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SlutWalk: a helpful way forward?

I've been mulling over the concept of a SlutWalk for a little while now. The whole idea is rather troubling for me (and perhaps that's a good thing), but I can't help feel that, while the root message is important, the means used are ultimately unhelpful.

Let me state clearly at the outset that I thoroughly agree with the notion that sexual abuse is never acceptable. It is unacceptable to "blame" a girl (or boy, for that matter) for being the victim of sexual assault on the grounds that they were dressed in a certain way. The message needs to be clearly heard that sex is a gift that must not be misused and cannot be taken from an unwilling victim.

It cannot be justified to say that a victim of sexual assault was "at fault" because of the way they were dressed. The causality is nothing like so clear cut and any implication that it is must be rejected. However, at the same time it is simply not the case that the way we dress makes no difference to the way others perceive us. Of course it does, and indeed there is nothing inherently wrong in allowing the way someone presents themselves to inform one's assessment of that person. It is nonsense to suggest that we should be neutral in our dealings with other people. Humans are meaning-making beings and we seek to understand the things that we encounter; it is right and proper that we should make use of all the information available to us in doing so. This includes the content and tone of a person's speech, their manner, their body language and yes, their attire.

Now, it does not follow that a man should observe a girl's clothing and make a judgement that she is "up for it". Such a judgement would be rightly condemned if this man were to forceful sexual advances as a result of it. However, it may be legitimate to ask oneself about the message that someone's attire is intended to convey. It is disingenous to say that our clothing says nothing about us at all. Who would not look at a bishop in full episcopal dress and not formulate certain assumptions (note, not conclusions) about aspects of that person's character and thinking? Who would not see a policewoman walking down the street and infer (rightly or wrongly) that she was a law-abiding citizen? Who would not walk past a gang of hooded teenagers and wonder (probably wrongly, but wonder none-the-less) about whether they were up to no good?

The problem we have is about the extent to which these judgements (often unconscious) are justified. We have to ask ourselves where these ideas come from and whether the stereotypes that lie behind them are legitimate. Often they are not. Unfortunately, the perception that a girl dressed in a certain way is "fair game" is a widespread one. The issue is how we deal with this perception.

My hunch is that we have a problem in society with increasingly making a separation between "sex" and "love" (or, at least, committment). Of course it would be absurd to hark back to an age in which sex was purely the preserve of the marital bed. Promiscuity has always existed, fleeting sexual encounters have always taken place, haystacks have always been the setting for an impromtu romp. However, there has been a change in the public perception of casual, uncommitted sex, and this leads to a problem.

Let's consider a recent Lynx advert. It starts with a couple in bed enjoying the warm glow of morning. Over the next 40 seconds we see these two retrace their steps back to the supermarket where they had met the day before. Before they part we see the fleeting glance of those who never expect to see each other again. At this point the words appear: "Because you never know when" and cuts to a man spraying Lynx deodorant. The message is clear: if you have a chance encounter in a supermarket you want to smell nice because you never know where it might lead. Presumably the logic of the advertsers is that people want to meet strangers and have sex with them at the drop of a hat; the idea of a random sexual dalliance is good and we want to place our product in the creation of it.

I'm exremely uncomfortable with this.

I'm yet to meet anyone who, when the chips are down, has said: "I love meeting someone in a club, going home with them, having sex, and then leaving the next morning". Of course, people brag about such happenings but I've never spoken to someone who has set the machismo aside and still said the same thing. I have, however, met people who have been hurt by such flings and also people who have become trapped in cycles of unhappy promiscuity. This may well be to do with the circles I move in. If anyone would like to argue with me on this point I'd be interested to hear it. My questions are, when did we get to this point? When did we agree that it is a good idea for one of the most intimate things a human being can do to be treated with such a casual attitude? Where does this leave the male perception of women and their value and worth? How might such an attitude encourage a man to even ask himself if the girl he is dancing with is "up for it"?

Oh dear me, I've rambled. Where does this leave the SlutWalk?

If you've followed me this far then perhaps you'll agree that simply asserting the right to wear what one likes doesn't necessarily resolve the problem. While most men probably do need to reflect on their attitude to women and their sexual objectification, it is perhaps unhelpful of women to assert their right to dress in a sexualised way. This does nothing to challenge the perception that casual sex is a good thing. While men do need to hear that "No means no", perhaps women need to acknowledge that the way they dress can potentially propagate the idea that they are objects available for casual sex.

