I’d happily rally against rapists – but I’m no Slutwalker

A guestpost from @JennyKemp.

Jenny works for a voluntary organisation which aims to end men’s violence against women, but is writing this in a personal capacity.

On Saturday 28 May 2011, a hundred or so women and men marched in the streets of Edinburgh to ‘Reclaim the Night’ as a time when women can safely walk the streets without fear of attack. I was sad to miss the march, and you’d think therefore that I’d be delighted about another forthcoming opportunity to march in protest at men’s violence and victim-blaming: ‘Slutwalk’ Edinburgh will take place on Saturday 18 June. However, unlike the RTN March, which I would have joined if I’d been able to, I will be giving the Slutwalk a miss.

Although I strongly sympathise with the motivations behind the Slutwalk events, (which originated when a police officer giving a talk in Toronto told the women present they’d be safer from sexual assault if they avoided ‘dressing like sluts’), it’s my view that this phenomenon could potentially damage the very cause it seeks to progress.

Much of the debate surrounding the Slutwalk phenomenon has focused on semantics and on language – on whether feminists should want to reclaim the word ‘slut’ and challenge misogynistic policing of women’s sexual behaviour. For the record, I’m not on the side of the reclaimers. I think a word which is fundamentally tainted with centuries of expectations about women’s place in the world is one we should be aiming to bury, not liberate.

But language aside, the main issue with any campaign about social values is whether it works – whether it challenges myths or reinforces them; whether it brings people along or shuts people out. There are many women (and men for that matter) who are desperate to be part of ending sexual violence against women, but who feel alienated by the very term ‘Slutwalk’, unable to join in a march which uses such pejorative language and which is so focused on women’s behaviour.
This is my main concern about Slutwalk. The emphasis of this event, despite the great intentions behind it, is on the women participants, not on the men who act as rape apologists when spreading misinformation about what puts women at risk of victimisation or who actually commit rapes and sexual assaults. A Slutwalk, whether in Toronto, London or Edinburgh, is all about the women, and their right not to be subject to a moral double standard – and while this is a laudable aim, I’d argue that it lets the men whose actions precipitated this movement off the hook.
Consider the mass of online debate about the Edinburgh Slutwalk and the kinds of questions that have been asked about it. Who will be marching? Will it be young women? Does this represent a new wave of feminism? What will they wear? Will they wear so-called ‘sluttish’ clothes or just jeans? In other words, what will the women be doing, saying, wearing? – the same emphasis as other well-meaning but misguided anti-rape campaigns, such as the ‘Cabwise’ campaign which urged women not to get un-booked minicabs (but didn’t urge men not to rape women).

In Scotland we’ve had two excellent campaigns in recent years which have sought to challenge the view that women can be partially culpable for being attacked, because of factors such as drink, dress or prior intimacy. Both ‘This is not an invitation to rape me’ and ‘Not Ever’ aimed to influence members of the public, as potential jurors, and therefore potential contributors to the unceasing problem of Scotland’s appallingly low rape conviction rate. They both sought to remind the public that a woman never asks to be raped.

The organisers of Slutwalk share the same sentiment, I’m sure, but I’d argue that their approach gives succour to the people who currently blame women when they have been sexually assaulted – sadly the ‘Wake Up to Rape’ study found that a majority of women believe that some women are partially to blame if they are raped. In that study, 56% of those surveyed believed a woman shared responsibility for her rape, and 28% of that cohort believed that this was the case if a woman dressed provocatively.
It seems to me profoundly ironic that in drawing attention to women’s wish not to be judged for their sexual conduct, the ‘slutwalkers’ may unwittingly be colluding in a serious problem for the women’s sector – the endless focus on women’s choices and the institutional blindness to men’s culpability. Despite years of work, too many people still ask why women don’t leave abusive men, not why men abuse; or why women ‘choose’ to enter the sex industry, not why men feel entitled to buy sex. And now the Slutwalk phenomenon prompts us to ask why women can’t wear and do what they like – and not why some men rape women.
The message about men and their behaviour is in there, but it’s not at the forefront – and you can bet that the Metro will be running pictures of protesting women in their underwear without much accompanying analysis of the issue concerning them. I’ll be very surprised if any of the coverage of the Edinburgh Slutwalk goes to the heart of the issue, and doesn’t instead run on a ‘look at these wild ladettes!’ narrative. (Because, let’s not forget, the media gets to pick the narrative – so unless it’s 100% clear what the message is, there is a huge risk of it being lost or misinterpreted).
So, I’ll be busy when the Slutwalk happens, and I’ll find other ways to challenge the rape culture we live in. I might even organise an alternative – I’d happily go to a ‘Rally against Rapists’ or even better a march for something – for women’s liberation and sexual equality – but whatever event I attend I want the focus to be on the cause of the problem, not on the people who are affected, however righteous and vocal their protest. It’s time for the invisible men to be put centre stage. Or in another decade’s time, we’ll still be marching for liberation with the oppressors’ slogans on our placards.

