SlutWalk: a step in the wrong direction
The protests against an apparent culture of violence towards women end up celebrating victimhood.
When a Canadian police officer, Michael Sanguinetti, went on a routine visit to Osgoode Hall Law School, Toronto in January to advise the students on personal safety, little did he know that he would unwittingly inspire a range of protests in Canada and the US, as well as fuel a debate among feminists over in the UK. As he addressed the 10 students who turned up for the pep talk, he said: ‘I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.’
Three months later, protests over Sanguinetti’s comments and other concerns have been christened ‘SlutWalk’. This involves mainly women demonstrating in scantily clad outfits or burlesque-style garments with ‘Sluts Say Yes!’ placards. It has been eye-catching enough to raise questions as to whether sporting ‘sluttish’ clothes is either empowering or belittling for women and whether feminism remains relevant today.
Sanguinetti’s comments were undoubtedly wrong and oddly anachronistic. Indeed, it is the fact that they are so out-of-kilter with the times that may help to explain why they have attracted such attention. In Britain at least, law enforcers – the occasional loose cannon aside – have not argued that ‘provocatively’ dressed women were ‘asking’ to be raped or assaulted since the early 1980s. It has long been accepted that victims of a violent crime should not be seen as responsible for the actions of their persecutors. In an article in the Guardian, two American academics argued that rather than admonishing women for dressing in a certain way, police should be warning potential offenders that they should ‘avoid assaulting women in order not to go to prison’.
But since the early Nineties, this is exactly the type of warning boomed out by police officers, politicians and moral entrepreneurs against ‘laddish’ blokes. This doesn’t simply apply to potentially violent predators, but to any chap who might get lucky on a Friday night and doesn’t have proof of ‘informed consent’ (ie, a woman that was stone-cold sober).
Some feminists on both sides of the Atlantic believe that the SlutWalk protests are a part of a broader protest against what they see as the ubiquity of sexual violence in the lives of women. That is, young women are getting increasingly angry with being blamed for male violence and fed up with the failure of the culture to hold men accountable. Is this really the case today? In reality, men – routinely presented as boorish, boozed-up and feckless – are more likely to be targeted today than short-skirted women.
The legal system, at least officially, now takes any accusation of sexual assault against women very seriously. It’s ironic that SlutWalk is supposedly exposing the ineffectiveness of a legal system at a time of high-profile sexual assault charges made against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. More than ever, law enforcers in Britain and the US are likelier to act on an accusation of assault, even if the alleged crime took place years previously.
Faced with such a gap between feminist thinking and how society actually views violence against women, the anger expressed by SlutWalk protestors and cheerleading feminists rings a bit hollow. Although the protestors are aiming to avoid being victimised on the basis of what they wear, their offence taken at one police officer’s comments suggests a willingness to claim the mantle of victimhood for themselves. In this case, women are victims of a patriarchal state that doesn’t take violence against them seriously, even though the evidence suggests that the state is all too keen to monitor and regulate any type of contact between men and women. Feminists used to have many issues on which to express genuine grievance on the unequal treatment of women in society: equal pay and employment rights, abortion rights and so on. But since many of these issues have been resolved, more or less, there seems to be an on-going search for examples of oppression to facilitate the elevation of women to the exalted status of victimhood.
It’s perhaps not helped that the frothy issue of sexual identity is at the heart of the SlutWalk debacle. Some feminists argue that the protestors are feeding into a wider ‘raunch culture’ that is having a debilitating impact on young women. The sexualisation of society, the argument goes, is pressurising more young women to make themselves available to men in order to be accepted. SlutWalk is simply buying into the old madonna/whore duality that was often cited as an example of women’s inferior status in society. Again, though, this ignores how far society’s attitudes towards sex and women have changed. Women’s greater independence in society and the depoliticisation of marriage and the nuclear family have all helped transform attitudes towards women and sex.
Nevertheless, the contemporary over-sexualisation of society is problematic in that it encourages philistinism and narcissism from both young women and young men. The obsession with looks becomes all-consuming and this can distort how individuals see themselves in relation to others. The cultural critic Andrew Calcutt has noted how young women bearing flesh in public is a form of ultimatism – of going ‘all the way, all the time’. Calcutt notes that there is also a sense that both men and women baring flesh is actually an implied insult to the rest of society, suggesting ‘it recalls the stripper’s contempt for the johns who have become no more than their desire for her’. The overall effect is for women to unintentionally belittle themselves and others in the process. No wonder that the SlutWalk stunts have been so massively provocative.
It wasn’t always this way. For feminists who came of age during punk, acting ‘sluttish’ was great fun and really did feel empowering. True, the 1970s and 1980s did open up all kinds of new possibilities for bright young women that were scarcely available before. The recent death of X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene was a striking reminder of how this period enabled women to go beyond traditional gender expectations. But the obsession with personal identity in punk and feminism was at the expense of social questions and social solutions to women’s inequality. Even worse, the obsession with identity – particularly sexual identity and sexual empowerment – tended to reinforce ideas that feminism was originally battling against. The problem with asserting women’s sexuality as an issue, as the SlutWalkers tend to do, is to suggest that women can only have autonomy in their private lives rather than where it really matters – the public sphere. Parading around city streets in racy bedroom gear obsesses on the arena where women have traditionally been relegated and that earlier feminists desperately wanted to break out of.
Anyone suggesting that women flaunting their flesh are asking to be assaulted has their heads stuck in a Seventies timewarp. But then again, so are the feminists who seriously believe this is part of a widespread and dangerous sexist culture. What is utterly contemporary, however, is the belief that proclaiming personal and sexual identity is as good as it gets.
Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.
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