On Saturday 22 September I went to the SlutWalk march. Over a year after its first appearance in London, the movement is still drawing large crowds and fighting for wider recognition of its cause - to end the culture of victim blaming in cases of rape.
The movement developed early last year as a reaction to comments made by a Canadian policeman named Michael Sanguinetti. At a talk on personal safety at the Osgoode Law School, Mr. Sanguinetti 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."
Implying that it was somehow a woman's fault if she was 'victimised', Mr Sanguinetti unwittingly threw SlutWalk into motion. Within months it had became a worldwide organisation of people united against the pervasive and mendacious culture of blame in rape.
In London, under perhaps the last of summer's sun, over a thousand people attended the SlutWalk march. The majority of attendees were unsurprisingly women, but there were a number of men too. Placards read, "Yes means yes, No means no", "Police prosecute victims", and "Compensate rape survivors, not bankers". Many of the women were dressed in the 'uniform' of sluts; a colourful array of fishnet tights, mini skirts, and corsets. Ever game, some of the men sported bras and skirts too.
In fact, SlutWalk is not as radical as its name suggests, and is certainly something men should feel able to support. Rape does not happen exclusively to women, and to stand in solidarity as a man is important for the movement's message of fighting blame culture in any case of rape. That said, standing amid a sea of scantily clad women, I have difficulty grasping and understanding the methods SlutWalk uses to achieve its aims, and wonder whether these might obscure its real message.
I speak to a group of girls wearing 'slutty' clothing and ask why they decided to do so. "We have a responsibility to keep ourselves safe, but we also have the right to wear what we want," one tells me. But surely, despite the right to wear what you want, you have to be mindful of the kind of negative attention you might get if you choose to wear 'slutty' clothes? "We should be able to wear whatever and be taken seriously. We're sick of being afraid of what to wear, afraid of always being approached by men. This is about trying to change how people see women in society."
Lana, 16, says she is there to represent the younger generation. She is dressed normally and has also brought along two male friends who amiably say they are there to be 'educated'. She tells me there is a lot more diversity in the march compared with last year - many more ethnic minorities and men have come along, which is only a good thing. I ask Lana if she thinks the focus on dressing like sluts might give SlutWalk a contrasting message of female sexual liberation when it is supposed to be about challenging blame culture in rape. "Since the two are so closely linked I don't think it's an issue," she tells me.
I think about Lana's point, and something I was told earlier by another marcher comes back to me. She said that to be free - including sexually - means you are called a slut, but that rape is designed to take away this freedom. And according to society, this loss of freedom is the victim's fault. I begin to see sexual freedom and blame culture in rape as much closer issues than I had previously.
The Shoreditch Sisters WI are also not dressed as 'sluts'. They eloquently tell me that they fear the image of the march conflicts with its message in a number of ways. First, that rape is largely about power, and so can happen no matter what you are wearing. Second, that while it draws attention to the movement, it is in some way counterintuitive since it exploits the very thing they want to protect - the right to one's body.
Chardine, 27, says that a lot of media attention is focused only on the half-naked women in the march, and compares it to the Pussy Riot story. "It's like 'How many times can we get the word 'pussy' on the front cover of the paper?'"
I ask their opinion of the movement's seeming focus on women and whether it may alienate people who might otherwise feel they sympathise with, or are represented by SlutWalk. Naila, 30, says she invited her boyfriend to come, but that he felt it wasn't for him because of the word 'slut'. Though 'slut' is a unisex word, they all agree that the idea needs to be expanded to include all people who have experienced rape, and all those who are against victim blaming.
I get the impression that the Shoreditch Sisters' view of SlutWalk is much more about solidarity between humans than anything specifically feminist. And indeed, it seems to me that the right to say 'no' and the right to not be blamed for rape based on the clothes you wear doesn't have to be about sexual liberation, or feminism - it is just as much about basic human rights. And that is something we can all support.
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