SlutWalk takes aim at rapists

03:57, Jun 27 2011

Tomorrow in Wellington and Auckland, women will be dressing in skimpy and alluring clothes, and marching along the streets, together with their supporters, in SlutWalks. I will be walking with them.

SlutWalks came into being when a police officer in Toronto told a group of university students that if they wanted to avoid rape, they shouldn't dress like sluts. The women quickly organised a march, or as the marches have become known, a SlutWalk, to protest against the attitude revealed by the police officer's words. Word spread quickly on- line, and all over the world, from London to Sydney to Sao Paulo, women and men have been going on SlutWalks.

Why would any woman associate herself with the word "slut"? It is used as an insult, and it shocks many people. A politician who called a woman a slut would be called to account very quickly indeed.

One reason is to reclaim the word "slut". It is used to control women, by shaming them for being sexual at all, or for having many sexual partners, or for dressing in clothes that reveal cleavage or thighs. A slut is someone who gives respectable women a reason to gasp in shock and clutch their pearls, because it is just too immoral to behave like that.

But what is wrong with enjoying sex, and sexuality, and with seeking out opportunities to have sex? A man who enjoys sex and signals his interest in having sex is called a stud. He's a player, but she's a tramp. He's a Don Juan, but she's a loose woman. It's an old double standard, and it's time we got rid of it. Women shouldn't be shamed for enjoying sex and sexuality. Like "stud", the word "slut" should be said with pride.

When challenged on the double standard, the pearl-clutching brigade try another argument. Of course women should be able to enjoy sex, because we are all equals now. Just as the Toronto police officer said, the big problem is that a slutty woman could be raped. And in fact, if she does get raped, then she's only got herself to blame.

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This is classic victim-blaming. Instead of focusing on the perpetrator of a crime, the victim is blamed for in some way having caused it. She was drunk, she was wearing a short skirt, she was walking home alone at night, she had sex with another man, she was asking for it. It was her fault she got herself raped.

None of this explains why elderly women alone in their homes are raped, nor women out running in track pants and T-shirts, nor girls on their way to school, nor women "safe" in the company of their brothers' or cousins' or husband's friends. If dressing like a slut causes rape, then women wearing ordinary everyday clothes ought to be safe. But they are not.

"It's just about being sensible," people will say. "It's like locking your car up so that it won't get stolen."

But women are not property. They are not things to be owned and possessed. Women are people, and rape is a crime against a person, not a crime against property. More to the point, I cannot lock my body up. My body goes with me, wherever I go, no matter how I am dressed. I cannot avoid having a body. In any case, no one tells the owner of a nice car that he is asking for it.

The big problem with this safety message is that it focuses completely on the victim of the crime, and not on the perpetrator. The rapist is not held to be at fault, because he is erased from the scene. The crime becomes the woman's fault for not having taken proper precautions. No other criminals get such an easy escape from responsibility. The result of this attitude is plain to see in the low conviction rates for rape. Police officers, judges and juries are too ready to excuse rapists for their behaviour.

It's time for a change. It's time to realise that the one thing in common in all rapes is the presence of a rapist, someone who couldn't be bothered to get consent. It's time to understand that the only thing that signifies consent to sex is the participants' willing and enthusiastic consent. Not what people are wearing, not what people have had to drink, not what people have done in the past. What is required is the presence of that wonderful word "Yes!" For both women and men.

I'm SlutWalking for all these reasons. I want to reclaim the word, I want to enable women to celebrate their sexuality, I want an end to victim-blaming.

As for what I'm wearing? Sensible shoes, knee-length skirt, twinset, and pearls. For clutching.

Deborah Russell is a Palmerston North mother and a university lecturer.

The Details A SlutWalk is being held in Wellington tomorrow, starting at 2pm.

The Dominion Post