SlutWalk and the expression of individuality.

“I don’t care if you are the bastard child of Paris Hilton and Voldemort and your full-time job is as a stripper… you still do not deserve to be assaulted or raped.” (Tiara Shafiq @ SlutWalk, Brisbane)

Rape is never acceptable in society. This message, intuitive to most of us, has been resonating around the world louder than ever thanks to the spreading SlutWalk movement; a protest against the notion that there are certain things a woman (or man, presumably) can do which make it more acceptable to rape her or him. My instinctive reaction, like most people, to this hypothesis is horror and anger. Reading some discussions online about the topic of “deserving to be raped” was, however, an informative (albeit unpleasant) experience. The kind of people who suggest that women need to stop dressing in “slutty” clothing to avoid being raped are generally not the pro-rape, misogynistic troglodytes that came to mind initially, but are simply concerned about the dangers of rape and are searching for ways to stop people being raped. This stunningly written article (http://en.articlesgratuits.com/how-to-prevent-being-raped-id903.php) puts it clearly with the following advice;

“When a woman or girl dresses half-naked, she is saying through her action, ‘I am available to any man that needs me.’ When you dress seductively, you are exposing yourself to the danger of being raped.”

“Deserve” seems then to take on the meaning of “risking” as opposed to a suggestion that it’s actually a positive thing that the act happens. Of course, the suggestion that wearing a skimpy top is an automatic alternative to saying “please have sex with me” to every man or woman who happens to pass you by is as sensible as the article’s inspired suggestion that the best thing to do if you’re about to be raped is to “pray for deliverance”. (In particular, if you are baptised in the Holy Ghost, you should start praying “in tongues.” Great.) However, I’m slightly less angry at the “stop dressing like sluts” crew. They seem misguided, not malevolent.

Clothing is simply clothing – it cannot be an invitation to any form of physical act. A comparable example is rugby tops. People wear rugby tops to (shocker) play rugby, in which you can expect to be on the receiving end of some fairly brutal physical treatment. If I walk down a high street wearing a rugby top, do I therefore deserve to be rugby tackled against my will? The two cases might appear different, but I’m confident that any perceived differences are actually products of the same myth that leads to the “some women deserve to be raped” fallacy. In terms of what you are actually doing, there is no distinction; you’re wearing clothing which may, in a particular way, at a certain time, in a certain place, with your full and clear consent, be used as a prelude to or a part of a certain act, but in every other situation should be nothing but… clothing. Fabric. Meaningless material.

This isn’t the only way in which the idea that you can deserve to be raped by dint of the clothing you wear becomes absurd; it endangers the entire concept of a guardian political state. We accept the limitations on our individual freedom to move and act that are a necessary consequence of a governed political state on the grounds that ultimately this will make us freer than we could be in a state of anarchy. We may not be able to drive on the wrong side of the road, kill people for their iPhones or shoot swans, but we can’t be shot, attacked or tortured; fundamentally, we receive a guarantee on the one thing that we can be absolutely certain naturally belongs to us and nobody else – our bodies. Why would we ever agree to this if the state might abandon its responsibilities to protect us from bodily harm based on something as trivial as what we wear, simply because what we wear is unconventional in some sense? Does the sanctity of body only apply if we conform to socialised norms in their entirety? Might I deserve to be shot or mugged if I wear a chicken costume? Granting a little more fairness to those I’m criticising, perhaps it’s more appropriate to ask whether I’d deserve to be shot if I went out wearing a t-shirt with a target printed on it?

Here, I suspect, we’re close to the crux of the problem. Deviation from social norms is widely considered somehow “bad.” Men who wear feminine clothing are sneered at. It’s considered normality for there to be a form of “fashion war” between the elderly and the young; my grandparents criticise me for wearing looser jeans, I criticise my father for tucking radically heinous polo shirts into beige lounge trousers. This is simply aeons away from the slut-rape issue, and I’m not suggesting that this kind of joking needs to stop. I, in spite of my liberal beliefs that my dad is free to wear what he wishes, remain instinctively confident that providing guidance to him borders on an ethical imperative. What does need to go is what might be lurking beneath the light-hearted exchanges; what the joke could turn into if taken too far. The sinister undercurrent is the idea that there are definite aesthetic ideals which you can get closer to or further away from, and that in some sense you are obligated, if you wish to be afforded the same social status as your peers, to get as close as you can. The picture darkens when schoolboys are bullied for wearing pink, for their high voices, or for taking time over their appearance, or when girls are stigmatised for cutting their hair short, wearing shirts or wearing too much, or too little, make-up. It’s still a jump, but this is the same ideational current that leads to the idea that women wearing “slutty” clothing are saying that they are sexually available to anyone. The concept that they could simply be dressing in clothes that they feel comfortable and happy in is alien, because surely all women should be dressed like the Queen? Any deviation has to mean something more, because it simply doesn’t fit with our concept of the feminine.

So what’s the solution? I have no idea. SlutWalk is a fantastic start, and I actively encourage anyone who can to take part. The message that, with reference to the fabulous quote I used as an opener, nobody ever deserves to be raped, is one which needs to be widely spread. I suspect that this might not be the entire solution though. There’s the potential for people to come to accept that rape is never right (a good thing, obviously) but to simply do so on the basis that it’s getting so much publicity, without coming to grasp the underlying message. The problem then is that gay men and women, emos, chavs, transgender people, or just anybody who happens to have the courage to reflect how they feel inside in how they project themselves externally, might continue to face stigma and negative consequences as a result. It’s bordering on a cliché, but if we keep saying it, perhaps that’s because it’s still a pressing issue – people should be completely free to dress, act, speak and live in any reasonable way that they wish.

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About Jon Robinson

Lefty ex-politics student turned med student, interested in current affairs, economics, gender politics and health issues. Occasionally pretends to understand philosophy. @jon__robinson

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