Time to fight the rise of sexism
The thousands taking to the streets for “slutwalk” rallies show the anger at the widespread and growing sexism in society—exemplified in the efforts to blame women for rape. Solidarity produced this statement for the demonstrations.
The first “slutwalk” was held in Toronto, Canada, in response to comments by a Canadian cop. He told a group of students they could avoid rape by not dressing “like a slut”. “Slutwalk” rallies have been held across the world to re-assert that, “Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no”.
Despite the gains made by the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, sexist attitudes are again on the rise. A new wave of sexism based on the hyper-sexualisation of women has been perpetuated by the media, corporations and establishment figures.
The NRL rape scandal involving player Matthew Johns in 2009 exposed the ongoing culture of blaming women for rape. A woman known as “Clare” was subjected to degrading sex by a pack of NRL players including Johns. He admitted that she had never invited any of the other players into the room.
But when this was exposed, over 220,000 people joined a “support Matthew Johns” Facebook group, which was plastered with comments like “she is a slut” and “she loved it”. Practically no one was prepared to call this was it was—rape.
Similarly, in the succession of sex scandals in the AFL, players and sports commentators have been quick to rally to the defence of those accused of rape and sexual assault. The implication, again, is that the women involved must be to blame.
The attempt by senior army officers to cover up an incident at the Defence Force Academy this year shows the same sexist attitude. A female cadet was secretly filmed having sex with a colleague, and the footage watched via Skype by six other army cadets. When she went to the media after her superiors did nothing, she was hounded and harassed by her fellow cadets at the academy, and abused as a “slut”, in another example of blaming the victim of abuse.
But it is not just in male-dominated areas like sport and the army that this gross sexism exists.
After Nina Funnell, who writes in the Sydney Morning Herald, published an article describing her indecent assault in 2007, one website responded by running a public discussion inviting people to assess how “rape-able” she is. One man commented, “what a conceited bitch for thinking she is even worthy of being raped. The guy just probably wanted to give her a good bashing in which case job well done.”
One in five women experience sexual violence at some stage in their lives, according to the ABS. A study by the White Ribbon Foundation in 2008 recorded that one in seven teenage boys thought it was ok to force a woman to have sex if she had been flirting.
Images of women as nothing more than sex objects are plastered across billboards and all forms of advertising. It has become acceptable again to use the most rank sexism to sell products. Last year a Brut ad that featured a man breaking into song after seeing a bikini-clad woman, in order to “spot and share” it with his mates, was banned. By the Advertising Standards Bureau’s decision was based, not on the appalling sexism, but on the fact the man featured wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.Women are expected to conform to this commercialised stereotype of sexiness, which says that women should be valued by how they look.
But the use of the world “slut” by “slutwalk” has led some to feel uncomfortable about attending and drawn some criticism.
In response to the sexist claim that women who are raped are “sluts” and therefore to blame, the organisers of “slutwalk” answer: these women have done nothing wrong, and if they are sluts, we are all sluts.
But there is a problem with trying to reclaim the word “slut”. The accepted definition of the word is completely bound up with sexist stereotypes about women. It rests on the stereotype that women are only worthy of respect if they are chaste and innocent. There is no equivalent word for men.
Simply attempting to turn the stereotype around by saying that being a “slut” is something to be proud of does little to challenge the sexism behind the term.
Fighting sexism today
The willingness of thousands to come out onto the streets for “slutwalks” shows the desire for a renewed fight against sexism. The success of the union demonstrations for equal pay, which saw 5000 rally in Sydney just last week, shows this too.
The decline of the 1970s women’s liberation movement has allowed some of the gains it won to be eroded, as the old sexist attitudes have crept back. That movement helped allow women to gain greater equality in the workforce, fought for equal pay and made abortion accessible.
But it went into decline because it identified women’s oppression as something that all men were responsible for, and benefited from. The result of this is that a minority of women have benefited from access to positions of power inside the system, as CEOs, managers and even prime ministers. These class divisions amongst women make the idea of a movement uniting all women impossible.
But the fact that Gail Kelly, CEO of Westpac can earn $9.5 million a year or that Julia Gillard replaced Kevin Rudd as prime minister does nothing to benefit the overwhelming majority of working class women. The Gail Kellys and Julia Gillards of the world in fact have an interest in holding down the wages and conditions of working women in order to boost corporate profits.
Julia Gillard shamefully promotes the same social conservatism that was pushed by Rudd and even John Howard. She panders to homophobia by opposing same-sex marriage, and even went out of her way to endorse the Bible in order to portray herself as “cultural traditionalist” and defender of the Marriage Act. As Education Minister, she let ABC childcare collapse, refusing to nationalise the centres to ensure they all stayed open. Since Labor came to power, they have built just 40 of a promised 260 new childcare centres. Having a woman as prime minister has made almost no difference to the majority of women.
Mass demonstrations and campaigns targeting the impact of sexism on women’s lives were key to the success of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. Today we need to fight against the efforts by the right-wing zealots to restrict abortion and support the union campaign for equal pay. Working class men have a common interest in fighting alongside women in these struggles against sexism.
But the fight against sexism must be connected to the broader fight against the capitalist system that benefits from it. Women need to be in the frontline of every fight against the system, like the fight for same-sex marriage, against racism or against the NSW Liberals’ assault on public sector unions. Only a fight against the system can sweep away the sexism that blights women’s lives.