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What Were You Wearing? …and Other Invasive Questions

So early this morning I got into a discussion with an old friend. She had posted a meme from the image app Whisper saying that: If lesbians can control themselves around short skirts, then the skirt’s not the problem.

I took issue with this, not because I disagree with the statement, but rather because I felt that it was suggesting that men simply couldn’t control themselves around scantily-clad women and pointing a finger directly at them. Men get raped by both men and women. Women also get raped by men and women. Now I agree that a woman should be able to dress however they like without being sexually assaulted, and that her attire at the time of the crime has little bearing on why she was raped.

For one reason or another, we got into it rather heatedly. Many things were said. Among them, one key point that I found incredibly irksome. Without getting into the minute details, one of the things said was that, “Police have the gall to ask what rape victims were wearing.”

Several months back I had the opportunity to read a police manual on how to properly interview rape victims, complete with an explanation on the relevance of each question. I knew why police would ask that question, and I shared this with my friend-come-antagonist. The response was… less than cordial. She felt the question alone is a character judgement. She felt that it was far too intrusive and irrelevant to the case. I attempted to explain why, but for one reason or another I could not get through to her. I even attempted to find the manual in question, only to find my Google-Fu was lacking. (If anyone has a link to that, share it in the comments.)

So… I did the next best thing. I spoke to a Victim Services Officer that I know through a co-worker.

The question: Is it standard procedure to ask a victim of sexual assault what they were wearing, and if so, why is it relevant?

The answers I got came in a point-by-point basis, and she even added a few things that I found to be a welcome surprise. Some answers were paraphrased by me, but retain their original meaning. Here they are:

  1. The police have to ask everything. It’s integral to the investigation. Even if the victim might think it’s irrelevant, even the smallest detail can be used to build a case against the accused.
  2. Among other questions that need to be asked other than what they were wearing include: How much did they have to drink? How did the clothes get off? Were the clothes damaged? Did they lose anything? Have they been washed? Can they provide the clothes?
  3. These questions help to establish the location of the assault, how violent it may have been, helps to gather evidence and that the accused and victim were both there.
  4. If the police didn’t ask, the defense attorney certainly would, and it would be far more invasive to ask that question in an open courtroom full of people as opposed to a private police office.
  5. These questions are asked of everyone reporting not just sexual assault, but physical assault, abuse, robbery and any other interpersonal crime, and it is asked of victims regardless of their gender. It doesn’t matter if the victim was a prostitute, a schoolgirl or a male construction worker.
  6. The victim can decline an answer at any time if they do not feel comfortable answering, but every question answered makes it much more likely that a case built against the accused will reach a successful conviction.
  7. These are procedural questions that ultimately have a bearing on whether or not the rapist is found guilty. We are trained to be sympathetic to a victim’s experience, and some of these questions are understandably uncomfortable. It’s important to note, however, that crimes of sexual assault are difficult to prove, and we cannot act on an accusation alone. We need to establish a time, a place, a motive and conduct a thorough investigation if we stand even a small chance of getting a conviction and taking a rapist off the streets and into a cell.

The reality is that yes, of course these questions are uncomfortable. But they’re not irrelevant. There was a time where all one needed was an accusation against someone in order for authorities to make an arrest. That was during the Witch Trials. There are places in the world in which this still happens. Being the victim of a sexual assault is understandably harrowing. The victim feels violated, alone, and worse. But it’s my belief that suggesting police are victim-blaming or contributing to rape culture makes the problem understandably worse.

Yes, these questions are intrusive. They’re meant to be. They need to be sure they’re not making an arrest against an innocent person. Police need to view every accusation, every statement and every interaction with both victim and the accused with the eyes of a skeptic. Because even the accused still has a right to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Believe me, I’m certain they’d rather not know the intimate details of a sex assault… but they have to know in order to build a case. That is simply how the legal system works, and it’s the best one we have.

