In defence of slutwalks

Years and years ago, some time in the late nineties, I remember seeing an article in a glossy (Marie Claire maybe? Probably my sister’s as back in those days I used to always buy the music mags for the free cds) which caught my eye. It was a photograph of 2 female Italian MPs (or equivalent) dressed in their jeans. They were wearing their jeans to parliament (or again, whatever the equivalent was) in protest against statements made by a prominant male MP (or was it a judge? too long ago) with regards to the opinion that a rape victim should not have worn her jeans cut so close to her curves. At the time I remember feeling very impressed with and moved by the protest, and also being glad that our politics/judicial system were not so openly chauvinistic. Though in hindsight, maybe open chauvinism is easier to fight.

Fast forward 15 or so years, and where are we? Well, as most people are aware, there is an international display of solidarity springing up at a grass roots level in response to an incident in Canada where a police officer made the comments:

women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”.

Of course, it is not just about the reaction to one individual man’s beliefs, or it would not have rippled out so widely across the world. In the last couple of weeks the slutwalk has hit the UK, with protests in London, Newcastle, Manchester, and another taking place this Saturday in Birmingham which I will be going to.

So, what is it all about? Obviously for every different person attending there are different reasons and motives, although the common cause is an end to victim blaming, worldwide, specifically in relation to rape and other sexual assaults. Not everyone is going to be coming at this from the same point of view – I look at things from the point of view that the wider issue is a society that encourages the female body to be viewed from a predatory point of view and also a society that condones the view that women should police the way they dress in order to avoid rape. There will be others at the slut walk who believe that sex offenders are not punished effectively. It is a different viewpoint from mine, but the wider issue is the victim blaming.

For some reason, critics in the left as well as the right seem in places to be getting their collective knickers in a twist (do you see what I did there?) about the whole thing. I have heard a number of different arguments from a number of different sources, some better expressed and reasoned than others, against the slutwalks. Not a single one has convinced me that slutwalks are ill-thought out, irrational, trivialising, demeaning, although these are the points they have been trying to make. There may be more and you are more than welcome to put them to me, but here are the five main ones that seem to be bobbing about the place online. I will deal with them one at a time.

1) Slutwalks are stupid because it is logical to dress appropriately to avoid assault. You wouldn’t go out and leave your door unlocked/valuables in the window would you?

2) Slutwalks are stupid because people will not be able to tell the difference between “sluts” and Sluts.

3) Slutwalks support a good principle but the way they are done trivialises the issue. I don’t like “slut” as a concept.

4) Slutwalks support a good principle but are attention seeking and will be misrepresented in the press.

5) This is an overblown response to something that happened hundreds of miles away and has nothing to do with us in the UK.

Ok then, argument number one. The “you wouldn’t leave your house unlocked” metaphor. Clearly this argument comes from the right. Nothing irritates me like a poor analogy, and the analogy between the body of the rape survivor and and an unlocked/valuables-in-the-window house is particulary poor. This is for three reasons.

a) First and foremost, guess what you are likely to be wearing prior to an assault? Is it a mini skirt and a boob tube? No, it’s a pair of jeans. Are you likely to be out in public when it happens, and is the person assaulting you likley to be someone you don’t know? No. So the analogy is not evidence based and does not reflect the reality of rape.

b) Secondly, even if it was the case that there was a strong statistical link between skimpy clothing and sexual assault, this does not mean that ethically there is a responsibility on behalf of the survivor to dress “appropriately”. A body is not bricks and mortar, clothing is not as simple as property, it relates to identity. The reponsibility is on the society to educate that clothing or lack of it is not an invitation, or alternatively, if you come at it from a different point of view, to police the offender.

c) Thirdly, the argument that the offender is given poor signals from the clothing and is somehow unable to control his natural virile urges is invoked here. How many sex offenders are incapable of the language comprehension to understand the word no? And, as someone put it on the birmingham slutwalk site the other day, how many boyfriends have you had who would not be frozen mid-action like a rabbit in the headlights if they heard the words “I think I can hear my dad coming”?

As far as leaving valuables on display goes, I don’t think anyone with the mindset capable of rape is going to temporarily forget that you have a vagina (or anus because of course not all rape is female) provided that you wear some nice sensible jogging bottoms. As far as leaving the door unlocked goes, what is the alternative? A chastity belt? To my mind this analogy would be closer to the reality if the argument was as follows

“It’s like not painting your house in drab colours because a police officer told you to under the misguided impression there was some kind of statistical link between decor and burglary.”

Ok then, onto the second one. How will our audience know the difference between “sluts” (feminists dressed provocatively in protest) and Sluts (you know, those slaggy girls who go up town on a night and are more interested in a shag than becoming a lawyer. This argument really repulses me – it invokes class-based misogyny and has no place in feminism, although I have heard it spouted by supposed feminists (in the Independent, notably). I’m not planning on dressing provocatively for the slutwalk, but guess what? Feminism is for everyone who believes that the genders should be equal. It isn’t the reserve of middle class intellectuals, and I have no time for anyone seeking to either attack those who are educated for their education, as though it somehow automatically makes you distanced from reality, or anyone seeking to make ideological differences between a hen-night “gaggle” and a group of “respectable professionals” in terms of who does and who doesn’t deserve to be derided for their clothes, or, more seriously, raped. I don’t like it when men go out wearing socks in sandals but if a man dressed like this got his laptop stolen I wouldn’t say it was down to him dressing like a geek.

