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'Sexy' clothes don't excuse sexual violence

By Carol Costello
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Thu October 9, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Carol Costello: Some think the way women dress can provoke harassment or rape
  • That's ridiculous, she says. It excuses men who blame their criminal behavior on women
  • Costello: Rapists seek opportunity. Provocative clothing invites attack? That's a myth

Editor's note: Carol Costello anchors the 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. ET edition of CNN's "Newsroom" each weekday. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Silly girls. If you didn't show-off your lady parts, you wouldn't be as remotely prone to sexual harassment as you are now. Or worse -- rape.

I'm told there are far too many young men with uncontrollable urges. When they feast their eyes upon your barely covered naughty bits, the Neanderthal inside comes roaring to the surface. They just can't help it.

The latest volley in the war over so-called slut shaming comes from radio host and ABC contributor, Laura Ingraham. She celebrated a Utah high school for denying girls their homecoming dance because of their "immodest dress."

"These are still girls," Ingraham told her radio audience. "And at the same time we're worried about misogynistic behavior ... How about start with the way we appear in public. The way we treat people."

Ingraham even posted a question on her Facebook page: "Do you think girls dress in a way that invites trouble?" More than a thousand people "liked" this question, although a refreshing number of people told Ingraham she was "close-minded" and "might as well be working for ISIS."

I was tempted to write a comment on her Facebook page myself, but decided to illustrate how ridiculous this question is using common sense -- and, well, facts.

Imagine this scenario: A young man is talking with his father about sexual assault. How might that conversation go in a world where you believed girls could provoke boys into attacking them simply by being scantily dressed?

Son: "Dad, you were right. I couldn't control myself. She looked so...sexy. I knew she wanted it."

Father: "It's okay, son. It's evolution. Men have been tempted since caveman days. She should have covered up. How short was her skirt?"

I'm praying most fathers would never dream of raising a son this way.

I accept the fact that men are visual. Mike Matthews puts it like this in an article on catholiceducation.org "....The fact is, it doesn't take much visual stimulus at all for guys to become sexually aroused. The sight of the female body, even just a little bit and even if it's a complete stranger, can trigger sexual thoughts instantly. This might be difficult for women to understand, but it's absolutely true..."

Mike, it isn't difficult for women to understand. In fact, many of us like it. But, sexual arousal doesn't have to lead to sexual violence. As CNN legal analyst Paul Callan told me: "It's insulting to men because it implies that all men are dangerous to women."

And that simply isn't true. The average rapist is a violent criminal who craves complete power over his victim. Sometimes he gets a sexual charge out of it and sometimes he doesn't. And it has little to do with what a woman looks like and everything to do with violent, criminal tendencies.

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Of course, in a rapist's twisted mind, the woman he brutalizes is always to blame.

Linda Fairstein, who prosecuted sex crimes for 30 years in New York City says, "Sexual assault is the only crime in the book, literally, where the offender repeatedly blames the victim. I've ... had men who attacked 5-year-old girls who've said, 'she climbed on my lap and she was very sexy and I thought she was inviting me to touch her.'"

Hardcore facts? Gladly. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 1 in 4 rapes take place in the victim's home. Two in 10 rapes take place at the home of a friend, neighbor or relative. And almost two-thirds of all rapes are committed by someone the victim already knows. Don't think a short skirt provoked these men to rape.

That leaves us with stranger-rape. Let's look at the case of Hannah Graham, the UVA student who disappeared after, police say, she met Jesse Matthew. Matthew is charged with abduction with intent to defile.

Experts say there are two things a rapist looks for when he tracks a victim: opportunity and vulnerability. We know Graham was wearing a midriff-baring top and tight jeans. Was whoever kidnapped her attracted to her for that reason? Or was it because she was lost and vulnerable and, allegedly met up with Matthew, police believe -- a man many friends describe as the "gentlest, kindest person any of us had ever met?"

"Whatever happened to her, and I hope it's not the tragedy most of us expect, it isn't because of anything she did other than trust the person she was with," Fairstein said.

I have covered many rape trials during my career. Some survivors were gorgeous, others plain, some were young, others elderly. Some were attacked while wearing jeans and a T-shirt, others while wearing jogging clothes or heavy coats. Some were children.

Yet this silly myth persists: That somehow, provocative clothing invites predatory behavior.

"We, as a culture, like to blame the victim because it makes us feel safe," says Liz Roberts, the deputy CEO and chief program officer at Safe Horizon, a rape crisis center in New York City. She told me we all, women included, have a subconscious belief that if women just did all the right things, like dressing modestly, then we would never be raped.

Sadly, it's just not true.

So enough with questions like: "Do you think girls dress in a way that invites trouble?" Such questions only give rapists what they're looking for: an excuse for violence.

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