SlutWalk

17 Sep

When the survivor of sexual assault is forced to share in the responsibility of that assault (along with the perpetrator), the perception of sexual assault as a serious and violent crime is minimized.  When authority figures charged with the responsibility of responding to the victims of such crimes accept, to any extent, the idea that style of dress contributes to the assault, a clear message is being sent: to some extent, men just can’t help themselves, so women should try to avoid tempting them by exposing too much.  I’m not sure which is more insulting, the reinforcement of the perception of women primarily as sexual objects or the underlying acceptance of men as sexual predators incapable of controlling impulses.

A now infamous Toronto police officer has, however unintentionally, made a recent public contribution to the idea that women invite such violent reactions from men when they choose to dress in less than conservative ensembles.  While there is much to be said in reaction to this officer’s comment that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized,” (see source: http://www.thestar.com/news/article/955682–police-officer-s-remarks-at-york-inspire-slutwalk), especially considering the context in which it was said, I would like to focus on the international SlutWalk protests that have emerged in response to this instance.

SlutWalks have gone through a rather rapid transformation since the first march.  One of the co-founders of both the SlutWalk organization (the webpage, and the Facebook and Twitter accounts) and the first protest march sharing the same name , Heather Jarvis, explained that the name of the march was not intended to send the message that women participating in the march should “dress like sluts” (again, see source: http://www.thestar.com/news/article/955682–police-officer-s-remarks-at-york-inspire-slutwalk).  The point was to make a statement, a noticeable and visible one, about people in solidarity against the notion that clothing, or lack thereof, can be construed as a form of consent.  In other words, there is no legitimacy to the argument that “in a way, she was asking for it.”

The marches have become a global phenomenon, and increasing numbers of participating women are opting to dress provocatively.  This has created quite a stir.  I have heard colleagues, identifying as feminists, take both supportive and critical stances regarding the marches.  Most of the criticisms stem from the the use of the word “slut,” and what it means to have this word coincide with visual demonstrations of provocatively dressed women.  The main fears seem to be that the intended message will be lost, that women will not be taken seriously, and that nothing will ultimately be accomplished other than fostering a false sense of security in showing a little more skin.

Those in support of the demonstrations have suggested that such fears ignore the link between the message and the visual demonstration.  What does it mean to have scantily-clad women walking about in public, marching in a sea of signs suggesting that nothing they can wear is an overt invitation for anyone to touch, grope, or otherwise sexually assault them?  I’d say we’ve got a powerful image, something actively creating a dissonance between provocative apparel and an understood invitation for, and unspoken consent to, sex.  We’ve seen the same scenes in movies, television, advertisements, etc., for years: a woman dressed provocatively, displayed as alluring, as the temptress, presents herself to a man and awaits his seemingly inevitable physical reaction to her appearance in silence.

With SlutWalk protest marches, we are presented with a very different display.  Provocatively dressed women are visible, alongside signs and banners warning us that this visual image is not to be equated with consent.  This is where the dissonance comes into play.  We used to see such garments in ads selling us perfumes, clothing labels, jewelry, hair products.  We were sold the idea that these items were intended to achieve the outcomes their ads depicted.  And since “sex sells,” for the most part these advertisements have been successful, and therefore popular as well.  The messages more subtly suggest that in mimicking the stylistic behaviors of these ads, we are pursuing similar outcomes.  There is less room for the idea that a woman just felt like wearing something provocative without the intention of enticing men.  There is still even less room for the idea that a woman dressed provocatively did so in order to entice the gaze of all around her without expecting to be harassed.  What does our acceptance of these social norms suggest?  Perhaps SlutWalk has forced us all to look at the extent to which we each have internalized some degree of the Toronto officer’s sentiment.

But SlutWalk is selling us something different: the idea that society is beyond the point where anything other than consent matters. There is a visual representation of what we would usually understand as ‘sexy’ juxtaposed with the equally powerful visual representations of female solidarity and anti-sexism. While not all women participating in the march choose to dress this way, those that do are providing a valuable service to those of us who believe in the message of the march: they are putting theory into practice.  We can say over and over again, as we have for years now, that nothing the survivors of sexual assault do makes them in any way responsible for that assault.  We can say that clothing is no invitation.  But SlutWalk supporters and participants are putting such statements to the test.  It is obvious that these marches are about more than making the world safe for showing a little more skin. Anyone buying into that as the main point should look at the SlutWalk phenomenon again.

