SlutWalk SA? No way!

Jun 09, 11 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

  • Annie

    Interesting thoughts! 

     I think a SlutWalk in SA would be premature and I suppose I feel uncomfortable with with the notion that women’s sexual empowerment means self-imposed sexual objectification along the lines of men’s sexual preferences. More pragmatically, SlutWalks generate a lot of publicity and i really think, in the SA context where the rape discussion is largely neglected, it would dominate the discussion to the neglect of men’s role as you say and a stab at the seats of power in the executive and judiciary. The underlying message of SlutWalks may be a valid point but it sits at the periphery of far more nuanced discussions we need to be having about sexuality and gender and why our laws on  rape are so poorly policed and enforced. 

    And besides, as a woman, I don’t want to embrace the word “slut”. I want to eliminate it from our vocabulary. 

  • slutwalker

    erm, but the slutwalks ARE challenging the myth that women are to blame for sexual assault. duh! they say: no matter what i am wearing, no matter what i’m doing, where ever i am, if i am raped its the perpetrators fault and not mine.It IS challenging a rape myth. Men also participated in the marches, and also reject the myth that their sexual urges are uncontrollable and that they are just a step away from cro-magnon man.
     @3e31d8808f3b822aee86ebcdad7ab106:disqus  – any imposition of a sexual identity is wrong (self imposed or imposed by others)  but we do have to move away from thinking that if a woman is wearing a short skirt, or uses her sexuality, she is self hating. Its your discomfort, not hers, deal with it.

    • Deb

      My post does not deny that SlutWalk responds to the rape myths around women’s clothing. As Annie has already pointed out so beautifully, it fails to challenge the systemic and pervasive roots of their power that ground women’s experience of these rape myths as part of the criminal justice system.
      To add to this point and specifically in the South African context, women’s clothing and the sexual history of the complainant feature all too prominently in a trial against a perpetrator charged with sexual violence. SlutWalk draws more attention to a trend which really needs to be eliminated from the South African criminal justice system. This move away from clothing and sexual history could be achieved through advocacy, strategic litigation as well as NGO/CSO/law-enforcement awareness, training and partnerships with more transformative value than SlutWalk.

      With respect to your limited idea of women’s sexuality: I have no problem with women who choose to be ‘sluts’ as a measure of sexual empowerment. By the same token, I have no problem with women who choose to be ‘frigid’ (which I think has the same gravity as ‘slut’). My argument is with those who cannot recognise that women’s sexuality may exist in various multi-faceted forms. ‘Sluttishness’ is only one aspect of sexuality and cannot be equated with empowerment or autonomy in general.

      While I commend your ability to read and internalise the last sentence of my post, your comment is a marvelous example of the two-dimensional focus of Slutwalk. Perhaps you should also read my previous post (Breaking the Bonobo Alliance) about divisions between women according to sexuality and clothing. I understand that SlutWalk is a bold statement of empowerment. But it doesn’t seem to a mechanism of positive and transformative empowerment. If SlutWalk is creating a void between women, then surely it can’t be the best form of activism in the movement against sexual violence.

  • Annie

    @e36987ecc50639f280aa30df6a48863f:disqus the article doesn’t deny that SlutWalks are challenging the myth that woman are to blame for sexual assault – nor do I. The difference i think the author is making is in the movement making statements of sexual autonomy through proclaiming the right to wear what one wants without fear or condemnation. What is missing from both the statement and the right claimed is a direct challenge at the roots of power (in terms of gender as well as public administration). Perhaps the author can express her idea clearer than i can.

    Also, I think you misunderstand my comment. No one is uncomfortable here with others’ expressions of sexuality. The point is that claiming the “s” word is as futile as the project to claim the “n” word has been in American culture. Calling me a slut will never be devoid of meaning, whether i say it or another does. And while nothing i can possibly wear replaces my sexual consent, by choosing to present myself as a sexual object as a COLLECTIVE public statement of my autonomy, I draw attention from the seats of power at the roots of the problem. 

    I’m not against Slutwalks. and they may very well start important shifts in thinking and presumptions but, in my perspective, if we are to empower the role of women in SA, grant women the reality of their full rights to their bodies and sexuality, and actually enforce the prohibitions on these crimes, there are stronger statements we might choose to make and bigger conversations that need to be had on gender, power and public neglect. 

    Rape is about power. Sex and sexuality have nothing to do with it. I am sure we agree there. If we do, then surely, forcing the discussion onto the right to express one’s sexuality without having one’s right of consent removed, focuses the debate on sexuality when it should be on power. 

    I don’t know! I would love to hear more of what you think! :)

    • Deb

      Such brilliant and well-written insight (as usual)! I couldn’t agree with you more. Thank you Annie.

      • Nomonde Nyembe

        Great article Deb.  I think that while slutwalks are responsive and reactive, challenging rapes or rape myths is very different in that it is proactive and remedial.  This is a fundemental difference that cannot be confused.  While the former does little to solve the problem at a hand, the other, when well-versed, can be highly transformative.

