Of myths and men

Article by Judith Ireland /
Canberra Times /
May 28, 2011 /
Click here to view original /

About one in five Australian women over the age of 15 will be sexually assaulted.

Canberra SlutWalk’s Facebook page has been battling online hostility since it went live.

In January this year, Toronto police officer Michael Sanguinetti went on a routine visit to Osgoode Hall Law School to talk to students about personal safety. ”You know, I think we’re beating around the bush here,” he said. ”I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this [cue: alarm bells], however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.”It seemed harmless enough. A ”commonsense” aside, a bit of avuncular advice amongst friends. But it set off a worldwide movement, generated a storm of criticism and left many others scratching their heads, wondering just what to make of it all.

In response to Sanguinetti’s comments, SlutWalk began in Toronto in April when 3000 people marched to protest against rape victim blaming and ”slut shaming”. According to the organisers, ”slut” has a history of very negative connotations. ”[It’s] aimed at those who are sexually promiscuous … whether dished out as a serious indictment of one’s character or merely as a flippant insult, the intent behind the word is always to wound, so we’re taking it back. ‘Slut’ is being reappropriated.”To make their point, some of the protesters came dressed in their underwear, fishnet stockings and stilettos, carrying posters such as ”We’re here, we’re sluts, get used to it.” Others attended the SlutWalk simply in jeans and T-shirts. But funnily enough, their images did not end up being broadcasted around the world. Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, SlutWalk quickly went global. ”It became a mainstream movement in days,” says University of Melbourne Public Policy lecturer Dr Lauren Rosewarne. On May 7, SlutWalkers took to the streets in Boston, while other walks have either been planned or taken place across the US, Britain, , Europe, New Zealand, South Africa and South America. Today, a series of Australian SlutWalks begin in Melbourne and Brisbane. A PhD student in Social Psychology at Swinburne University, Natasha Katopodis, is one of the SlutWalk Melbourne organisers. About 5500 people have already shown their support via Facebook and Katopodis is expecting ”a really pleasant, peaceful event” with speeches outside the State Library and a march through the city to the Treasury Gardens.The issues underlying SlutWalk, however, are neither pleasant nor peaceful. Katopodis was outraged by Sanguinetti’s comments but her involvement in the movement stems more from her PhD research into jury decision-making in sexual assault cases and the ”insidious” effects of rape myths.

Rape myths or false beliefs people use to justify sexual assault are surprisingly widespread within the Australian community. In research for the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault, Haley Clark found 98per cent of the 61 male and female participants in her study gave weight to factors such as the way a victim dressed, their chasteness, prior knowledge of their assailant and level of intoxication when assessing the seriousness of rape scenarios.

Last year, a VicHealth random survey of 10,000 Australian adults found that 13per cent agreed with the statement ”women often say no when they mean yes”. A further 34per cent of those polled agreed that ”rape results from men being unable to control their need for sex”. But as Katopodis is quick to point out, rape is not a sexual act. ”It’s an aggressive act. It has nothing to do with what the person was wearing or how sexy they looked that day.” NSW Rape Crisis Centre board member and social commentator Nina Funnell adds that sexual assault is a ”highly calculated crime” that has nothing to do with spur-of-the-moment temptation or lust.

It is also a crime that affects many women, who often suffer in silence. About one in five Australian women over the age of 15 will be sexually assaulted, while a survey by the National Union of Students last month found that one in 10 female students experience sexual violence while at university. And yet, the Australian Institute of Criminology estimates that 70per cent of Australian rapes go unreported and about 10per cent of reported cases result in a guilty finding, in part because of biases observed in jurors.In Canberra, SlutWalk organisers want to tap into the international momentum, but say their SlutWalk planned for June 4 will have a decidedly local flavour. Organiser and Australian National University deputy women’s officer Renee Jones is concerned about the low levels of convictions for sexual assaults in Canberra and a culture of sexual aggression on local campuses. Last month, University of Canberra student Elle Mackintosh reported on student concerns about sexual violence at both ANU and the University of Canberra in Crikey. ”We really want to emphasise that [SlutWalk] is pertinent to Canberra right now,” Jones says.Despite a growing number of supporters (at this stage around 460) on their Facebook page, the Canberra SlutWalk has been battling online hostility since it went live last Tuesday evening. For two days last week, the organisers’ Facebook page was virtually non-functional because of what The Canberra Times understands was a barrage of highly sexist, personal and aggressive comments about some of the organisers. ”It hasn’t been that surprising,” Jones says. ”[SlutWalk is] calling people out on the culture that they’ve become used to.”But criticism about SlutWalk isn’t limited to trolls hiding behind their computer screens. There may be a clear need for action and education around prevention and responses towards sexual assault, yet SlutWalking has generated its fair share of naysayers. SlutWalk’s ”sexy” approach in both nomenclature and appearance has angered some second-wave feminists who see it as playing straight into the patriarchy. Among the most vocal is United States-based academic and author of Pornland, Dr Gail Dines, who is currently touring Australia. ”We live in a porn culture which says that women are sluts all the time,” she told the ABC’s Q&A earlier this week. It’s not just old-school feminists who are unhappy about the approach. Fairfax columnist Sam de Brito agrees that nobody deserves to be sexually assaulted or blamed for their assault, but can’t see the point of SlutWalk. ”I’m at a loss, however, to see how dressing in just your bra and undies or a torn, crotch-high school dress spreads this message,” he wrote this week. Even younger feminists such as Funnel are ”quite torn” by the SlutWalk methodology. One the one hand, the ear-and eye-catching strategy has earned SlutWalk weeks and weeks of interest on issues that don’t usually get a big run in the media. Even though Reclaim the Night rallies have been marching for sexual assault victims’ rights since the mid 1970s, their candlelit-vigil approach had become somewhat outdated and has struggled to attract a young crowd in recent times.

