Today is the London Slutwalk. For those of you who have been living under a rock for the last month, Slutwalk is a protest sparked by the comment of a Toronto police officer that girls should stop dressing like sluts in order to avoid rape. But although these comments may have been the catalyst for this particular round of protests, the issues are much older. Every year in November women march to Reclaim the Night, to stop being told that it’s their own fault for being attacked if they go out at night.
The suggestion that women are attacked or harassed because of the clothes they are wearing does not appear to be held up by evidence. Campaigns such as “I Did Not Ask For It” collect photos of what women were wearing when they were harassed, and it’s often jeans and a jumper. My own experience is that I only attract lewd comments when wearing a t-shirt and carrying heavy bags of shopping, never when wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. Street harassment, sexual assault and rape have little to with clothing or appearance, and much more to do with an assertion of power through provoking fear or unease.
We need to challenge the perception that some women are asking for sexual assault because of what they wear. Women suffer twice: first the assault, then the blame. And the language we use has a lot to do with how we see rape. Firstly, when we discuss the risk of rape, we don’t talk about how many men are likely to rape someone, but how many women are likely to get raped. As if it was a crime without a perpetrator. Secondly, we divide the survivors of rape into categories: the undeserving and the deserving; the innocent and the asking-for-it; the good girls and the sluts.
Of course everyone needs to take some care with where they go and what they do. But we have found ourselves in a situation where everything a women does is called into question. Wearing a short skirt is not the equivalent of leaving your wallet in the middle of a busy street. Going to a pub and having a drink is not the equivalent of leaving the front door to your house wide open. Whether or not a woman did something which someone else might possibly see as “slutty”, she never deserves to be raped. Everyone should be able to lead their lives without fear of sexual assault.
If Slutwalk will challenge assumptions about sexual harassment and clothing, I’m all for it. But we need to do more to challenge the language we use. Words like “slut” form part of the problem, but simply reclaiming it leaves a gap which will be filled by other words. We need to deal with the way we talk about sexual assault. Women don’t just “get raped”, rapists rape them. Let’s have a proper discussion about this.
(Sexual harassment is not just perpetrated by men against women. But this article is about the type which is.)