SlutWalk SA? No way!
When police Constable Michael Sanguinetti advised female students at Osgoode Hall Law School to not dress like sluts in order to avoid being victimised, it gave the Toronto community an insight into the attitude of law enforcement towards survivors of sexual violence and ignited an angry response in the form of SlutWalk Toronto. Since the pilot protest, numerous satellite SlutWalks have spread to cities in the United States, Europe and Australia. SlutWalk London is scheduled for 11 June 2011.
I think SlutWalkers should be applauded for their ability to create awareness and generate publicity in the name of the movement against gender-based violence. However, before we see SlutWalk Jozi, in many instances I believe that SlutWalks are sending the wrong message in a form of activism which is inappropriate for the South African context.
We should not be focusing on the survivor’s clothing or women’s clothing at all because clothing is not an indicator or guarantee of sexual autonomy or safety against sexual violence. Rape is a crime of power committed against a woman because she is a woman. So in many cases, blame will be cast regardless of what she was doing or wearing.
The mental process of justifying sexual violence or avoiding personal responsibility for a crime involves the use of rape myths. SlutWalk helps to cement the myths around women being responsible in some way for her own victimisation in that a woman is at least partially or totally responsible if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothes.
In South Africa, the focus on women’s clothing is a also a means of redefining masculinity and acceptance of the myth that men are just not able to control their sexual urges. For example, in the rape trial and acquittal of the Jacob Zuma, the victim was questioned about why she was wearing a kanga (a long piece of cloth wrapped around the waist and deemed to be ‘revealing clothing’.
Following the President’s acquittal, two other incidents drew attention to the rape myths around women wearing miniskirts and pants. In the first incident, a woman was attacked for defying a ban on women wearing pants. Even recently , two men were convicted and sent away by the Umlazi Regional Court for a maximum of four years after they stripped a woman of her jeans. The perpetrators justified their actions with their belief that no woman is allowed to wear pants in Umlazi’s T-section.
In the second well-publicised incident following the Zuma rape trial, a woman wearing a miniskirt was assaulted by taxi drivers as a crowd gathered and cheered. What made this incident particularly horrifying was that women invoked culture to justify the actions of the taxi drivers. According to the old women hawkers who witnessed the assault, it was necessary to teach the victim how to conduct herself in a morally and sexually acceptable manner. In response to this episode, South African women organised their own Miniskirt March.
Perhaps what is absent from activism such SlutWalk and Miniskirt Marches are the conversations about sexual violence that include men and concepts of masculinity. We talk about men (sometimes as if they are not in the room) without recognising that challenging rape myths also means addressing male sexual agency and aggression.
Afterall the purpose of these one-sided conversations is this: Women want sexual autonomy. But sexual autonomy should be attained within an environment where women are allowed to create their own authentic sexuality. And women are angry about the inability of law enforcement to hold men accountable for acts of sexual violence which find blame with the survivor. But rather than protesting for the right to be called sluts and dress like sluts (as well as freedom from judgement according to their sexuality), SlutWalkers should be challenging rape myths that pervade our culture and the criminal justice system.
Image by the ride projekt