The media have recently been devoting a lot of space to the phenomenon of slutwalking – a movement that began when a Toronto policeman – no doubt with the best of intentions – advised women that they would be safer if they did not wear skimpy or potentially “provocative” clothing.
It’s controversial. On the one hand, there is outrage from those who believe that this is blaming the victim for the crime. On the other hand there has been a lot of support for the officer – some of it crudely sexist, some of it arising from more grounded concerns about the sexualisation of society for profit.
I have some sympathy with that latter view – I believe sexuality is exploited for commercial gain, and I am uneasy about it – but I think in this case it’s irrelevant. The fact that critics of slutwalking miss is that rape isn’t principally about sex. It’s about violence and power, and the use of sex is incidental (in that sense, it’s actually quite similar to much commercialisation of sex).
And the criticism of what women wear is simply an excuse. It actually is no different from the playground bully saying that the victim asked for it because he had ginger hair, or the wrong kind of phone, or preferred reading books to playing football. We wouldn’t accept that rationale from the playground bully – who is also using violence to assert power – so why are we prepared to accept it in cases of rape? There is gross hypocrisy at work here.
I am a middle-class, white, educated male. I have no experience – and will never have the experience – of doing the same job as a colleague of the opposite sex for 20% less pay, or being told that I can’t have that prestigious job in case I get myself (?!) pregnant, or of being told that “we’re all in this together” when my own gender is taking the bulk of the hit, or being told to “calm down, dear” when I try to make a point forcefully in an argument. Nobody is telling me to hate my middle-aged, lived-in, rotund body in the name of profit.
But I do have experience of bullying – at school and, many years ago, in the workplace. And when I look back at that experience, I think I see the same attitudes that motivate violence against women, and in the reaction of others around me I see the same unthinking moral evasion showed by that Toronto policeman, and perhaps understand something of the despair. Authentic experience dismissed; and I can empathise with that.
Which is why I support the slutwalkers. Not to appropriate their experience or their movement, but to show solidarity and because bullying in all its forms diminishes our society, and I don’t want to live in a society whose response is collectively to blame the victim.