Many people seem to think that dressing provocatively, in a way, invites sexual violence against a person and can even cause it. That was the sentiment of a Toronto police officer, Michael Sanguinetti when he said that women could avoid sexual assault by not dressing like sluts. Of course, the response to such a statement was quick and firm.
There is not really any information out to suggest that the way someone dresses has anything to do with if they are sexually assaulted and, certainly, dressing as a “slut” doesn’t excuse someone seriously harming another human being! The view a victim’s clothing might be to blame for their assault is pretty common and often leads to discrimination against victims who are seeking legal assistance, protection and/or some sort of closure. Knowing this, and in protest to the comment made by officer Sanguinetti, Toronto citizens hammered out a demonstration to tell the world that rape, for any reason, is not OK and neither is blaming the victim. Their actions led to many other groups following suit to spread the same message. And so it was that Spokane’s Taylor Malone organized a slutwalk for the city and I was able to be there to see the whole thing.
I had only communicated with Malone over the internet, previously, even though I think we’ve been in the same places before, around the same time (we just didn’t talk). She’s a pretty fascinating person, to say the least, and she made it quite clear that she was dedicated to her cause on facebook. I met her, armed with a small bullhorn, in person before slutwalk was to start at Riverside park in Spokane. The event was a good success, with an estimated 200 participants (though, it did seem like more than that, as people came and went at different times). We gathered together, some dressed for the occasion and some didn’t, to send a message that blaming the victim of a sexual assault was not acceptable. People carried signs and we chanted things like, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, we understand that no means no,” and “I won’t be blamed, I’m not ashamed.”
The message that an individual’s clothing should not invite blame for the harm that someone has done to her was very clear, but it didn’t go without criticism. Here’s a breakdown of some of the criticism that I saw and heard:
Criticism #1: But dressing a certain way is asking for attention!
I don’t really like that I even have to respond to this, but I can’t ignore it, either. One thing, though, that I think really brings out the problem with people thinking like this was rather clear at slutwalk itself. The women dressed as “sluts” wore a variety of clothing. There was a woman dressed head-to-toe in a body stocking with booty shorts and a short top, Taylor Malone was rocking an outfit reminiscent of a 1920s flapper and I was wearing a knee-length skirt, thick tights and a V-neck blouse (which was more modest than most of my normal clothes, actually, but it was cold and rainy – I decided to go with slutty how others had seen it and not slutty as I see things, to stay warm). The variety of “slutty” clothes was pretty tremendous, with many sluts being dressed in clothes more modest than a nun’s habit. Some people chose to highlight the very problem of the subjective term through their clothes, including one woman who dressed as a bellydancer and carried a sign with a drawing of a woman in a muslim hijab. Another woman actually wore a make-shift burqa. My friend and burlesque troupe leader, the Divine Jewels wore something that was talked about in a few conversations that I heard, and a friend of mine told me about it before I even saw it. She wore sweats and a sandwich-board sign. The back of the sign said, “this is what I was wearing when I was raped.” On the back it said, this is what I wear to get respect, and it had a picture of her in one of her tops she made for a burlesque event. It was very clear amongst the crowd that very few people thought of “slutty” in the same way. If slutty can’t be easily defined by a whole mass of people with similar goals in mind, how does one decide what ‘certain way’ is considered to be asking for attention? It seems to me that the problem, here, is that while people may send a message with the clothes they wear, that message may not be shared by an observer and it is the duty of the observer to not force their interpretation onto the individual, especially since the message the observer thinks they’re seeing is very likely not at all correct.
Let me be clear about something, by ‘asking for attention,’ many commenters were literally implying that a person could dress a certain way and be asking for someone to violate them sexually and that if they were violated, it was their fault. I’m not going to say that all people who said that meant that it was OK for a girl to be violated based on her clothing, but many actually implied that. Another related comment was that dressing provocatively was similar to walking through a subway with a wad of 100 dollar bills clearly visible in one’s hand. There are many reasons why that’s bad reasoning, but I’m going to first entertain this concept before discussing why it is a problem. Firstly, let’s assume someone really IS walking through a Subway with clearly visible wads of money in hand. Should that person get robbed, would it be ethical for the police to blame the person for the crime? Of course not! That being said, the assumption in such an example being used is that walking through a Subway with lots of visible money is comparable to walking around in certain clothes where people can see you. Considering how people select others for sex, I would have to say that assumption is probably wrong.
