Wednesday, 11 May 2011
As you all know, I do love to bore you all with talk about the evils of rape culture, ponder the possibilities of 'rape prevention' and generally try to challenge people's ideas about rape myths. So it might surprise you to hear that I won't be joining the newest anti-rape march movement in London on June 4th. This movement is the 'Slutwalk', borne out of reaction to a Toronto cop's comment at a safety talk last year to some students that women should try not to dress like "sluts" to avoid being raped or victimised, and while I applaud their belief that no one deserves to be raped, just about everything else leaves me utterly cold about the idea.
The first thing that happens when you Google 'Slutwalk London' is that you simply get links to all the press articles written about it. There is no webpage for the project itself visible on the first page of hits. Then your eye falls on the descriptions in the press of the event. The words 'slut' 'scantily clad' 'revealing' dominate mixed in with 'rape' 'blame' and 'fault'. Without even trying, the Slutwalk has given us a little taster of rape culture. The media has immediately focused on the titillating aspect of the idea rather the details and without a clear mission statement to counter this and set out objectives for the project, I feel the whole thing is creating a perfect storm of word association where the average person, unschooled in the various waves of feminism, unaware of 'sex positivity' and naive to the concept of 'reclaiming' a word, simply gets a jumbled message that links the words 'rape' 'blame' and 'slut' in the same sentence. Doesn't that just reinforce already negative thoughts about the victims of sex crimes? In a soundbite culture, is it surprising that people don't sit down and read beyond the headline and seek to educate themselves about a subject that seems irrelevant to them, especially when it is punctuated by pictures of pretty white women in their bras?
Ah, but that's not the fault of the Slutwalk, I hear you cry. That's the fault of rape culture, icky side effect of the patriarchy. The Slutwalk can't help that the Daily Mail called them 'scantily clad' can they? Well, in my mind, yes they can. They could actually stop and think about the culture they are trying to challenge and consider whether their actions are going to change or perpetuate it. Does society usually really listen to a woman with visible breasts or does it just nod and pretend while enjoying the view? What makes them think the people who need to have their attitudes changed about rape are going to remember anything relevant from this movement afterwards apart from some images in their head of women in their skimpies? If rape culture is so damned important to them why haven't they considered that seemingly copying its actions isn't the best way to break it down?
And haven't they considered that if you don't want what victims are wearing to be the main focus of the discussion about rape, it's odd to make the outfits of women so incredibly central to their entire movement? I want us to move entirely away from the 'what was she doing/wearing/saying' debate about rape to the 'what was he doing when he raped her' question and I really really don't think focusing on clothes is the right way to go, even if that focus is saying clothes don't matter. Simply mentioning them makes them noticeable. That's how advertising works. Mention something repeatedly, even subliminally and people make associations. And to me, this constant focus on your clothes, no matter how normal or unslutty they are, forges that link to those people who just hear about this in passing and don't have the time or inclination to research further.
I am not naive to the importance people place on what a rape victim was wearing. The first question most people, including the police, want to ask me when they find out I was raped is 'what were you wearing'? Generally the level of sympathy they are willing to accord you very often depends on your answer. Mini-skirt? Crop top? High heels? Empathy levels tend to wane. In my case, people nod and tilt their head to one side sympathetically when I mention my ankle length skirt that night. The same head that snaps back in judgement when I also say I wasn't wearing a bra at the time. It's a fine line. I am applauded for having worn a slip to make sure my knickers weren't visible, but the police accused me of going out on the pull because both the slip and the knickers were pink. Matching my undergarments must mean I'm a slut, right?
And there's the other big sticking point with the Slutwalk for me. What is the definition of a slut? To some people it's sleeping with everyone you meet, for others, it's co-ordinating undercrackers. Even jokingly, ignoring the tradition that it's a woman who doesn't keep a clean house, seeks to ignore the very fact that it is an arbitrary term and incredibly gendered. We don't have a word for a man who hasn't mastered the art of taking the washing out of the machine on time, but we do have many admiring ones for a man who is sexually experienced. Who ever heard of a man being 'stud-shamed' after all?
