Does what I wear make me a victim?

AS THE FIRST SLUTWALK MOVES ACROSS THE OCEAN AND HITS THE UK FOR THE FIRST TIME, COULD WE BE ON THE VERGE OF RAPE LAW REFORM, ASKS CLOSET CHARMS

Last month I was meeting my friend at Knightsbridge for lunch. It was midday sharp. I was waiting inside the busy tube station for her to arrive, as I don’t like standing on my own. I was wearing jeans, a check shirt and pumps, nothing glamorous, nothing revealing. Three guys approached me, ‘hey honey’, ‘hey baby’ said one. The second whistling looked at me up and down. The third, shaking his keys asked if I needed a lift anywhere, or if I wanted to join the ‘party’. It was a busy station, it was lunchtime and I wasn’t dressed like a ‘slut.’ I was even surrounded with elderly couples and families, and yet I felt unsafe, uneasy and no one in the station even noticed I was being harassed. Luckily when I ignored them they left me alone, but this isn’t the case for every woman, incidents like this happen all too often.

On Saturday June 11th, the first slutwalk protest hit London. Men and women, from teenagers to the middle aged turned up in their hundreds to protest against the misuse of the word slut, and to challenge victim-blaming in rape. Some dressed in casual jeans and t-shirts, others in corsets, tutus or lingerie. Some guys joined in too going topless, or opting for fishnets and hot pants. They marched from the Hard Rock Café in Piccadilly to Trafalgar Square, chanting ‘hey ho yes means yes, no means no’ and ‘guns don’t hurt people, rapists do’. Placards read ‘my little black dress is not a yes’, ‘a kiss is not a contract’ and ‘we are all chamber maids’, in reference presumably to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case.

Anastasia Richardson, slutwalk organiser says: “Slut- shaming, fear mongering and disrespect are an experience that is unfortunately common to all women.”

London is not the first city to hold a slutwalk. It started in Toronto, after a Canadian police officer made a flippant comment in a personal security lecture. He said women should not dress like ‘sluts’, to avoid being raped or victimised. The backlash began and then spread all over America, before hitting the UK. In fact, London is just one of many slutwalks planned for the coming year, Leeds, Brighton and Birmingham aim to host their own protests as well as the rest of America, Europe and even Australia.

Harri Sutherland-Kay, co-editor of women’s news and current affairs service http://www.womensviewsonnews. org says: “It would be fair to say that the police officer’s comment in Canada, although explicit was not surprising. It shouldn’t have been said out loud, but I think it is implicit in a lot of police and popular culture.”

Cath Elliott, a trustee at Suffolk Rape Crisis adds: “The slutwalks are trying to reframe the language of rape and sexual assault, to protest against the narrative that says women are to blame for the abuses perpetrated against them because they drink too much, or wear the wrong clothes, or put themselves into vulnerable positions.”

These marches could easily be considered as part of a wider problem surrounding rape laws, and the stereotyping of women in the 21st century. Recent issues in rape law include a government green paper that proposes to give a 50% discount on sentences for those who plead guilty at an early stage. This would involve all crimes; however there has been a heavy backlash in attaching it to rape. MP Ken Clarke has also remarked: “Date rape can be as serious as the worst rapes, but date rapes, in my very old experience of being in trials, vary extraordinarily one to the other and in the end the judge has to decide on the circumstances.”

You might have heard of the case involving Alicia Gali too, the 29 year old who was working at a luxury hotel in Dubai and was drugged, raped and then jailed in June 2008, as a result of archaic laws stating that sex outside marriage is illegal – even in rape cases. While the men were caught and jailed, they were shockingly accused of adultery – not rape.

Lisa Longstaff, spokesperson for Women Against Rape says: “We have been campaigning for all rape to be taken seriously since 1976. Rape law and prosecution policies have improved, but implementation is still appalling.”

These attitudes towards rape are perpetuated in popular culture, creating a conflicting idea of sexuality. Think about the lyrics of this Enrique Iglesias song called Dirty Dancer, “She don’t want love, she just wanna touch, she’s a dirty dirty dancer, it’s a game that she plays, she can turn you into an animal, she got all the moves for you to give it up.” I doubt Enrique was thinking anything past recording a hit club tune when writing it, but no question the lyrics suggest a rather over sexualised image of a woman, a maneater, so provocative that she can cause a man to turn into an ‘animal’. Although popular culture is flooded with these sorts of lyrics and images, it is not an isolated event. Whether it is the music channel with barely dressed dancers shaking their booty along with the latest rap, the page three models on lad magazines or the representation of sex in the porn industry. It is no wonder society believes women are asking for attention, and trying to attract men.

Sutherland-Kay says: “The pornification of society shows us how to be sexy and what sexiness is. It’s all about how to make yourself as attractive as possible, how to lose weight, how to please your man. These images tell you what you have to do in order to be accepted by society, accepted in a relationship and accepted by your man.”

And yet there is a huge juxtaposition adds Aimee Claire, slutwalk organiser: “In the UK women already have the right to wear what they want, these rights were won years ago. It’s the fact that women are sold as sex objects, but shamed for displaying their sexuality in real life.”

The 2007 TV film Consent sums up the attitudes and opinions of our society in regards to rape. The scenario – work colleagues Becky and Steve get drunk at a work party and end up in a hotel room having sex, however Becky claims she was raped, but Steve claims it was consensual. A mock trial ensues, although using real ordinary people for jury duty to hear the resulting case – these people honestly believed they were doing jury duty – they were not actors. The jury’s deliberations were filmed, with comments of ‘look what she was wearing, she was asking for it’ as the motive. At the end of the film they deliver their verdict, Steve is acquitted but it turns out that he did indeed rape Becky.

These sorts of perceptions have a damaging affect on the real victims, because it leads to a fear of reporting the assault. Victims don’t believe they will be taken seriously, and think they are going to be judged or accused of lying. What society seems to forget though is that women get raped when they are wearing jeans and t-shirts, burqas, or within their family. Plus men can also be victims. It has nothing to do with what each victim wears, who the victim in question is, or whether a victim is being promiscuous or flirtatious.

Elliott says: “Rapists choose women based on their vulnerability not on their physical appearance, hence women of all ages are raped, from the ages of three to ninety three. Women are not magically protected from rape and sexual violence if they ‘cover up’ or if they make themselves less attractive to men.”

Sutherland-Kay adds: “There is a lack of understanding when it comes to rape, and who rapes. For example the law doesn’t deal with women who are being raped by family members and being incarcerated into guilt their family members put on them in those situations.”

Slutwalks are a good start to protesting against these attitudes, but do they give out the right message?

Julia Long, organiser of the Reclaim the Night marches says: “I am committed to raising awareness about rape myths, but I cannot give my support to an event that promotes the use of the word ‘slut’. It is an extremely offensive, misogynist word. The march has had the counter-productive effect of focusing attention on women’s sexuality and women’s sexual behavior.”

We do not live in an ideal world, and these marches glorify promiscuity. This isn’t a safe image to promote when the streets are only becoming a more dangerous place.

Fifi Belle, editor of modest fashion blog www. fashionbelle.com adds: “Men are generally sexually stimulated by the sight of women in revealing clothing, so precautionary measures should be taken. For instance, by not walking alone in deserted city streets at night or not going near the house of a strange man who invites her inside.”

Although a woman can take all these precautions and still fall victim to assault.

These slutwalks definitely seem to have garnered enough support to bring about new reforms in rape law, but only if the cracks in opinion do not widen. At the end of the day though yes still means yes, and no still means no – victims need support not scrutiny, and this is something that will never change.

Images by myself, AFP/ Getty and Jonathan Warren.

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