Four months ago a Toronto policeman was advising a group of law students on personal safety. ‘I think we’re beating around the bush here,’ he said. It was January, and ten women had turned up to Michael Sanguinetti’s health and safety workshop. ‘I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this,’ he added, but went and said it anyway. ‘Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.’
The result was that Sanguinetti’s remarks sparked an international response. On facebook and twitter, women signed up in thousands to add their voices to an increasingly angry pool of dissent. They decided to take to the streets in protest: first in Toronto, last month, then Boston, last week, with planned marches in over twenty other US states together with Argentina, Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden. It is called SlutWalking – and it is coming to Cardiff and London.
There are two interesting points to note on the rise of the SlutWalks. Sanguinetti is not alone in thinking that women who dress like ‘sluts’ invite sexual aggression. It is shocking that a figure of authority would use a word like ‘slut’ in the first place – a bit like a British policeman choosing the word ‘faggot’ for ‘homosexual’ or shortening ‘Pakistani’ to ‘Paki’.
But there is no doubt that Sanguinetti spoke for a growing number of people who think that women who appear to be sexually available ‘bring it on themselves’. If we start to think like that it is difficult to draw a line. Is a woman on a night out dressed like a slut if she shows just a bit of cleavage, or bare legs, or does it have to be a generous helping of both? Does a woman deserve what’s coming to her if she drinks more than 3, or 5, or 7 units of alcohol?
It sounds ridiculous to talk of a culture of blame around women. But there has been a recent backlash in the naming of the accused in rape cases, where public sympathy has shifted towards men who are falsely accused over the women who have very truthfully been assaulted. Never mind that in 2008 only 6.5% of rapes reported to the police resulted in a conviction, or that up to 95% of cases may never be reported at all.
But there is also a wider issue surrounding the SlutWalks. It is bad enough that their organisers talk in woolly terms of female ‘empowerment’ and ‘emancipation’, as if women possess a great ‘feminine’ power just waiting to be recalled. The fact is that attempts to reclaim the word ‘slut’ – in the same way as ‘nigger’ or, to some extent, ‘Paki’ – will just not work. This is because women are still unsure if it is a positive thing to be what a ‘slut’ stands for.
It is interesting that this news came in the same week that MP Nadine Dorries said teenage girls should be taught the value of abstinence. Politicians seem to live in a world where girls are either having rampant teen sex and getting pregnant or where they should be be kept off sex altogether. Being proud to be a slut won’t be enough. The problem is finding the balance.