Why do we want to 'reclaim' a word that has traditionally been used to divide and conquer women? While all sluts seem to be women, not all women are sluts. Unlike words such as 'queer' that I understand seeks to be a common umbrella term to promote a feeling of community amongst people who already feel on the fringes of society or using a racial word like 'Paddy' that was once used to reduce a whole race to an amorphous mass to be ignored and flipping it so that it conotates pride and power in your 'outsider' status, slut has no universal definition or use. So how can it be re-appropriated to create a sense of community and cohesion? Especially when to many women, it is one of the cruellest and most cutting comments they hear, rendering them helpless and angry no matter how positive a spin is put on it. Why reclaim something that even in its original statement was a cruel gendered slur? Why not appropriate another word? Something women have always seen a positive or at least something non gendered rather than trying to dress up something nasty.
I think the use of the word slut as a title for the movement would only work if women were united behind it and didn't abuse or judge each other on the same moral terms that slut suggests. By anyone putting a value on a woman for her sexual choices, we just perpetuate the same old bullshit that makes life so difficult for women the world over. We've all done it. We've all judged a woman by our perceived beliefs about her sex life. And I don't believe anyone who says they haven't. Ever called a soap barmaid 'a tart with a heart'? Classed something as 'stripper shoes'? Raised your eyes higher than someone's hem at their choice of outfit? It might not seem like it, but we've all had a teeny tiny hand in allowing women to be primarily judged by their sexual choices. And if women do it to themselves, in what way are we telling men they can't do it either? By judging ourselves, we give permission to others to do the same and I think it would be a hell of a lot more helpful to move things away from what a woman does or doesn't want to do in the bedroom when she spends so much of her life outside it. So instead of talking about 'sluts' and 'allies' ( a dichotomy that still forces women to take a place on one side of the sexual fence and keep up the old Madonna/whore thing under a different guise), let's focus on something else, something more inclusive of the gamut of women.
I also wonder where the hell the people who want to fill Trafalgar Square over a comment a cop in another country made, where when the police and the judiciary actively blamed and discriminated against women here in the UK and allowed their rapists to walk free? When this 15 year old's rape case was seen as less important than car crime did we see banners? Did the Twittersphere go apeshit when the hundreds of victims of John Worboys and Kirk Reid were laughed at and sent away by the Met? Did anyone take to the streets when a teenage victim of Ian Huntley was ignored? Why did I never hear so many people getting worked up about Rape Crisis centres closing? Did any of these feminists stand up for me when my case hit the front pages and male commentors in the media called me brazen and a 'vile faced slut'? Did they hell. Those cases feature actual women who've been raped with all the complications, flaws and realities of that crime, not headline grabbing representations of womenhood that can stir indignation amongst those on the sidelines. Something about the Slutwalk pushes a competitiveness between victims and those who are taking offense as if they don't want to be lumped in with the 'weak.' It echoes the classic denial tactic of telling yourself 'she was was wearing a short skirt. I don't wear short skirts. I won't be raped like her...' and having heard that shite from more women than I'd care to remember, the whole Slutwalk thing leaves a nasty taste in my mouth and smacks of 'party feminism' to me where the clothes and fun mean more than the cause.
So instead of 'slutwalking' I'll be challenging rape culture differently and in a way that is to me less about individual 'me me me' based actions and more about collective good. I'll be trying very very hard not to pass judgement on another woman that makes a presumption about her sexual life. I'll be moving the conversation away from clothing when people try make it central in conversations about rape and toward the common thread of the cause of rape being near a rapist, not what you wear. I'll be commenting on newspaper sites, debunking rape myths and offering a first hand of experience that those people might remember if they sit on a jury one day, taking the info to them. I'll be keeping up the pressure on the police and judiciary not to focus on the external details of victims. I'll be training to empower women who have been raped to take control back. I'll be criticising rape culture in the press and the people around me if they tell rape jokes. And I'll be respecting the fact that for some women, the Slutwalk does offer them just one small voice in the cacophony around rape, but I won't be keeping quiet when people involved in it try to suggest it is the best or only way to express ourselves. And I won't be answering what I was wearing the first time I was raped...