August 23rd, 2011

The two messages of SlutWalk


The first is simple: A woman is never responsible for being raped because of what she wears. The second is trickier: Reclaim the word ‘slut’.

By Anu Selva-Thomson

The SlutWalk movement has generated a great deal of controversy over the past few months. As followers of this contemporary feminist campaign prepare for a march in Singapore, it is worth examining the sources of this controversy so as to understand what this movement is all about.

The first SlutWalk was held this April in Toronto, in response to a police officer advising women at a safety forum to (in a nutshell) stop dressing like sluts if they didn’t want to be raped. Since then, women all over the world have been organising similar protest walks in their cities.

The aim of these SlutWalks, as I see it, is to educate people on two primary things.

Firstly – how one chooses to dress has nothing to do with a rapist’s choice to rape. It is preposterous to blame victims or argue that they brought the assault upon themselves. Blaming victims is known as secondary victimization, where the victim is re-victimized by society and/or legal authorities.

The second aim: The word ‘slut’ has been used to dehumanize and objectify women and we need to re-appropriate the word.

I’m fully in favour of the first aim. Rape is a pretty easy word to understand. It means forced and unwanted sexual intercourse. Forced and unwanted are also fairly easy words to understand. When one is forced to do something, it’s generally the case that they do not want to do it and have not agreed to do it – they do it against their will. When something is unwanted, it is unwelcome. Most of us know what these words mean. It is for this reason that I’ve always been confounded by talk about women asking to be raped.

For those of us who need more than the simple definitions, there have been feminists, activists, criminologists, psychoanalysts and social workers who have disputed, debated and discussed the elements of rape in much more detail.

And still, it seems, there are too many people who just don’t get it. The fact is that clothes have very little to do with rape. Rapists don’t hang around void decks or car parks assessing women and their clothing before attacking. They don’t ponder the merits of zippers versus button-fly and wish women would all just wear Velcro.

Rapists rape for a vast variety of reasons. These can include: Hostility towards women; beliefs that support sexual violence; a desire for impersonal sex; a society that supports male dominance and sexual entitlement; environments rife with violence, poverty and a lack of proper law enforcement; and sexual or social inadequacies that result in a need to exert power.

There are many more reasons, none of which include a woman’s choice in clothing. Women in track suits get raped, nuns have been raped, thousands of women in burqas get raped, still thousands more get raped by their husbands or boyfriends – how do we account for provocative clothing as a reason in these cases? We can’t.

There’s a vast difference between telling men and women to practice caution with measures like avoiding dark and lonely places, and telling them that not taking these precautions means they are to blame for getting robbed, stabbed or raped. Correlation does not imply causation.

Arguing that the way women dress causes them to get raped neglects the fundamental fact that human beings have what philosophers call ‘agency’. We make choices. A man who feels sexually aroused by an attractive or ‘provocatively’ dressed woman can choose not to force sex upon her in order to satisfy his arousal. A man who forces sex on another person chooses to do so. Rapists choose to rape.

I shouldn’t have to worry about bringing the trauma of rape upon myself the next time I decide what to wear, in the same way that a man shouldn’t have to worry about bringing the trauma of a battering upon himself the next time he decides to toot his car horn on the highway.

As for the second goal of SlutWalk – that’s a little trickier and I’m not sure I’m convinced. I don’t like the word ‘slut’. I’ve never thought it was a word that had any positive or soul-strengthening connotations. Its etymology dates back to the early 1400s, when it was used to describe someone who was sloppy and dirty. Over time, it became a degrading and demeaning term used to describe women who demonstrate an enjoyment of sex or engage in sex with multiple partners. It’s not a word I would want to reclaim or reconstitute or re-appropriate, because it’s been used as a debasing and negative word.

A woman who enjoys sex, with one or multiple partners, and is comfortable with her sensuality and sexuality shouldn’t have any special word as a descriptor. We don’t have special words that describe a person who generally enjoys food (gourmand or epicure don’t count because they describe persons who have a
particular kind of enjoyment of particular kinds of food) or beautiful scenery, presumably because we think these enjoyments are natural and acceptable.

In the same way, women’s enjoyment of sex and their desire to exist as sensual beings should be perceived as the natural thing it is. My only concern with SlutWalk is that it might be giving weight and attention to a word that, while important as a term that sheds historical and conceptual light on gender and feminist issues, would otherwise be better withdrawn from our contemporary lexicon.

