I recently learned about the SlutWalk, and it’s gotten me thinking a lot about the experiences of certain people in my life with sexual assault and how we can change the cultural norms, mindsets, or attitudes that propagate violence against women. Though I am fully aware that men also experience sexual assault, because I am a woman and I also know that women are more often the victims of – or, rather, survivors of – sexual violence, my focus here is on women.
In the U.S., 1 out of 4 women will experience sexual assault in their lifetimes, and many are taken advantage of simply because they choose to wear what they want, drink what they want, or socialize in the places and with the people they want. It is incredibly sad to me that we live in a world where making simple choices with the goal of having “fun” opens women up to dangerous situations, whereas men rarely have to wonder about such things as, “If I go drinking with my friends/if I wear this outfit/if I try to have a friendly conversation with this person – is someone going to force themselves upon me sexually?” What’s worse is that many men who commit acts of sexual violence don’t even realize what they’ve done. They’ll have no idea that their actions deeply affected another human being. They won’t be able to understand how a single encounter, a relatively fleeting moment in their lives, will actually stay in that woman’s mind – probably vividly – forever.
The SlutWalk got its start this year in Toronto after a Toronto police officer stated that, in order to avoid being sexually assaulted, “…women should avoid dressing like sluts…” Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis, the founders of SlutWalk, were outraged by this flagrant victim-blaming and decided to organize a march wherein women can come together dressed in whatever manner they please and protest the idea that the way a woman decides to dress can be an invitation for sexual violence – a seeming reality in our culture, and one which men almost never have to take into account when they open their closet doors. The goal of the SlutWalk is twofold:
- Raise awareness as to the fact that the decision on the part of the perpetrator to sexually assault a woman is his and his alone – he is actively choosing to commit an act of violence against another human being, a decision that cannot be attributed to the victim of that crime.
- Redeem the word “slut” and other derogatory, anti-female terms such that they can no longer be used to tear woman down but, instead, can be owned by women (much like the LGBT community did with the word “queer”).
As Barnett and Jarvis have stated, they are “…tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result…Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence…No one should equate enjoying sex with attracting sexual assault.”
The inaugural SlutWalk in Toronto this past April attracted nearly 3,000 participants and has quickly spread to other major cities around the world, such as Washington, D.C. and Dallas. In fact, some people have gone so far as to describe this event as the “…most successful feminist action of the past 20 years,” as it has quickly brought together thousands of people to protest sexual violence and engage in critical discourse regarding the identity of women and male/female gender roles in the 21st century.
The SlutWalks have also been the source of intense criticism. Certain commentators – many of them men – have said that guidance on how to dress is simply “risk management,” even drawing analogies between sexual assault and home invasion:
I have a perfect right to leave my windows open when I nip to the shops for some fags, without being burgled. It doesn’t lessen the guilt of the burglar that I’ve left my window open, or even remotely suggest that I was deserving of being burgled. Just that it was more likely to happen. – Rod Liddle
Despite Liddle’s assertion that a woman’s personal choices do not make her “deserving” of having a sex crime committed against her, according to statistics posted in a British newspaper, a survey taken in London in 2009 showed that:
- 27% of people believe a woman is responsible for her assaults if she was “flirting”
- 26% of people believe a woman is responsible for her assaults if she was walking alone in a dark place
- 17% of people believe a woman is responsible for her assaults if she was dressed in “sexy clothing”
These are incredible statistics. It blows my mind to know that people believe that a women essentially “deserves” to be assaulted simply based on the clothing she wears or the path home she chooses. As Elizabeth Webb, organizer of the SlutWalk Dallas pointed out, “If someone breaks into a house, do you blame the owner for having a house that looks appetizing?”
The argument of the SlutWalk founders is that “The idea that women’s clothing has some bearing on whether they will be raped is a dangerous myth…” I think this is a very important and very accurate point – how can we actually tell women that an article of clothing is an explanation for her sexual violation? Generally, the idea of “sexual assault prevention” is a tricky one, because education as to how women can avoid situations under which sexual assault is “more likely” tends to give the appearance of shifting the blame for sexual assault onto its female victims. Typical prevention education can send a message to women that it is entirely within their control as to whether or not they experience sexual assault in their lifetimes, when in fact, acts of sexual violence are experienced as a result of a decision made by the perpetrator. Not only is this message unfair to women, but also, it implies that men are such “animals” that they cannot control themselves when they see a woman dressed in a way that they deem to be “sexy” or “slutty.” So, really, no one wins under this argument.
