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Slut Pride

Image: SlutWalk Toronto, 2011. Anton Bielousov.

When Constable Michael Sanguinetti of the Toronto Police spoke at a crime prevention forum at Osgoode Hall Law School on employing strategies to avoid victimisation as a young adult, and told those gathered there that he was “not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.” Little did he realise what his throwaway comment would come to symbolize for many across the globe. SlutWalk, a grassroots movement aimed to protest the idea that the onus on preventing sexual assault rests with women emerged as a direct result of this, and quickly spread across the globe. SlutWalk also spread to Australia, with last year’s demonstration in Melbourne receiving press coverage everywhere from feminist-oriented blogs to right-wing shock jocks, as those tired of the mythology surrounding sexual assault took to the streets to protest the idea that women are responsible for preventing rape – as opposed to the rapists themselves. In light of its return to Australian streets at the beginning of next month, Lot’s Wife spoke to Karen Pickering, prominent Australian feminist and one of the organisers of the event.

For those new to the idea of SlutWalk, the idea of appropriating such an offensive term in order to advance the rights of women may seem utterly contradictory – but as Pickering explains, it makes perfect sense. “I think it’s the right name for the demonstration and the activists on the ground in Toronto got it absolutely right,” she asserts. “It gets us noticed and it brings people to the table for discussion of what we mean. SlutWalk has one central message and that’s to stand against victim-blaming and slut-shaming in all its forms. This is because slut-shaming (shaming women perceived as ‘too sexual’) has a lot to do with victim-blaming (blaming survivors of assault for what was done to them). The word matters in this sense. I think our use of it neutralises it and strips it of a lot of power. I know that a lot of people use the word slut in a positive sense in order to reduce its effect as a negative slur. I still think it has a lot of power to wound, even though it shouldn’t.”

Victim-blaming and slut-shaming are all symptomatic of what academics in gender studies, criminal justice, sociology and beyond refer to as a “rape culture”. Cringing? You should be. “Truthfully, I don’t think too many people outside feminist circles are across the term,” Pickering says, of the concept. “It describes a culture in which rape is excused, euphemised, apologised for and even condoned. I think we’re living in a society where these attitudes exist – and these attitudes hurt women and help rapists.”

The factors that help create this “rape culture” are varied and complex. Damaging practises run through the arms of the criminal justice system, for example; from police that put the blame on women wearing revealing clothing when they are sexually assaulted and perpetuate myths about the majority of sexual assaults being perpetrated by the dodgy stranger after dark in an alleyway, to lawyers and courts more fixated on interrogating the character of a victim rather than alleged perpetrator. The result in a shockingly low rate of convictions for the crime (less than 5%) and SlutWalk’s primary aim is to get Australians to rethink their approach to one of the most awful and damaging violations of bodily autonomy and personal security there is. “I think [last year’s event] created an opportunity to have a large-scale public discussion about sexual assault and the chance to examine a culture that apologises for rapists by blaming victims,” she says. “I think it was incredibly constructive and all of our appearances in the media (including with right-wing “shock jocks”) were congenial and advanced debate. I’m positive it’s had an impact on many people, as evidenced by references to it within popular culture but also the amount of personal feedback I’ve received from individuals.”

Karen Pickering is particularly buoyed by the reaction SlutWalk has received from many youths. “I understand that young people need to find their own way into feminism – usually by realising that it is relevant to their lives. That’s what happened with SlutWalk, I think, and why it ignited a response and participation from much younger groups than other feminist demonstrations have. It seems real to young women and girls; they experience slut-shaming, they get called sluts for no reason and for reasons that are unclear to them and it hurts and makes them feel worthless. I think SlutWalk tells them that that’s bullshit and that they shouldn’t stand for it and they shouldn’t say it about other girls.”

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Miki McLay

The author Miki McLay

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