Protests, billed as ‘SlutWalks’, are spreading after a cop’s sexist comment to Toronto students. Sally Campbell looks at the culture that blames women for rape and questions whether we should embrace language bound up with oppression
Our society promotes and constantly reinforces the idea that women are to blame if they are raped. A third of students think a woman is wholly or partially to blame for her rape if she was drunk, according to a 2009 survey in London Student newspaper.
Some 27 percent said she was responsible if she was “flirting”, 26 percent if she was walking alone in a dark place, and 17 percent if she was dressed in “sexy clothing”.
These attitudes are old—women have long been held to be responsible for inflaming or calming the so-called animal urges of men.
The women’s movement made progress through the 1970s and 1980s in breaking some of these myths. For example, it highlighted the negative role of the police in rape investigations, and popularised the slogan “No means no”.
But over the last couple of decades the blame culture has begun to creep back.
On university campuses there has been a backlash against the idea of safe, political spaces. Student unions now tolerate or even encourage beauty contests, sexist rampages by rugby clubs, pole-dancing as exercise and any number of other activities that many thought had died out after the 1970s.
Across the Atlantic this process is even more developed, as three stories from North America illustrate to chilling effect.
At Yale University—the US’s equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge—members of Delta Kappa Epsilon (George Bush’s former fraternity) marched round the campus last year chanting “No means yes! Yes means anal!” and “We love Yale sluts”. They stopped in front of the women’s centre with the intention of intimidating women students.
This has been happening for years and the college authorities have done nothing to stop it.
The march is just the tip of the iceberg. Figures show that one in four female students at Yale will face sexual assault during their time at college. In March 2011 a group of current and former students filed a lawsuit against Yale for failing to provide women with a fair and non-threatening learning environment.
In Texas in 2008 a 16-year old school cheerleader alleged three fellow students raped her at a party.
One of her attackers was the school’s star basketball player. All three were charged with sexual assault but a grand jury later withdrew the charges. When the victim returned to school the head teacher told her it was up to her to avoid them.
Some students started calling her and her younger sister “sluts”, causing her sister to leave the school.
The cheerleader refused to cheer the name of her attacker at games. She was told that unless she chanted for him she was off the team.
Her family sued the school, saying she has a right to free expression—and that included not being forced to cheer for her rapist. They lost the case.
The judge ruled that her refusing to cheer was “interfering with the work of the school”.
So a school’s “work” is prioritised over the needs of a victim of sexual assault.
At York University in Toronto, Canada, in 2007, two drunken young men walked into a student hall of residence at midnight and went from floor to floor trying to open doors.
They raped two women and attempted to assault several more. The university has since increased security, but the most chilling aspect is the attitude of one of the rapists. In a pre-trial interview when asked what the victims could take away from the incident he replied, “Perhaps they now know to lock their doors.”
This was the same university where the SlutWalk would be founded. The first “walk” was organised in response to advice from a police officer to a group of women on personal safety.
He told them the best way to avoid rape was not to “dress like a slut”—implying that they are responsible if they are assaulted.
Some 3,000 people marched in Toronto to say, “Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no.”
Where the officer and society at large say, “sluts are to blame”, the organisers want to say then we are all sluts, and none of us are to blame!
The idea has caught a mood, spreading across North America, Europe and Australia. Dozens of marches are planned. The Facebook page for the London SlutWalk on 11 June carries the statement:
“NO. Let’s raise our voices and tell the world that rape is never, ever OK. Not if she was wearing a miniskirt. Not if she was naked. Not if she was your wife, girlfriend or friend. Not if she was a prostitute. Not if she was drunk. Not if you thought she wanted to.”
This is the key message of the “walk”, and the reason we should support it.
However, the use of the term “slut” has raised hackles and led some to attack the march or to feel uncomfortable with it. I think there are some invalid and some valid concerns.
Sex has never been more open, discussed and visible. This should be a good thing.
But the form it takes in neoliberal society is distorted. Sex has become a commercial product to be bought and sold, or used to help other objects be bought and sold—rather than a relationship between human beings.
Many people are rightly angry at this “pornification” of everything and the pressure on young girls to look like Barbie dolls. A whole new generation of women’s liberation activists is being born from that anger.
At the same time Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail newspaper reading Tories are thrown into abject fear of young women’s sexuality—especially when the marriage figures are the lowest they’ve ever been!
So Tory MP Louise Bagshawe can appear on Newsnight claiming to support 100 percent the idea that no means no, whatever we wear. But she then attacks SlutWalk for “promoting promiscuity”, which she claims is harmful to women and society.
In doing so, she accepts the term “slut” (insulting women since 1450) exactly as it is defined. In a word it contains an idea of womanhood as pure, chaste and innocent, which is besmirched by women who don’t conform to that idea.
There is no equivalent term for men. After all men are made of slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails—they can’t be expected to control themselves.
“Slut” is a term completely and inextricably bound up with women’s oppression. This is where I have an issue with SlutWalk. It also seems to accept that binary opposition of the “pure” woman and the “slut”—but it simply reverses the polarity. For me this cannot get us very far in challenging oppression.
I reject the notion of judging or defining women by their perceived sexual behaviour. But we live in a contradictory situation. With the new niqab law in place in France, women can be arrested for wearing too much. Everywhere we can be blamed for wearing too little.
The desire to control women’s bodies and tell them how to behave is as strong as ever. But women are fighting back, and new generations are coming to the movement with ideas informed by all kinds of traditions, theories and gut reactions.
Every new movement sees a battle for ideas and strategies and throws up new and old ideas and ways of organising.
The new movement for women’s liberation is no different. It would be a shame if those feminists who balk at the name of this march cut themselves off from the many young women who will be taking part. At times like this you just have to link arms and argue.
Slutwalk takes place at 1pm, Saturday 11 June, Trafalgar Square, central London
In 2009 five police officers were disciplined for failing to properly investigate sexual assault claims against a driver of a London black cab.
John Worboys was eventually convicted for rape. He was thought to have assaulted at least 100 other women—dozens came forward to give evidence as the case hit the press.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission found that a proper investigation could have prevented some of the attacks. Complaints raising the same pattern of events were reported to police over the period 2003-7. If the police had followed these up properly, many women would have been spared assault.
The police report of one women’s account shows the disgusting attitude some police take towards women reporting rape. It stated, “The victim cannot remember anything past getting in the cab, it would seem unlikely that a cab driver would have alcohol in his vehicle let alone drug substances.”
One victim, who was a 19-year old student at the time of her attack, said officers “just laughed” when she reported the assault. She said, “I felt like I was the criminal. I did not feel like I was the victim at all, and I certainly was not treated like one.”