On January 24, a Toronto police officer told a campus safety information session at Osgoode Hall Law School that one way women can limit the chance of being raped is to “avoid dressing like sluts”.
Immediately staff and students demanded a written apology. A ‘Slutwalk’ demonstration of a thousand people was then organised in Toronto against rape and against the false idea that victims bring it upon themselves.
Since then, a dozen other demonstrations have taken place across Canada and the US, and around a hundred have been organised across the world. One is planned for this weekend in Melbourne.
Comments like those of the Toronto police officer are not unique. A number of surveys have shown that high percentages of people think a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing. One result of this has been that victims tend to feel ashamed and research suggests that between 75-95% of rapes are never reported to the police.
Almost one in five women will experience sexual assault at some point in their lives. There is no typical rape victim – people of all ages, sizes and races are raped. About 75% of rape is planned in advance.
Research has shown that much of rape is about power and control, not about sex. Whether someone is dressed ‘provocatively’ has nothing to do with why they may be attacked.
It is very good that thousands of people, mainly young women, have come out onto the streets to express their anger at the upside-down way that rape is seen by some people. It has been decades since there was a sizeable women’s movement and this could be signs of its revival.
But an outpouring of anger alone won’t be enough to change things. This anger must be channelled. It is positive that the Slutwalk Toronto website stresses that the march is open to anyone of any gender, any age and wearing any type of clothes. To be successful in challenging attitudes the movement will have to draw in the mass of the working class.
The Toronto website says: “Historically, the term ‘slut’ has carried a predominantly negative connotation… And 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 re-appropriated.”
However, using the word ‘slut’ in an attempt to ‘reclaim’ it is unlikely to appeal to the majority of women. The positive side of this is that it shows how far women have come in the last 50 years. Many young women now feel comfortable with their sexuality and are proud to say so.
It’s important to show that this increased confidence has nothing to do with rape. But ‘slut’ has always been a sexist, derogatory word for women and most will not feel comfortable with the idea that accepting it and saying we’re ‘proud’ of it will somehow change the attitude behind it.
There has also been some debate between supporters of Slutwalk online about feminism, with some being explicitly against talking about the conditions facing women more generally.
But a campaign against rape in isolation from all other aspects of women’s oppression will only ever have a limited impact. It is vital to address the increasing material problems facing women in all areas of their lives.
There is a need for more refuges for victims of domestic violence. Those that do exist are desperately underfunded. The attacks on welfare payments in the recent budget such as those for single parents could mean that more women feel pushed towards work in strip clubs or even prostitution. All of these will increase the risk of sexual assault and rape and must be resisted.
Rape, like domestic violence and sexual harassment, is a symptom of a deeply unequal class-based society that leads some men to think that they can control women, including sexually.
This is reinforced by women’s material inequality and lower status in society. We must challenge sexism and demand education about the myths and facts of rape and decent support for rape victims.
At the same time we need to challenge the brutal, sexist and exploitative capitalist society in which we live and fight for a socialist alternative.
By SP reporters