I actually wish we had some sort of study done on this, but, instead, I’m going to have to run with professional experience in my reasoning. I apologize, sincerely, for only having anecdotes to go by, here. Essentially, when someone the victim of sexual violence, various factors come into play. Generally, there is the condition of opportunity, the condition of desire in the criminal which overrides ethical thinking. Basically, a person wants a sexual experience and doesn’t think there will be a consequence for it or doesn’t care. People don’t pick who they’re going to interact with, sexually, based only on signals about availability. In fact, in settings where sex is a product, such as strip clubs and other adult entertainment outlets, more modest girls often make money based on other elements, from them being more modest to their personality being welcoming. In the process of courtship and sexual selection, people frequently find various elements of their potential mate attractive and that’s typically what brings them to desire them.* Because so many factors tend to contribute to sexual desire, the assumption that clothing could be to blame for a significant amount of rapes is, at least, poor logic and, at most, a terrible harmful belief to reinforce (without evidence).
Criticism #2: Slutwalk’s message was unclear. More so than the previous criticism, this one deserves much consideration. What’s the point of a demonstration if people don’t understand what it is about? One person pointed out that a sign that shows up on Google when you do an image search for slutwalk is one that says, “We’re taking slut back.” Assuming that one went to Google images, first, to find out what slutwalk was and then saw the 15th image represented as representative of the message slutwalk intended to send, it could be confusing. Another criticism was about the name “slutwalk.” People got so caught up in condemning the use of the word “slut,” that there was concern that it would overshadow the intention of the whole demonstration. Organizers, though, liked the word because they felt it would draw attention to the issue and as long as the right message was sent alongside it, the event would be productive.
There were opportunities, in the event, to network with other people who share the goal of reducing violence, judgment and helping those who have experienced sexual assault. I got to pass my business card for the Eastern Washington Sex Workers Outreach Project out to people who were curious and I got business cards from people who I know can help those who I try to help all the time.
Based on the conversations I heard and saw at slutwalk, the issues were being discussed amongst the crowd. People took the opportunity to talk about rape prevention. With all the chanting about not blaming a victim and the signs carrying similar sentiment, the only confusing aspect of the slutwalk I attended, I thought, might have been the marijuana petition people, who were confusing to see hanging around amongst the crowd.
The news outlets who covered the event seemed to understand the message very well, and their reports conveyed the desired message exactly as I think was hoped.
My friend, Linda, was rightfully concerned about who was invited to slutwalk: Slutwalks not for me. Her concern was that because there was going to be an off-duty police officer at Slutwalk and that might make people in the adult industry afraid of attending. People in the adult industry are often real-life examples of the idea that a person should be able to wear or not wear anything and not have to worry about sexual assault. They willingly place themselves in sexually vulnerable positions for pay. Sometimes, their work is illegal (usually for irrational reasons, but that’s a topic for another post). A basic belief permeates society that says that because a sex worker voluntarily puts themselves in sexual positions, they should not be surprised or concerned when they are assaulted. This idea clearly ignores the fact that other people put themselves in compromising positions for their work, too, but we don’t reinforce injustices against them because of it. If a journeyman loses an arm to a giant mechanical device, we don’t say, “well, that’s what you get for working around giant machines!” There’s a reason for that, it is senseless. It is as senseless as it is for people to dismiss the the issues faced by sex workers because they choose work which makes them sexually vulnerable. They are often devalued when they have been assaulted and are not only mistreated as victims, they are frequently ignored. Sex workers are a group that really needs to be represented at events like Slutwalk and they need to be visible. That being said, sex workers also don’t need special treatment. A sex worker could have been equally affected by someone participating in Slutwalk or someone not participating. This is why many women who were invited by me turned the opportunity down. They didn’t want to be outed as whatever type of sex worker they are, so, as far as I know, I was the only one representing Sex Workers at Slutwalk Spokane.
There have been many other types of criticism aimed at Slutwalk that have come out over the last week. I haven’t been able to keep up. If you have something specific you’d like me to address, please let me know in the comments section and I will do my best to respond to it.
Overall, I think Slutwalk was successful in its goals. Movements like this are meant to draw attention to an issue and the media coverage does seem to have made that happen. Of course, some people are going to get the message wrong. That kind of thing happens with many issues. The best way to deal with that is offer the correct information where you can and then continue.
*I know, it is precarious to discuss desire as a motivator for sexual assault. I am not a promoter of the notion that sex crimes are always about control because I think we have enough evidence to show that’s not true. Sometimes, they are about control and sometimes they are, sadly, about sexual desire. We can save the controversy about that for another post, though.