”It’s the sexed-up version of Reclaim the Night,” Funnell says of SlutWalk. ”I know how hard it is to get people to attend those events and I know how hard it is to get publicity.”On the other hand, Funnell wonders whether SlutWalkers have unwittingly bought into the myths they are trying to dispel. Research on those convicted of sexual assault has found that victims are selected on the basis of the perpetrator’s access to the victim, the victim’s perceived vulnerability and likelihood to report the crime and the perpetrator’s belief that they can manipulate that person into a location where they will not be interrupted or found. So, a focus on what women are wearing, while strong and sassy, may be confusing the message. ”That can ironically reinforce the idea that sex assault is about uncontrollable lust,” Funnell explains.

The University of Melbourne’s Lauren Rosewarne is also concerned that SlutWalk’s serious message has been lost in all the hubbub. So far there has been precious little media coverage given to the question of ”why [some] men rape”, she says. 

The use of the word ”slut” itself has also developed into something of a double-edged sword for the SlutWalking movement. Indeed, if the debate so far hasn’t been about the SlutWalkers’ outfits, it’s about whether or not the use of the word ”slut” is the best way to go. Dines, for one, argues that ”slut” can’t be reclaimed by women in the way ”queer” was reclaimed by the gay community. She wants to see a ”PerpWalk” [Perpetrator Walk] instead. In The Sydney Morning Herald this week, writer Ruby Hamad argued, ”’Slut’ is a symptom, not a cause, of the rape culture” and therefore not a worthy rallying point for the protests. But while Funnell agrees that SlutWalk could give misogynists a license to use to word with ”reckless abandon” it would be dangerous to give up on the term. ”The easiest way to concede power to a word is to designate it as being off-limits,” she says.

Jones says the ANU Women’s Collective had a discussion about the use of the word ”slut” but ultimately came down in support of it. ”I personally think that ‘slut’ is a meaningless world,” she explains. ” I’ve been called a slut wearing gym clothes. I’ve been calling a slut at 10 years old playing handball with the boys.”Media coverage has made much of the apparent divide in the feminist camps since SlutWalking took its first steps in April. As it goes, in one corner, there are the Dines-esque second-wavers who have decried the rise of raunch culture and see women in skimpy clothing as objectifying themselves. In the other corner are the younger feminists, third-wavers who believe that women should have the freedom to choose whatever image they like. That is, you should be able to wear a bikini, a ball gown or a burka and not be prejudged for it. Rosewarne notes that while there were big issues such as abortion, equal pay and contraception that united feminists in the ’60s and ’70s, these days it’s a much more fragmented story. ”People are doing feminism in really diverse ways now,” she says. This means that something such as SlutWalk is guaranteed to generate ambivalence, disagreement and multiple interpretations. But Funnell cautions against seeing SlutWalk as a feminist battleground. ”I wouldn’t say we’re at war with each other,” she says, noting that the disagreement is really about methodology, not aims. 

She also cautions against dividing feminists into ”old” and ”young” brigades. ”Attitudes don’t unpack neatly along generational lines,” Funnell says. Public critics of SlutWalk, such as Hamad, have certainly come from younger as well as older quarters, while both Jones and Katopodis report that a wide range of ages (and genders) are expected to attend the rallies in Canberra and Melbourne. It is also possible that in all the to-ing and fro-ing over SlutWalk, we’ve missed the joke. Those who have seen the recent film Easy A will know that there is a certain irony involved in dressing down to people’s expectations. In Easy A, high school student Olive Pendergast unwittingly makes the whole school thinks she’s a ”dirty skank” after (false) rumours spread about her sleeping around. So she starts wearing corsets and other SlutWalk type outfits to school and stitches a red ”A” to her chest (in homage to the book, The Scarlet Letter). As Rosewarne explains, ”If you’re going to have these preconceptions about me I’m going to play with it.” If SlutWalk is understood in the same light as Mardi Gras and its attention-grabbing glam costumes, then it also takes on a ”highly subversive” sheen, says Funnell. ”When the girls are dressed up in their fishnets and their red lipstick, they’re in a sense dressing in drag. They’re being caricatures of what sluts look like.” And regardless of whether it is drag, depraved or counterproductive, clearly SlutWalk has hit a nerve.

So despite the possible crossed wires, Rosewarne still sees value in an event that puts feminist issues on the mainstream agenda. ”At least it starts the process.” For her part, Jones accepts that the debate is complex, but remains encouraged by the support and attention that the global grassroots moment has generated. ”Is it worth it? I think it is.”