Again, these are in no way, shape or form a character judgement, but rather a pathway for victims to get justice. While these questions are, without a doubt, intrusive, they’re necessary to ensure justice prevails. Every question left unanswered makes it harder for the police to build a case against the accused. Police don’t have flimsy excuses for anything. They have a long, rich history of investigation, and they know how to do their jobs.

So, for anyone out there who may have been the victim of rape or sexual assault: Answer police questions. Even if it’s invasive. Even if it’s embarrassing. Because that could mean the difference between getting justice and knowing that the person who assaulted you is still walking around free.

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EJ Spurrell

YouTuber, author, single father of a teenage daughter, sometimes hero, sometimes villain. Believer in the power of storytelling and the effect it has on culture and education. Chaotic Neutral. Black Trident TV on YouTube, previous owner of Black Trident Media.
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Published by

EJ Spurrell

YouTuber, author, single father of a teenage daughter, sometimes hero, sometimes villain. Believer in the power of storytelling and the effect it has on culture and education. Chaotic Neutral. Black Trident TV on YouTube, previous owner of Black Trident Media.

  • Gyor

    Thank you, that was very informative

  • Racnad

    Interesting points. So police still ask the question. Do defense attorneys still argue to juries that sexy clothes = consent?

    • Curtis Axel

      I doubt blatantly like that. Most likely they will introduce details in hopes to subconsciously sway the jury since coming out openly and making a direct claim is easier to argue against.

      • http://blacktridentmedia.com EJ Spurrell

        Yeah, but lawyers are assholes. They’ll always be assholes. They get paid to be pricks in suits.

  • Guestronomy

    “If lesbians can control themselves around short skirts, then the skirt’s not the problem”

    Good point however we live in a world were lesbians are one of the most likely demographic to commit rape or sexual assault,
    So I guess by the logic of the person who posted the original the skirt must be the problem.

  • El Ratel Igualitario

    We have a comment in the Spanish translation of this article. It says:

    “You are trying to simplify things and makes us believe that when the police asks a victim of rape “what were you wearing”, they have “a different intention”. You are overlooking lots of mistakes and issues, in order to simplify and trivialize the question… Among them, there is abundant evidence that a majority of victims are forced to “prove their innocence” in a case of rape. Apart from that, your information is greatly inaccurate: in a case of rape, it’s not the police who has to interview the victims, nor collect the evidence of rape: there are specific regulations that say that health care professionals who take care of the victim in an emergency are the ones who have to collect this evidence (like the clothes the victim was wearing) and initiate court proceedings. Anyway… for many reasons, your text seems to handle this matter in a superficial, slightly naïve way.”

    Any answer?

    • http://siryouarebeingmocked.tumblr.com/ SYABM

      I can’t help but notice the complete lack of any supporting evidence for even a single claim there.

      Also, I find it highly dubious health care folks are trained to question rape victims extensively in a manner meant to accurately collect evidence and testimony for a criminal proceeding, especially given that much of what they hear would be protected by privilege.

      And as for them collecting clothes; only if the victim wears them to the hospital. Otherwise, that’s the cops job. If there’s some medical school in a Latin country where solely doctors and nurses are trained to initiate proceedings for rape and not the cops, I’d like to see it.

    • http://blacktridentmedia.com EJ Spurrell

      I’m unfamiliar with how police or victim services operate in Spanish-speaking countries. But one thing I’d point out is that the commenter seems to be focused more on the medical end of things. A medical technician is trained to only handle medical aspects of it. Victim Services, on the other hand, is trained to speak to rape survivors and get to the bottom of it.

      Now the words on that list were directly from a female Victim Services Officer, *almost* verbatim. (Although, admittedly I received said answers via text message because it’s much easier to text her than to track her down, so it’s formatted a little differently for the purposes of readability in the article.)

      Now, in the context of Spanish-speaking countries, these methods might not be the same. But to call it “superficial” and “naive,” seems more a criticism of the feelings the article caused in the commenter, and not criticism of the context itself.

      • El Ratel Igualitario

        I’ll translate your answer and post it :)