Some proponents of re-appropriating the term ‘slut’ argue that their purpose is to make it meaningless, rather than to remove the word from its patriarchal context and apply it in a positive way. While I do appreciate the intellectual concept behind stripping such words of their meaning, and am aware that the word ‘slut’ was the word used by the police officer whose comments sparked off this movement, I do not agree that raising awareness for an issue as important as secondary victimization should be tied up with highfalutin’ post-structural redefinitions of binaries.

There is certainly a place for discussing the need to tear down Madonna/Whore binaries that have long been used to shackle female sexuality and sensuality. But I’m not convinced that this march is that place. Also, whether reclaiming the word ‘slut’ is the best way to tear down these binaries is another question for another article.

A march like this needs to focus on its primary message – that clothing or dressing has nothing to do with rape. It also needs to make that message accessible to the most number of people. Highly intellectualized discourse that defends the use of the word ‘slut’ is likely to leave too many people confused.

People have also commented on the attire that protestors have chosen to wear in these marches. Many women and men have showed up to SlutWalks wearing little else but their underwear as a statement. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it seems that how people are choosing to dress for these walks
is preventing the message from being spread as effectively as it might (more conservative countries are uncomfortable with giving the walk the green-light) and distracting from the essential point concerning secondary victimization.

But activism isn’t perfect. There are bound to be many well-meaning women and men who march for SlutWalk without fully understanding what it means or what responsibilities they have as protesters and as voices in society. Or they may understand it fully but want to highlight one particular aspect over another.

When there are so many people involved in raising awareness, it is inevitable that that we see signs of individual identity and interpretation. What we need to do is make sure we keep our focus on the issue that began all of this – a woman is never responsible for being raped because of what she wears.

The writer is a former teacher who is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in philosophy at the National University of Singapore. She is also the founder and editor of The Mohini Myth website, a platform for sharing views on feminist issues.


  1. sureesh

    Yes rape is all about power. I remember many years ago a young flight stewardess was walking along arcadia road, when she was held up at the point of a sharp object, she was taken behind some bushes and then raped. The rapist tied her hands and legs behind her back and then when he left he took away all her clothes leaving her there naked. Imagine the victim’s humiliation of being left stranded and naked in a public place after being raped. Shockingly the rapist was only 16 years old the same age as me at that time. I just wonder how the victim would have coped with the trauma over the years. I just hope she is ok today, it was terrible what happened to her.

  2. fabrizzo

    lemme ask u,why call it a slutwalk in the first place?if its to voice the women havnt done anything wrong to deserve the rape,why the word slut?arent they slapping themselves in the face?
    so now u complain of the existence of the word slut.then u might as well complain of the existence of profanities in the first place,why just focus on women ones??besides,there are terms meaning to demean men too,like MCP and gay.why not hammer those too?
    those who say men cant be raped are truly ignorant,and attempt to victimise the victims further while widening the divide.
    if u really want change,then advise them to call off ludicrously named protests like slutwalk.legitimising it just gives them the excuse to indulge in immorality as the word suggests.and who in their right mind would endorse the immoral?
    too many arguments by modern people have distorted the logic of right and wrong.i believe one day God must descend to reeducate us on the right way of things.even so,ive seen comments disrespecting God even on matters which shouldnt be disputed.are we going to become a species thats beyond hope?

  3. Furbie

    We’ve been long aware at the unfairness of the double standard but the last generation of feminists didn’t really fight this head on. Instead they set the ideal that women should be less feminine and essentially desexualize themselves in order to be treated equal with men. That worked out for some middle and upper middle class women but for the vast majority it was a failing formula.

    The current generation believes that this desexualisation is a form of misogyny itself and would like to embrace their sexuality free from mainstream ideas about purity.

    Women’s sex positivity has always been a dangerous idea and there are many gender police who will fight back with “you are asking to be raped.” The threat of rape is ultimately the weapon of the man who feels emasculated in the face of powerful women. And there are plenty of those around.

    Is this march the place to tackle the binary? Why not? Where else? Feminism has grossly GROSSLY failed in the media. At least these marches have provoked more discussion. Even the condemnation has provoked people to hone their understanding of the issues.