The conflation between clothing and consent is reminiscent of victim blaming.
Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault, harassment and discussions of victim blaming.
For Valentine’s Day, the Microbiology Course Union, and the Engineering Society hosted a Traffic Light Party at the Well Pub. Participants were invited to wear red for “taken,” yellow for “its complicated,” and green for “single.” They also included purple glow sticks for participants who might want to identify as LGBTQ+.
On the surface, the party seems relatively safe, and includes an aspect of consent, as per the colours. It’s also noteworthy that the organizers included an option for those who may not identify as heterosexual. But the concept of a traffic light party speaks to a larger issue within party culture: that what you wear indicates your consent.
The issue stems from the all too common stereotype in our culture that individuals who experience sexual assault or harassment might have been asking for it based on their clothing. Victims are often blamed for leading on their assaulter, are told it was their fault, or are not believed when they say the situation was nonconsensual. Mic Network Incorporated wrote an article in 2016 outlining nine times that sexual assault was blamed on the victim’s clothing. A Canadian rape trial in 2014 led to a judge asking the victim why she couldn’t keep her knees together, while a case in Ireland in 2018 sparked protests after the victims thong was used as evidence against her, with the defence claiming she must have consented based on the underwear.
Traffic Light parties follow a similar logic. By wearing green, its assumed that participants are ‘consenting’ to being approached, and possibly to other situations. The premise is that what the participant wears is how you can gauge their interest, when in reality, consent is never determined by what you wear. To recap, consent is always, and only, a clear, enthusiastic, verbal yes. Consent is not coerced or forced or pressured, and it’s certainly not non-verbal.
The danger of parties like this is that it is a slippery slope to situations like those mentioned in the articles above. By continuing to link clothing to consent or interest, we will continue to run into problems where victims are blamed for their assault because they wore a thong, or a short skirt. What happens if someone wearing green at a traffic light party is assaulted? Do we believe them? Or will there be people who doubt their story because of the colour they wore?
Holly Denby, President of the Engineering Society at UBCO commented: “The Engineering Society and its all female/femm executive do not condone sexual harassment or assault. The purpose of the spotlight party was to provide an alternative option for those who we were not celebrating Valentine’s Day. Ticket purchasers were given the option to display their relationship status by colour: green for single, yellow/orange for “its complicated” and red for taken. However, this was a choice and not a requirement for the event. We provided a safe and alcohol free environment for students to dance and have fun. We believe that education should be provided on the basis of sexual harassment and assault. Eliminating events such as these does not rectify the mindset of connecting sexual harassment or assault with the choice of clothing. We recognize the campaigns on campus that have increased awareness regarding consent, sexual harassment and assault and fully support their hard work.”
I’m sure that the Engineering Society and the Microbiology Course Union did everything they could to ensure their party was safe for all present, and I’m happy that dressing up was a choice. Denby is right in stating that eliminating events like this does not completely rectify the connotation between consent and clothing. But the concept of such a party, held not only on our campus, but across North America, presents a conflation between consent and clothing that we need to avoid.