It is not as simple as "It's my hot body, I do what I want" (as one placard read). Just as it's neither kind nor helpful to parade your glass of wine in front of an alcoholic, it's not a helpful step to assert one's sexuality in front of someone who measures their own self-worth in notches on a bedpost. The way we act and present ourselves affects other people and the message that it's "their problem" if they can't handle it only holds a limited amount of weight. We need a solution to the problem of the increasing meaninglessness of sex in society.

I don't think I've expressed myself very well here. If I haven't then I'm sorry. However, I strongly feel that the language of "rights" is often unhelpful when it's divorced from the language of responsibility and I fear that the SlutWalk movement, though laudable in many ways, will not lead to a long-term solution to sexual violence.

Posted by Mike

Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Hi Mr B,

    This is something I’ve discussed recently with a number of people so I just thought I share my thoughts.

    The whole Slutwalk thing was kicked off as a reaction against women being told to ‘dress down’ to avoid being raped. I think that we don’t _have_ to see this as blaming the victim for being raped.

    Of course it would be better for women to be able to dress as they like, and it would be better if there weren’t rapists, but the truth is that there are. The ‘dressing down’ thing was part of a harm reduction strategy, along with advice such as not being out late in dangerous areas and not being heavily intoxicated in the company of strangers. All of these things could be seen as blaming the victim – we should all be able to walk anywhere we like at any time of day, but the idea was to reduce the chance of people being attacked.
    Do these harm reduction strategies work? For sure it’s a big point for discussion and if they can be proven not to work then let’s stop and investigate what else might help. (If someone wants to show me some science that says these banners will make men stop, think and not commit a rape then I’ll be the first down to B&Q to buy the 2X2”, but my hunch is that the kind of man who commits rape isn’t the kind to be dissuaded by banners).

    It seems to me that the officer at the centre of the case made one big mistake – the use of the word ‘slut’. Such pejoratives (especially when used by a police officer) do nothing to convince anyone that rape is taken seriously by the police.

    There are a lot of heavily emotive issues around rape, and I think we (especially us men) need to pick our way through the points carefully – something I think you’ve managed quite well.

    All the best,

    Alex K

  2. Are my facebook comments full of enough crap about awesomely low-rent tv that I can comment on this serious post without seeming like I think I am the font of all serious answers? 🙂 I’ve just found this SlutWalk stuff very interesting…

    One of the well-expressed things about your post is that you’re interested in opinions that differ? I understand your points about how we look at people and form opinions. But…

    I just think that while you are entirely entitled to your views about casual sex, there really isn’t any connection between casual sex and rape…. its a different topic…

    There is so much consensual sex that would class as ‘casual’ that women enjoy – but there is never a time when a woman is actually inviting/suggesting rape by attire or behavior or anything… people may be confused about this, but they need to adjust their perceptions of what they are looking at (in the way we have to when working on getting rid of our prejudices)

    Male perception of a woman’s worth shouldn’t be based on whether or not she has/enjoys casual sex – some men may perceive of it on that basis, but its not legitimate to do so…

    Even if a woman were to propagate the idea she’s up for casual sex though attire or behavior or anything, no one ought to ever think that is the same as suggesting rape could be on the cards…

    And however helpful or caring that policeman thought he was being, victim’s out there shouldn’t have to hear the suggestion that they had something to do with it. And I doubt the statistics would back up the idea that they did. And I don’t think rapists think “who looks like they fancy getting raped?” – My understanding is that rape is about power, not a market segment analysis… (and no women should have to keep hearing from culture that its women’s bodies that are the problem, which women do in so many ways…)

    And finally I guess its not really fair that women should have to be singled out and asked to protect men from themselves. If a man needs to be protected from any rapey tendencies he might have – it ain’t adjacent women that are the problem or that should be the solution! Its also quite an unfair to tar most men with that brush as well I think. (And also, while its not that big a point because we’re here talking about rape in terms of it being an issue that hugely affects women where men are the perpetrators & obviously this is narrow in itself as its focussing on consensual or non-consensual encounters between men & women only but, its kind of patriarchal in itself for society to only ever say men need to be helped not to be aroused by women; you never hear men being asked not to be too sexy – as if women are only desired and don’t themselves desire…)

    Know what I mean? 🙂

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