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SlutWalk: women fight back against misogyny and rape

The SlutWalk movement has struck a chord with young women across the world and has put the issue of rape and sexual assault back on the agenda, writes Jo Cassidy, with demonstrations taking place in many countries

The phenomenon started in Toronto when a policeman instructed female students “to avoid looking like sluts” to protect their personal safety. This attitude puts the blame on the victims of rape, not the attacker. Since then, women have taken to the streets under the banner: “whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no!” SlutWalk protests are now being organised across the country as women rise up to fight back.

Every week 2,000 women are raped in Britain but 95 per cent of cases are never reported. Rape has a lower conviction rate than any other serious crime, with only 6 per cent of cases ending in jail time for rapists. Courts continue to base their verdicts on a woman’s sexual history and dress. In a recent London Student survey, 17 per cent of students said that a woman who dressed in ‘sexy clothing’ was at least partially responsible if raped.

And more recently, government minister Ken Clarke has tried to distinguish between ‘more’ and ‘less’ serious rapes, implying that women can be more or less “unwilling” to be raped.

This is a shocking reminder of how far we still have to go to change attitudes towards rape. And with proposed cuts to rape crisis centres, it is clear that this whole government (not only Ken Clarke) does not see rape as a serious issue.

SlutWalk is therefore a much-needed initiative to promote “the radical notion that nobody deserves to be raped”.

With nearly 10,000 showing their support on Facebook, SlutWalk has captured the imagination of a generation of young women who have been brought up trapped between supposed equality and liberation and the stigmatisation of our sexuality.

When women choose what to wear, we are not only choosing what feels comfortable or looks good, but negotiating our way through the maze of social and cultural values which our clothing embodies.

And let’s not forget the irony of a situation in which women are called sluts for wearing too little while on the other side of the Channel, women have been banned from wearing the niqab and covering up too much. These are all fronts in the struggle under capitalism for control over our bodies.

The movement has sparked off controversy at both ends of the political spectrum, with Tory MP Louise Bagshawe accusing the march of “lionising promiscuity”. These accusations do nothing to change attitudes. In fact, this attitude is only a small step away from that of the Toronto policeman: imposing a moral order on women and criticising women who are sexually active with many partners as somehow bringing the gender into disrepute.

At the other end of the spectrum, some feminists and women’s rights campaigners have also criticised the march for attempting to re-appropriate language which they say is too closely tied to misogyny to ever be reclaimed.

If SlutWalk was to develop into a movement focussed on reclaiming oppressive words, this would be a step backwards.
But the struggle for women’s liberation will not take place on the terrain of language. We will win equality by challenging sexist ideas and attitudes and by changing the material conditions which give rise to them.

While the name SlutWalk has caused controversy, it is this in-your-face affront to conservative values which has appealed to many young women.  However, the next step for the SlutWalk movement must be to broaden out.  With so many cases of rape taking place within the family, any movement against sexual abuse needs to open itself up to women who have been victims of domestic abuse, who may not feel represented under the banner of SlutWalk.

These protests have the potential to be the first step towards a new women’s movement which can fight against violence, for control of our bodies and also against cuts to women’s jobs, benefits and services.

It’s not the re-appropriation of oppressive language that is at the heart of the SlutWalk phenomenon; this is not what will make so many young women take to the streets. For them, SlutWalk is about challenging attitudes about sexual assault, it’s about the way moral values are imposed on our sexuality and the way we dress, and saying: fuck you – I’ll wear what I want!

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