In defence of slutwalks

“Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.”

These were the words uttered by a Toronto police representative in January, talking a group of students at a campus safety information session. He’s not the first. In 2009, androgynous pop singer La Roux said: ‘There’s far more ways to be sexy than to dress in a miniskirt and a tank top … I think you attract a certain kind of man by dressing like that. Women wonder why they get beaten up, or have relationships with arsehole men. Because you attracted one, you twat.”

I can’t be the only twenty one year old woman who is no stranger to these warped opinions. The stance is deeply rooted in the notion that a woman’s body is some kind of public property that must be owned (not by the woman herself, mind) and protected by those who seek to steal or defile it. It’s an almost ingrained attitude that finds itself wheedling into every crevice of our culture- for example, many women who experience street harassment find telling the pursuer that she has a boyfriend is an effective deterrent- ‘thanks for the attention, but I’m already owned by somebody else’.

Arguments that attempt to justify victim blaming often (if not always) equate women’s bodies to property, money, or food. All of these things are less than human. Women are none of those things. Victim blaming absolves those who sexually harass, assault, and rape of all responsibility, shifting the focus to the person they did it to. Additionally, it paints men as uncontrollable sex beasts who are lead entirely by their insatiable penises, devoid of morals, logic, and empathy. In short, victim blaming undermines us all.

False debate about women’s clothing is definitive of rape culture. It excuses abusers for the crimes they commit. Maybe we should stop asking women if our clothes make us more susceptible to sexual assault, and stop letting abusers off the hook.

Women’s bodies are dragged out into the public sphere over and over again. Right wing extremists attempt to legislate subjective sexual morality amongst the echelons of power, from Nadine Dorries in the UK to republicans in the United States. Whilst these people make decisions about how we should conduct our bodies, we are being dissected.

Nobody ever claimed that the slutwalk movement celebrates promiscuity in women. But even if it did- so what? For hundreds of years, woman’s virtue has been inexplicably linked with chastity. We are constantly being defined by what we don’t do. The virgin/whore dichotomy is nothing new. We live in a time when Tory MPs are sitting in parliament pushing regressive abstinence agendas that teach young women that sex isn’t something you participate in, it’s something that you give up. The hand wringing hysteria over assertive female sexuality sexual autonomy is both extremely archaic and very much alive.

All of this is why I welcome the slutwalk movement with open arms.

The movement’s website states: ‘With sexual assault already a significantly under-reported crime, survivors have now been given even less of a reason to go to the Police, for fear that they could be blamed. Being assaulted isn’t about what you wear; it’s not even about sex; but using a pejorative term to rationalize inexcusable behaviour creates an environment in which it’s okay to blame the victim.’

Basic feminism 101. So why the backlash? It seems the name of the movement has caused confusion- some more methodical than others. I used to respect the anti-pornography campaigner Gail Dines, but her problem with feminist activists organising without her permission is unnerving. I admit, I must have missed the memo that confirmed she was crowned Queen of Feminism, because her approach to the debate appears to be very much her way, or the highway. Gail, along with professor of sexual violence Wendy J Murphy, have voiced strong opposition to the idea of slutwalks, asserting that women should not be fighting for the right to be called sluts. Whilst I sympathise with their  reservations about the word, but I just can’t agree with the way they have let their concerns hijack the very real issue of victim blaming. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the misinterpretation of the cause and the consequent Guardian article condemning the march has single handedly begun the avalanche of misinformed debate that is obscuring the original cause of the march. As for Gail’s continued worry that concentrating on slutwalks will deplete precious feminist resources- I’m confused. I didn’t realise every feminist activist ran out of feminist energy at the end of every month. Should we be calling Dines for a top up?

Yes, the word slut is a contentious and derogatory term, with its conception mired in slut shaming and victim blaming. However, I can’t help wonder if Gail Dines and Wendy Murphy are wilfully missing the point. Surely the name of the march is a direct response to the policeman’s comment. Why are they choosing to ignore this? With a mainstream culture that rarely challenges victim blaming, I’m not sure if we should be trying to pick apart a genuinely well-meaning movement in its infancy.

The subsequent backlash over reclaiming the word slut doesn’t just shove the original cause to the margins, it is also incredibly indicative of a repetitive cultural hysteria over women’s sexual autonomy. What does promiscuity mean anyway? In this context it seems to be that age old outrage about women enjoying and even pursuing (!) sex- otherwise known as slut shaming. I doubt these links are a coincidence.

I’ve no inclination to reclaim the word slut, but I do believe that we should start shouting about how the word is consistently used to shame and blame women. That’s why I’ll be going on the march, and you should too.

Write us your thoughts about this post. Be kind & Play nice.
  1. gherkinette says:

    I just feel that the Slutwalk is taking the debate about rape away from talking about what women wear and women’s sexuality by….talking about what women wear and women’s sexuality which doesn’t really move the issue on for me.

    Plus they’ve gone for a name that is deliberately provocative and already used to divide women and split the camps further. It’s promoting division rather than cohesion and it’s giving a very reductive view of the subject to non feminists who aren’t in the bubble of feminist debate.

    Since Slutwalk London popped up in the press at the weekend, I’ve been deluged with jokes and comments about how people knew I must have been a slut all along, asking what I was wearing, and undermining me further for having been raped. It feels like seven years of effort on my behalf to make my clothes irrelevant to my rape have been wiped out by one march tying the word ‘slut’ and ‘rape’ together in the minds of non feminists. The very people we should be educating, not giving lazy soundbites too.

    I don’t want to say that all feminists must like and do the same things, but I find it hard to get behind a feminist organisation that is making life harder for rape victims right now (I work with victims. Several of the 16 I spoke to this week found this slut association happening around them too). But I’m not telling anyone not to go, just to think beyond the headline.

  2. As has been said many times before, we live in a society that tells us, “don’t get raped”, never “don’t rape,” as though it’s a suitable form of rape prevention. I completely agree with the “slutwalks” as I believe people need to be able to express themselves however they would want without risk of being raped, and therefore blamed for it as they dressed in such a provocativie way.

  3. Chris says:

    Good blog post again. I’m not sure Slutwalk is the the approach I would take if I was a woman; but tackling this ingrained victim-blaming is really important.

    Dressing in a certain way may not be a good idea, but saying a woman is asking to get sexually assaulted is as stupid as saying a man in a posh suit is asking to be mugged.