional attractiveness – and perpetuate the notion that “ugly” women don’t get raped, and that attractive men don’t need to commit rape.

Bindel concludes that “Rape is a sadistic act of punishment” that has nothing to do with appearance. Her assessment is echoed in the myth/fact list developed by the Roger Williams University Counseling Center .

Myth: Women provoke sexual assault by their appearance. Sexual attractiveness is a primary reason why a perpetrator selects a victim.

Fact: Perpetrators do not select their victims by their appearance. They select victims who are vulnerable and accessible. Victims of sexual assault range in age groups from infants to the elderly. Sexual attractiveness is not an issue.

The argument that women might be “asking for it” also comes up frequently, including the former mayor of a small town in Ohio who claimed a four year old girl seduced him into raping her repeatedly.  He was clearly mentally disturbed but many men in a public pinch after they are accused of an assault blame women for causing them to lose self-control. This defense is little better than comedian Flip Wilson’s “the devil made me do it” punch-line used to justify any action.

But maybe humor can reveal how specious the “she was asking for it” sexual assault defense really  is…

Or watch this 3 minute video of women reacting to the phrase “she was asking for it.”

Writing this post has made me more aware of how often women are blamed by men who assault them. And how women’s appearance is misused by predatory men to try to escape the consequences for their violent behavior. I hope it makes you think about your beliefs and how to value women based on who they are, not how they look, and how we can do better at keeping girls and women safe (and vulnerable boys and men, too). One’s appearance does not excuse, stop, or cause criminal behavior. “She was asking for it” and “The devil made me do it” are not defenses for violence against women.

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Photographs courtesy of artists at Pixabay.com
The views expressed in this blog post are mine and may not reflect the stance of the Zonta Club of Pinellas County or Zonta International. — Doris Reeves-Lipscomb