Words: Nicci Talbot
The latest UK SlutWalk took place this weekend in London with thousands of women (and some men) marching through Piccadilly to challenge outdated attitudes towards rape and harassment – i.e. that a woman is asking for it if she dresses ‘like a slut’ or has a particular job. Over the past couple of months there have been SlutWalks in various cities, last month here in Newcastle, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Glasgow.
It all started in Toronto in January when a policemen, Michael Sanguinetti, made a comment during a personal safety class for students that ‘women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.’ Poor choice of words given that most people view the word ‘slut’ in a derogatory, sexual sense. The 15th century meaning of the word was ‘a slovenly woman’ who didn’t keep her house tidy and in order (most of us working mums nowadays then).
In response to this the SlutWalk movement was born, with the first march taking place in Toronto on April 3rd. The feeling behind it was that things need to change: more of us need to report rape and assault, the police need to take it more seriously and convinction rates need to be higher. His comment suggests that there’s a view of rape as being the victim’s fault for how she looks rather than the fault of the perpetrator. Men should take responsibility for their actions and ‘no means no’, whatever the circumstance. I wholly agree with this but unfortunately, it’s not the world we live in. Some men are depraved and have no respect for women. Just as some women choose to attack men.
A couple of things have happened recently that got me stirred up. One was an incident on the train back to Hastings from London. I was doing some writing and reading a book. Along came a group of pissed blokes (policemen I later found out), who clocked my reading matter (a sex book) and once they found out what I was writing about presumed I was up for anything. I laughed it off but felt uncomfortable with the leering given that I was in a quiet carriage. I moved on and made a complaint to the guard but one of them followed me and had another go to see if I’d changed my mind. They were thrown off the train at Tonbridge and I’m thankful they weren’t travelling all the way to Hastings as I can imagine how vulnerable I’d have felt walking round the back of the train station late at night. Maybe I was foolish to engage in conversation with a group of blokes. I can see how easily the group thing can get out of hand, especially when alcohol is involved.
The second incident was when I had coffee with an older guy to discuss publishing and my latest project. First of all he offered to publish my book purely because of the subject matter I presume as he’d not talked to me about it at that point. Then he asked me why I’d chosen to write about sexual health (nudge nudge, wink wink) as though we shared a little secret. I wasn’t comfortable with the way the conversation was going given that I ‘intrigued him’ and was ‘a very beautiful lady’ so I’ve left it at that. Maybe he meant well but the whole incident just made me feel uncomfortable. A coffee is a coffee not an invitation to swing from the chandeliers.
Dressing up in a corset, stockings and suspenders with statements tattooed on your arse or cleavage in red lipstick is fun in the daytime but most women wouldn’t walk down a dark alleyway late at night dressed in the same attire. So, it’s about being sensible too, which I think is the rather mixed message from the Canadian policemen. He chose the wrong words and he has since apologised.
It’s fantastic to see the energy behind the movement though and it will be interesting to see how things move forward this year. Naomi Wolf, the feminist author of Promiscuities talked about it in The Sunday Times yesterday as sending out a much-needed message. ‘I see masses of male flesh on display daily in the summer with no social commentary aimed at them and no wish to connect their self-presentation to crime and assault. SlutWalks make the case that if every woman calls herself a slut, then the word loses its negative value and becomes ironic.’ Others disagree, like Marcelle D’Argy Smith, former British Cosmo editor, who says the protests are full of young women with raging hormones parading their bodies, which just sends women backwards. I can see both viewpoints. It would be good to celebrate the power and achievements of women in all walks of life – not just in a way that is related to how we dress.
I would have been there on Saturday if I’d been feeling well enough but not dressed in my lingerie. I’d have worn a chambermaid’s outfit just to make the point that a uniform doesn’t mean I’m open to proposition behind closed doors.
Go Topless Day – 21st August 2011, which argues that in the US women have the same constitutional rights as men to go bare-chested. One woman was recently papped strolling topless in NY reports the Village Voice. The police response was as follows: ‘The state’s highest court established long ago that women have the same right as men to appear topless in public. Absent a link to some commercial enterprise or promotion, the woman’s lack of certain attire in this instance does not appear to be a police matter.’
World Naked Bike Ride – a celebration of the power and individuality of the human body. Yes, riding naked doesn’t mean you want to be harassed or raped either.
SlutWalks – the Male Perspective (Woman’s Hour 13.07.11)