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As for those stuck on the issue regarding the creation of a false sense of security among young and impressionable women, I think they’ve missed the point.  The marches were organized because there was no sense of support for survivors of sexual assault, and the point is to foster one.  The marches and protests are not advocating that women start to dress like underwear models on a regular basis.  If that is a concern for some, those individuals should think about how they view women in general.  Women are not as naive as these critics think they are. We are not so easily misled, especially concerning issues of particular importance to us. The marches are a safe space, with women supporting each other.  We know what dangers lurk about, and have been aware of them for a very long time, from very young ages.  Take Back the Night protests and marches have been attempting to battle against the dangers that women face on a daily basis (simply for being women) for years.  But the visible demonstrations offered by SlutWalk protests have had a greater immediate impact as a result of their very controversial nature.  For those women contributing to the controversy, we should not be so quick to judge.

I tend to agree with much of what Katha Pollitt of The Nation had to say regarding the SlutWalk protests (see source: http://www.thenation.com/article/161728/talk-talk-walk-slutwalk).  While there is much support for the movement among feminists of all generations, what I believe to be even more valuable than this is the discussion that has taken place as a result of the marches.  SlutWalks have been discussed in the classroom, in global and local media, and at dinner tables.  The fact that the controversial word “slut” creates such a buzz only helps to increase attention for the marches, and therefore, the larger discussion.  If people are talking about it, then there is a greater chance that the message is reaching more than just those individuals who have witnessed the marches.  It’s interesting to think that so much discussion and conversation has resulted from a visible demonstration against one comment spoken by one man.  The actions of these SlutWalk women have certainly spoken louder than this man’s words.

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2 Responses to “SlutWalk”

  1. Justin September 19, 2011 at 10:18 pm #

    Nice piece. This is certainly an important message, and frankly your moderated tone with respect to the police officer blunted the only criticism I had planned to offer. I would say that generally any potentially helpful information on how to avoid being victimized should be made available to the potential victims. That said, I don’t necessarily think that bit of information was all that helpful, and it clearly has a counterproductive effect when it is made available to potential perpetrators as an implicit justification. Right-thinking men know the difference between consent and a sexy dress. And those who don’t are not confused, they are sociopaths. But hypothetically I wonder, if there were a statistical link between the length of a woman’s skirt and her likelihood to be raped (and I’m not saying there is), wouldn’t that be information women would want to know?

    For instance, I would not be surprised if studies showed that prostitutes (due to the nature of their work and the neighborhoods which they frequent) are frequent victims of rape. And that is at least one class of women who are sending a clear message with their clothing (although even that message is not “rape me”). But suppose there is a serial rapist on the loose in a neighborhood and all of the victims happened to be prostitutes. I would think that it wouldn’t be out of line to caution women to (a) avoid that area at certain times if possible, and (b) try not to look like a prostitute if you are there. Obviously taking steps to avoid being raped is a lot less traumatic than the experience itself and its aftermath. So if that message were framed in a way that cautioned potential victims rather than blaming actual victims, would there be any real harm?

    Again, most men know that a woman’s clothes do not say “rape me.” But most men are not rapists. Rapists, like other violent criminals, do profile their victims. Each have their preferences I’m sure. But I wouldn’t be shocked if some prefer (or actively seek out) victims that dress a certain way. Much emphasis has been placed (rightly) by feminists on the violent aspect of rape. But it is important to not forget that it does have a very strong sexual dynamic.

  2. Susan Christensen October 29, 2011 at 2:49 pm #

    Amazing that a policeman would archaically interpret rape as a sexual act and not one of power and violence is appalling in and of itself! Sadly many rapes remain unreported because the victim has a sense of shame and will have to go through a rape of her character by the judicial system. She will be called into question and only if her story resounds well to those interrogating her will the perpetrator’s actions be considered. Again a major strike against the injustice system of this country.

    Your peep, Susan

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