Protests, billed as “SlutWalks”, are spreading after a cop’s sexist comment to Toronto students. Our society promotes and constantly reinforces the idea that women are to blame if they are raped.
A third of students in a 2009 UK survey thought a woman was wholly or partially to blame for her rape if she was drunk.
Some 27 per cent said she was responsible if she was “flirting”, and 17 per cent if she was dressed in “sexy clothing”.
The women’s movement made progress through the 1970s and 1980s in breaking some of these myths. For example, it highlighted the negative role of the police in rape investigations, and popularised the slogan “No means no”.
But over the last couple of decades the blame culture has crept back. Two stories from the US and Canada illustrate this to chilling effect.
At the elite US Yale University members of Delta Kappa Epsilon (George Bush’s former fraternity) marched round the campus last year chanting “No means yes! Yes means anal!” and “We love Yale sluts”. They stopped in front of the women’s centre with the intention of intimidating women students.
This has been happening for years and the college authorities have done nothing to stop it.
The march is just the tip of the iceberg. Figures show that one in four female students at Yale will face sexual assault during their time at college. In March 2011 a group of current and former students filed a lawsuit against Yale for failing to provide women with a fair and non-threatening learning environment.
At York University in Toronto, Canada, in 2007, two drunken young men walked into a student hall of residence at midnight and went from floor to floor trying to open doors.
They raped two women and attempted to assault several more. The university has since increased security, but the most chilling aspect is the attitude of one of the rapists.
In a pre-trial interview when asked what the victims could take away from the incident he replied, “Perhaps they now know to lock their doors.”
This was the same university where the SlutWalk would be founded. The first “walk” was organised in response to advice from a police officer to a group of women on personal safety.
He told them the best way to avoid rape was not to “dress like a slut”—implying that they are responsible if they are assaulted.
Some 3000 people marched in Toronto to say, “Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no.”
Where the officer and society at large say, “sluts are to blame”, the organisers want to say, then we are all sluts, and none of us are to blame!
The idea has caught a mood, spreading across North America, Europe and Australia. One of the organisers of Brisbane’s Slutwalk told the media its aim was to reject the idea “that victims are ever to blame” for rape.
This is the key message of the “walk”, and the reason we should support it.
However, the use of the term “slut” has led some to attack the march or to feel uncomfortable with it. I think there are some invalid and some valid concerns.
Sex has never been more open, discussed and visible. This should be a good thing.
But the form it takes in neo-liberal society is distorted. Sex has become a commercial product to be bought and sold, or used to help other objects be bought and sold.
Many people are rightly angry at this “pornification” of everything and the pressure on young girls to look like Barbie dolls.
At the same time social conservatives, most prominently British Tory MP Louise Bagshawe, have attacked Slutwalk for “promoting promiscuity”, which they claim is harmful to women and society.
This accepts the prejudices behind the term “slut” exactly as it is defined. In a word it contains an idea of womanhood as pure, chaste and innocent, which is besmirched by women who don’t conform to that idea. There is no equivalent term for men.
“Slut” is a term completely and inextricably bound up with women’s oppression. This is where I have an issue with SlutWalk. It also seems to accept that binary opposition of the “pure” woman and the “slut”—but it simply reverses the polarity. For me this cannot get us very far in challenging oppression.
I reject the notion of judging or defining women by their perceived sexual behaviour.
But we live in a contradictory situation. With the new niqab law in place in France, women can be arrested for wearing too much. Everywhere we can be blamed for wearing too little.
The desire to control women’s bodies and tell them how to behave is as strong as ever. But women are fighting back, and new generations are doing so with ideas informed by all kinds of traditions, theories and gut reactions.
It would be a shame if those feminists who balk at the name of this march cut themselves off from the many young women who will be taking part.
At times like this you just have to link arms and argue.
By Sally Campbell
Original at Socialist Worker UK