The movement’s name may sound unfortunate, but it has been deliberately chosen and is linked to its recent origins. In January 2011, two police officers in Toronto, Canada, were among the speakers at a meeting called at York University about crime, safety and personal protection. One of them, Constable Michael Sanguinetti, commented that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised”. The ensuing outcry forced an apology from the constable. Matters came to a head, however, a month later in February in a Canada court. Hearing a rape case, the judge remarked that “sex was in the air” the evening of the alleged rape, as the victim’s dress may have given her assailant “the wrong impression” since she was wearing makeup, a short top and heels and had had a drink. The accused was found guilty but served no jail time; he was let off on probation after writing a letter of apology to the victim, the judge finding that he had not threatened the victim but was merely “insensitive” to her “unwillingness” — whatever that means. This triggered a huge public outcry (and an appeal and a review of the judge’s conduct by the country’s Judicial Council).
A few weeks later, Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis co-founded SlutWalk to protest against this type of condemnation of women-victims for sexual violence. The first SlutWalk on 3 April, saw over 3000 women marching through Toronto. Satellite marches in other cities soon followed. On her blog, Barnett says that the movement is not a reaction to the officer’s remark, “but to a history that was doomed to keep repeating. Insults, degredation, shame, rape.”
The adoption of the four-letter word has a purpose: it has an entirely negative connotation, and is abusively used (mostly by men) to describe women whose sex lives do not fit male-defined stereotypes. Some have questioned the protest’s use of the word in this manner, arguing that it does little other than further denigrate the victims of sex crimes, robs victims of dignity and reaffirms its commercial pornographic connotations. But the organisers’ view is that it is a randomly used indictment of a woman’s character, often for nothing more serious than choice of attire, or used to cause deliberate insult and hence needs to be “re-appropriated”.
Whatever label one chooses to apply, the cause is faultless. Consider the assumptions underlying the statement that women should not “dress like sluts”. First, this means that women who dress in a way that men consider inappropriate “are asking for it”. That is nonsense. No woman asks to be raped, and attire is no indicator of consent. A man’s morality is not questioned because of the shoes or shirt he chooses to wear. Neither should a woman’s. The second assumption here, even more stupid, is that if a woman is sexually active — especially if she is a sex worker — rape is excusable and even inevitable. And victims of sexual abuse are never co-participants in the crime. The third assumption is perhaps the most absurd: that all men are beasts incapable of controlling their primal urges, and is one that should force us to redefine what we mean when we speak of being ‘civilised’.
Our own law on rape is so prehistoric it would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic. S.376(1) of the Indian Penal Code says that rape is punishable for a minimum of seven years but could also be for life or a 10-year time, plus a fine, “unless the woman raped is his own wife and is not under twelve years of age”, in which case the sentence is two years and a fine. Twelve years? Wife? Why is this still on the statute books? Now try squaring this with S.375, which defines rape: statutory rape, regardless of consent, is when the victim is under 16; but subject to this ‘exception’: “sexual intercourse by man with his own wife, the wife not being under 15 years of age, is not rape”. Therefore, in any marriage, the wife’s consent is not only presumed, but the husband has a right to force intercourse, unless the wife is under 15. The legal age for marriage is 18. What is to be made of this mess? A girl-child of 15 could be married, and she can’t be raped by her husband.1
India’s dailies routinely report the most horrific sexual crimes: gang rapes of school girls, extreme brutality, sodomy, and worse. The recent month-long repeated rape of a schoolgirl in Mumbai and, a few months ago, of another in Delhi are terrifying reminders of how vulnerable our families are in our cities today. Child sexual abuse is another matter and there is no focussed law or institutional framework for assisting victims of these crimes, nor is another level of punishment provided for the perpetrators. What manner of monster feels sexually aroused by a three-year-old?
The SlutWalk protest is spreading around the world: marches have been held or planned in cities in Canada, USA, South Africa, Argentina, Australia and countries in Europe. “My body, my choice,” the protesters say, and “no means no” not, as is too often presumed, perhaps yes. Many of these women are victims of gross sexual abuse. A Guardian report of the walk in Newcastle mentions one participant, a commercial sex worker, who was raped by a client; another who was raped at 18; a third who suffered at age nine said she was sexually assaulted at age nine by school children because she was “on her own” in a playground corner. She, the victim, was blamed.
The protest’s name is designed to offend. It forces us to rethink our views about women and gender justice and what equality really means. As one placard at a protest in England said, “Stop telling me: don’t get raped. Tell men: don’t rape.”
Come June 25, and if the Baba Ramdev circus and roadshow haven't hijacked common sense by then, [India's capital is slated to see a protest march of a very different kind][dc]: India's first "Slut Walk", a global march protesting sexual violence against women.
[dc]: http://www.deccanchronicle.com/channels/nation/north/%E2%80%98slut-walk%E2%80%99-delhi-june-25-244 "'Slut Walk in Delhi June 25', Deccan Chronicile, 9 June 2011"