  • I had originally posted this on a similar discussion in Facebook, but think that it really needs to happen in a place that you can read without friending the whole universe.

    I agree with you Annie – part of the dynamic of the slut walk is to seize people’s attention through dressing in a sexualised manner – essentially seizing the ‘power’ of being objectified to make a larger point that “being objectified is not an excuse to be raped”. In my mind (and not fully analysed), it feels as though it is tapping into a source of power to be noticed that comes out of women’s objectification and then using that power to make a point against sexual violence. This creates a sort of ‘pay the devil to hurt my enemies’ situation where you develop one oppression (being objectified) in exchange for fighting another (objectification should not be an excuse for rape)
    This distinction between the power being accessed and the cause being pursued is problematic though, if you assume (and I think I do, to some degree, but gender studies has been lacking from my formal education) that patriarchy and the objectification of women (the power being accessed by the protests) is actually responsible for this violence. you make the point more eloquently, pointing out that rape is about power, not about sexuality. So if the power you are affirming in exchange for the political/sexual point you are making is actually the power that is, to some degree, responsible for sexual violence, then you have a problem. Then I am paying the devil to hurt my enemies, while the devil grows stronger for it. And is in some way responsible for what my enemies did in the first place. Or some stretched anecdote like that.

    • Deb

      I admit that I had to read this a few times. I had to walk away, wrap my head around your comment, come back and read it again. Bottom line: I now understand the ‘power trade-off’ you’re referring to.

      In applying your ‘power trade-off’ to what I know, it resembles a strategy often used in impact litigation and advocacy – playing off one interest (or ‘power’, in your anecdote) against another. Unfortunately, it seems to have been used in some publicly-welcomed judgments. I also understand the importance of practising triage in these circumstances. However, the ‘problem’ with sacrificing another equally relevant, important interest is that it’s not a transformative concept.

      Returning to my fierce opposition against SlutWalk: Yes, it’s a creative, publicity-producing means to an end – but does the means embody the values society wants to achieve in the end? By abandoning one cause or interest in favour of another (as they do in impact litigation)? Or by ignoring the power of one oppression to promote the fight against the other?

      (Great intuition!)

  • strongwoman

    Hi Deb
    What you say makes perfect sense in the context of South African society as it is today. Unfortunately, if we were all willing to accept the restrictions of a flawed social structure there would be no progress.
    In order for there to be “an environment where women are allowed to create their own authentic sexuality” WE need to start making it happen now.  It’s not like there haven’t been precedents. Think Hawaiian hula dancers, Cleopatra or famous nude paintings that are works of art rather than pornography.
    In Jacob Zuma’s own culture, which he pays lip service to by wearing a loincloth every now and then (which by the way reveals more than any mini skirt I have ever worn – wonder if a gay man would be acquitted for raping him) women used to bare their breasts with pride. It was an indication of their ability to nurture children, supported by the scientific fact that BREASTS ARE MAMMARY GLANDS. Now when a woman shows a bit too much cleavage it somehow gives a pervert permission to violate her. Surely the problem is not with the way women dress.
    Dressing like a slut is not about pandering to men’s desires. It’s about being comfortable in your own skin. I was an overweight teenager who dressed “modestly” to hide the flab that I was ashamed off and not out of any sense of morality. As soon as found enough self-esteem to lose the weight, the first thing I did was go out and pierce my belly button. Wearing midriff tops and low rise jeans (which was considered slutty in the Indian community in the mid 90s) was not about attracting other people’s attention it was about being proud of my new body. It was about being able to look in the mirror and like what I saw. I was showing off me for me. Having that kind of positive self image should be something that we aspire to and respect, not something to be condemned and treated as dirty because of some narrow minded social norm.
    I for one admire the women who have the confidence and are comfortable enough in their own bodies to dress like sluts and are secure enough in their own sexuality to not care about the labels attached by a patriarchal society that has lost it’s reverence for the female form. I will definitely be walking with you 24 September. Girl power rocks.

    • Annie

      I like your message Strongwoman. I really do thing that the shame that so many of us women feel over our bodies is not just a personal battle but a political battle too – and in this way, as a political statement, something like a slutwalk has a lot to say in this fight. Perhaps this is just one of the reasons that I am ambivalent about a slutwalk campaign in SA. In the least, conversations like this one are a starting point for change :)

      • strongwoman

        The self image issue is a personal battle in a political context. Part of the reason I am participating in Slutwalk in that I will support any initiative to shift the social and political context in a direction that promotes freedom of expression. Especially in SA we need to learn to respect our differences.

  • Fiona

    I think you’ve missed the point. Slutwalk is not about ‘protesting about the right to be called sluts and dress like sluts’. It’s about challenging the very idea that how you dress has ANYTHING to do with being raped – i.e. it challenges one of the most stubborn rape myths around. You’re splitting hairs here… not very helpful.

  • true

    When we refuse to obey God, we bring evil upon ourselves. My rape story