The distinction between the groups is probably much bigger on paper than in reality, quite apart from anything else. Believe it or not, you do get plenty of educated feminists who like to dress in a boldly sexual fashion, and you do get feminists who are not extensively educated or who come from lower down in the social-economic strata. So yes, I don’t dress in skimpy clothes as a rule but I will absolutely defend the right of anyone else to, and I would applaud anyone who is going to dress up for the slutwalk for their visual protest. 

On to the third argument then, and the view that the reasoning that women should wear what they want is sound but the slutwalk is trivial and/or the use of the terms slut is wrong. I’ll start with the trivialising argument. As some of you may have noticed, I have been quite outspoken on the topic of victim blaming in recent weeks (first there was Dorries, then there was Clarke, then Hitchens – but I’ll come to that later). I have received very strong support from the rape survivors who I happen to know. They supported me on Dorries, they supported me on Clarke, and they support me on the slutwalk. So, if anyone was in a position to tell me that the slutwalk is a trivialisation it is these people (and I am more than aware that there may be other people amongst my circle who are also rape survivors who have not given an opinion either way, as it is so often invisible, but I can only go on what is shared). At the London slutwalk last weekend a leading member of the prostitution support group spoke out about the violence she and her colleagues experience – and believe me there are plenty of people out there who believe you cannot rape a prostitute, and that it is just negation of payment and a separate offence. Is that trivial to you? Is dressing up as a “slut” trivial?

Again I would say to critics that you know absolutely nothing about what these people do or wear in day-to-day life and the idea that it is somehow dress-up is a crass simplification – it is visual protest at the very real prejudices about women, especially women from a certain class group but also women in general, experience, with regards to how something as ever-present as the way you dress effects how you are viewed and what rights you are perceived as having. As far as the slut thing goes, the movement rose out of solidarity with the original Toronto group and the wording of the original police statement. If the movement had sprung up in Britain, maybe it would be called the Slagwalk. Different word, same double standard. We are marching in solidarity with our sisters (and brothers) in Canada, and that includes not calling it the “We don’t like what you have called it originally so we are changing it something more sterile and palatable like the league of annoyed ladies-walk”.

There seems to be a misinterpretation that the movement aims to reclaim the word “slut” (maybe the same arguments you get, usually from white middle class people, about why black gang-members shouldn’t call themselves the n word -while I wouldn’t be diametrically opposed to that, I think it is more to do with highlighting the politics of everything that the term slut represents. Although maybe that is a part of the whole n word thing too.

Right, so, onto the argument about misrepresentations in the press. There have been arguments made that the slutwalks will be misconstrued and misrepresented by the right wing press. This is an ethical issue – do you do the thing which you believe expresses your view fully, or do you try to tailor your argument to make it most possible to reach out to and educate the ignorant. The older I get, the more I see the folly in playing ball with the right wing press. Stay at home and write a letter to your MP about how you don’t believe victims should be blamed – I have done this (hmmm, how many weeks now, and still no reply?) and will continue to do this on every issue I have strong beliefs about and it is absolutely a good thing to do, but I am under no illusions that murdoch and the mail will suddenly have a journalistic epiphany, decide left wingers are actually civilised rational people, and start printing liberal reasoned articles in which we are fairly represented. They will never like protest. I don’t believe in pandering to ignorance. I also don’t believe in arguing aggressively (I know I may have been guilty of this, as we all are, and the line between passion and rage is quickly crossed and difficult to step back over) although I’m all for emotive expression. I will be true to my views, I will not avoid expressing an opinion on the offchance it is misrepresented, and I will not hide my views just because they coincide with those of others who are opposed to me in other areas. In this instance, I suppose I’m talking about my firm belief that Clarke should have been made to apologise regardless of if this view was shared by people who believe rapists should be castrated, because we both agree that the blame does not lie with the victim and have strong views that victim blaming is one of the most emotionally damaging aspects of rape and sexual assault.

Well, this leads me to the final point. Why are we slutwalking in the UK? Well, a number of reasons.

1) We live in a society of double standards, as far as sexual behaviour goes. Where is the justification in condemning a woman who enjoys sex? I am alarmed at the gradual creeping in of the religious right in the matter of deciding who plans the policy for how our sons and daughters are educated about sex. The view seems to be that sex is a female responsibility and that all sex outside of marriage is bad (unless like some of the backers of Dorries’ 10 minute bill including Dorries herself it is outside your already existing marriage or inside someone else’s – although of course typically we tell our young people do as I say, not as I do). I have every respect for religion as a support system and I will defend the right of anyone to practice and worship as they see fit but it has no place in guiding education.

2) As I said at the start of this post, there is a nasty undercurrent of chauvinism in the higher echons of our society and the media which I will absolutely protest about and oppose. We saw it in Clarke’s comments about date rape, but these were nothing compared to a couple of further articles I read (one from Peter Hitchens, in which he explained that the majority of rape is actually drunk women deciding the next morning that she didn’t actually want to have sex or was too drunk to be sure if she was having it or not, and one from an MEP who explained how rape was down to teasing behaviour where women offer up the goods and then expect red-blooded males to suddenly stop mid thrust.

Back in the 70s, feminists marched on the streets to proclaim “Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no”. 40 years later, we have had progress legally, but we must continue to fight for the rights and freedoms of women (and men) – freedom to dress how we want, freedom from assault, and the freedom to express our disatisfaction with a system which covertly views our bodies as property and our survivors as responsible for crimes which have come from the mindset of their attackers.


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