5 thoughts on “I’d happily rally against rapists – but I’m no Slutwalker

  1. Hi there. I think this is a really interesting and well thought through post, and some of the criticism is very valid. I too
    have felt uncomfortable with some of the press coming out of SlutWalk Toronto, in particular, but in general with the focus on reclaiming the word ‘slut’. I do think that we’re missing what is important here. SlutWalk was chosen as a name to be deliberately controversial and to raise the heckles of the vile men (and women) who use it as an insult. It is deliberately a big ‘f***-you’ to the police officer and anyone who agree with him. It is undoubtedly reactionary and perhaps not the most academic reading of the situation.

    I don’t think being reactionary is necessarily a bad idea, though. Through calling it ‘SlutWalk’, it has really caught the attention of the press, and I think that a debate about consent is really important. With every news item, there is a feminist who is given the chance to argue back, to say that actually clothing has nothing to do with consent, that consent must be clear and enthusiastic, and if it isn’t, that is rape, and rape is heinous.

    Secondly, it has grabbed the attention of thousands, if not millions, of women who are sick of being called ‘sluts’ and being judged and objectified, and some of us want a huge rebellious march as a sign of strength. I’m a seasoned protester, and I think we sometimes over-estimate the importance of the press and under-estimate the importance of the feelings of the protesters and the message they want to get across. Protest can be empowering in and of itself, seeing how many people are on your side, shouting messages that need to be heard, carrying a placard or banner that tells the world how you feel. I think this is just as important as the message we want the press to hear. And let’s not forget that many of the protesters – myself included – are rape survivors who find this message empowering. The fact that people are sitting up and paying attention, and that I hear feminists debating on the radio and views like Ken Clarke’s being slated, is incredible for me. It shows that people do value my experience and that it can be used in a positive way.

    Finally, despite some of the organisers calling themselves ‘sluts’ (which I think we should leave up to them and their autonomy), I don’t think they’re expecting everyone to want to call themselves sluts, and I don’t think this should be lumped in with the horrendous post-feminist discussions about lipstick and heels being ’empowering’. That’s not what this is doing at all. Actually it’s tackling a very important issue in women’s rights and is saying ‘No one asks for or deserves to be raped’. In fact the tagline for SlutWalk Edinburgh is that. That is the main message. And that is incredibly important.

    I’m sad that you won’t be coming to SlutWalk Edinburgh and would ask you to reconsider. If you like, come carrying a placard saying ‘No one should be called a slut’. That is absolutely fair enough. Not least I want you to come along because one of my friends, who is also a rape survivor, will be speaking at the rally – and I want as many people as possible to hear what she has to say.

    All the best, Kate

  2. Pingback: Slutwalk, and why aren’t we talking about the people who rape? « The Effie

  3. A great post Jenny, well done.
    I think this campaign has very limited appeal which is a real shame as we need to get as many women and men involved as possible.
    As you argued, it puts the focus on the woman’s clothes/behaviour instead of the crime of rape and despite its good intentions this could well backfire. If the message needs so much explanation then sadly it’ll be lost.

  4. Bill Aitken, Ken Clarke, this policeman… In Caron’s world, there is clearly zero tolerance against making mistakes. So much for playing the ball and not the man.

    Totally agree with your post though Kate.

  5. I agree with you.

    The thing I don’t get is why the officer who made the outrageous comments still has a job. He’s apologised and been disciplined, but that’s simply not enough. It just sends a message that he’s been given a wee slap on the wrist but he’s still trusted with law enforcement.

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