The Dressing Conundrum

The discourse around dressing and sexual harassment continues to spark intense debate among stakeholders.

On the one hand are individuals who believe that provocative dressing is responsible for sexual harassment, either directly or indirectly. Most perceptions around provocative dressing as a direct cause of sexual harassment stem from the belief that men are sexually aroused by what they see and that provocative dressing will make it more likely for men to think about sex or imagine the motivation to be seduction.

Also, proponents of this school of thought believe that provocative dressing itself is a form of sexual harassment of the males. Others believe that there is a more indirect relationship. They propose that while they do not condone sexual harassment, those who are dressed provocatively are more likely to be sexually harassed than those who are not and so preventive efforts must include propriety in dressing.

The CARTA Shine project explored the perceptions around dressing and sexual harassment in three first generation Federal universities in South west Nigeria.

From the quantitative survey, the perception of dressing as being provocative was significantly associated with a higher expectation of SH.

From the key informant interviews, more participants believed indecent dressing was a major cause of SH.

“I will not say dressing is a cause but I can say that indecent dressing can make a potential victim to be attractive to an abuser or a harasser”


“Dressing could be an indirect cause … somebody who has dressed indecently has some motive in dressing like that. If you dress decently nobody will want to harass you.”


“Mode of dressing… you know, when you notice that some students are not properly dressed, it arouses some person’s sexual urge.”


All participants of the staff focus group discussions (FGD) attributed SH to indecent dressing. More male participants of the students FGD attributed SH to indecent dressing but about half of the female participants also did.

“I want to add that, indecent dressing can be a factor. In the sense that, just imagine a student walking into your office as a male lecturer and having her breast exposed and this is someone that you have feelings for as a male lecturer. The lady just walks in with the breast exposed inside the office; even if the lecturer does not have any ulterior motives or any form of feelings, mere seeing that breast, we’re all human beings and we have blood flowing in our veins. The man will be aroused sexually.”


“Indecent dressing can definitely lead to sexual harassment. The way our ladies dress these days is tempting. I think even the school need to put a rule or give them code of dressing so that that can check them. The way they dress can definitely tempt those that can’t control themselves.”


“Mostly, it is the dressing that normally determines sexual harassment, because there was a case of a professor driving one day like that, this girl dressed abnormally…. All her… parts of the body are showing…. Until that professor hit a culvert like this… “they said, Ahn Ahn!, prof. what happened now”… he said “see what she is wearing”… “Ahn Ahn!, what concerns you with what she is wearing?”… So, I believe that dressing is a cause …  the way a person dresses matters.”


“I would like to add that provocative dressing in its own way, is a pseudo form of sexual harassment to male lecturers…. First of all. So, if you dress provocatively, you are indirectly harassing a male person around you.”


“If we were to say the truth, major cause, on the part of ladies is the dressing, as a guy you are attracted by what you see… so if a lady should wear a cloth that reveals cleavage, or she wears a cloth that If she bends down, the underwear will be revealed. Let’s be honest, if many guys see it, it can trigger what did not even have premeditated in their head. Some guys that actually engage in sexual harassment, most of them have not actually thought it through, it happened in split seconds.”


At a recent training for key stakeholders in institutional prevention and response to sexual harassment in one of the selected institutions (the participants included antisexual harassment committee members and faculty gender focal persons), it was noted that a significant number of the participants believed that provocative dressing was a direct and indirect cause of sexual harassment. It is important to interrogate the veracity of these widely held beliefs as it has pertinent implications for planning SH prevention and response efforts within higher education settings.

These short series intend to debate the three most common assumptions around dressing and SH.

First up would be the assumption that men are sexually aroused by what they see and wearing provocative dressing will lead to an increase in likelihood of arousing sexual interest in men, leading to an increased likelihood in SH.

Secondly, it is widely assumed that women who dress provocatively do so with the motivation of seduction, thereby increasing the likelihood of the occurrence of SH.

Third is the assumption that only women who are provocatively dressed are sexually harassed.

Watch out for subsequent pieces of the series.