Women have also expressed sharp opposition to the SlutWalks, but often for different reasons than the aforementioned and primarily male-driven arguments. Many women feel that SlutWalk’s aim to “reclaim” the word “slut” is a lost cause, as it has become are “irredeemable term” in our society.
Many argue that the SlutWalk is simply an example of the “pornification” of women, which can lead to more men viewing women as sexual objects and therefore becoming more willing to take advantage of or assault them. In May 2011, Gail Dines and Wendy Murphy – anti-pornography and victims rights advocates – published a piece in The Guardianarguing that women should fight wholeheartedly against sexual violence. However, they argued that women should not fight for the right to dress in a “slutty” way or be called a “slut” without negative connotations, as this would only mean – in their opinions – playing into the male conception of what a woman is or should be. As they explained:
…the focus on "reclaiming" the word slut fails to address the real issue [of sexual assault]. The term slut is so deeply rooted in the patriarchal "madonna/whore" view of women’s sexuality that it is beyond redemption. The word is so saturated with the ideology that female sexual energy deserves punishment that trying to change its meaning is a waste of precious feminist resources. Advocates would be better off exposing the myriad ways in which the law and the culture enable myths about all types of women – sexually active or “chaste” alike…Whether we blame victims by calling them “sluts”…or by calling them “frigid”…the problem is that we’re blaming them for their own victimization no matter what they do. Encouraging women to be even more “sluttish” will not change this ugly reality.
According to Dines and Murphy, the fact that women have grown up in a hypersexualized culture in which men expect women to behave sexually like those in hardcore pornography – albeit only with them and only in private – and women feel pressure to be “sexy” but not “slutty” in order to be valued by men means that we should be fighting as hard as possible against any labels or imagery that could feed into this. As such, they feel that blasting the term “slut,” even if from the mouth of a woman about herself, can only serve to build up these negative labels and increase the power of the more misogynistic sect of our society over women. As they put it:
…women have been told over and over that in order to be valued in [our] culture, they must look and act like sluts, while not being labeled [as a] slut because the label has dire consequences including being blamed for rape…Women need to find ways to create their own authentic sexuality, outside of male-defined terms like slut.
Jessica Valenti, founder of Feministing.com, wrote an opinion piece on the SlutWalk this summer that runs counter to Dines’ and Murphy’s arguments, which I found very compelling. I agree with Valenti that, currently, we all associate “slut” with the male perspective of women; however, myself and Valenti both fully believe that, were women to take ownership of this imagery and this label, “slut” would no longer be male-centric and thus could not be used by men to hurt us, tear us down, explain away sexual assault, etc. Likewise, SlutWalk co-founder Jarvis has said, “I come from a frame of mind that language is powerful, and you can also change language.” She went on to use the word “queer” as an example of such reclamation. This word was once a strictly derogatory term, but is now a common sexual identifier used by the LGBT community. Accordingly, anyone who is anti-LGBT will find that it is fairly ineffective to use that word as a means to insult or belittle a member of the LGBT community.
Despite my agreement with Valenti and the SlutWalk founders as to the ability of women to change the meaning of “slut” such that it takes loses the labeling power for men that it currently has, an important question remains – will there, at some point, be a better way to battle the misconception that a woman can actually “ask” to be sexually assaulted than through attempts to take ownership of the derogatory labels that men have used to normalize such attacks? Can we, someday, reach a point where women aren’t either prudes or sluts, but rather, can be some kind of comfortable, self-defined mix of the two that no one really questions? For example, the way men get to live now. I know that’s what critics like Dines and Murphy would hope for, but I haven’t seen any great ideas from them as to how they would change this culture that seemingly supports sexual violence against women.
By no means do I think I have the answers to the questions raised here, or that my viewpoints are any more “right” than those of any others (well, except maybe people who think sexual assault is “pretend” or that woman “ask” for it – I think I’m way more “right” than those people). I simply think that this is a critical issue for discussion and debate, especially as the relationships between women and men and the roles of women in our modern-day society continue to evolve.