Sunday, 22 May 2011

A Few Thoughts on Slutwalks

Women should never ever be blamed for being raped or sexually assaulted. Ever. Neither should men – but as a culture, we seem to have that bit down already. You never hear of an attack on a man being based in any way on his clothing. You never hear a man who puts a lot of effort into making himself sexually attractive described as “asking for it”.

However, it would be na├»ve to think that all men and women choose their fashion in terms of what fits well, or feels comfortable. Fashion is not entirely, but largely about sending a message – whether that message is “I can afford this, everybody!” (see most designer labels) or “I am a member of this social group, everybody!” (be it punk, goth, or hipster). These messages extend beyond personal and social identity - they become messages about the responses you are willing to receive from other people. I accept that people are sending out a message with how they dress. Women need to accept this too, and take responsibility for the messages they send. Whether sluts like it or not, dressing in revealing clothes sends the message that they want people to look at or notice their body, or at least are happy with people looking at or paying attention to their body. Just as a man who wears a “muscle shirt” or tight pants is happy for people to pay attention to his body.

I am vaguely reminded – this is not the same thing, I must stress, I just see it as reminiscent – of someone wearing a shirt associated with a sports team, or even a band. That person will get attention for it from the followers of that team/fans of that band, people they can get along with and bond with. They might also get jeered at by people who like a rival team, or think the band are terrible in all sorts of ways, people they have also knowingly attracted the attention of (it is ridiculous to expect everyone in the world to like the same team/band). Likewise, people have different standards of what looks nice and what looks sexy. An easy example to draw here is make up. Some people find it attractive, others find it repellent, others simply don't notice, or care. For some people, heavy eye makeup and bright lipstick is sexy and sultry, while others may think the wearer looks like a clown. These standards are complex and subjective.

Does wearing 'sexy' clothes give people the right to make abusive or derogatory comments about a woman? Some women knowingly and deliberately invite attention from anyone who crosses their path – is it reasonable of them to only expect the kind of attention that makes them feel good? Herein lies the gap between looking/attention and assault/harassment. Therein, surely, lies the responsibility of the attacker/harasser. I would like to think that most males know the different between an innocent/appreciative and a derogatory/abusive comment?

Something else this reminds me of is how a lot of women are treated under Islamic regimes, or within strict Muslim families. It's not a man's responsibility not to harass and abuse women, it's a woman's responsibility to cover up her shameful, tempting body. Or even worse - a man's responsibility to cover up the bodies of the women he cares about – with not so much of a teaspoon of autonomy given to the owners of these bodies. The arabic word awrah – which means the intimate parts of someone's body that it is forbidden to expose – comes from the root awr- which means defectiveness, imperfection or weakness. For women, their awrah is their entire body and can sometimes extend even as far as the voice. While I fully support the idea that a woman's worth does not depend whatsoever on what she looks like, to teach someone that their body, their only means of communicating with the world, ought to be hidden away, ignored and rejected by the higher (male) members of their communities does rarely a healthy attitude make. 

Men rarely have to worry for their safety – you cannot compare this to a man being warned not to flash his gadgets/wear expensive jewellery to avoid getting mugged. There is a lot more at stake than expensive material possessions - it's a human being whose safety is at stake. Nor can you compare “Women have a right to wear what they want and not be assaulted – just as I have a right to leave my front door unlocked and not be burgled.” A woman's body is not an asset or a piece of property – it's a human being.

Arousing the sexual appetite of someone by wearing a short skirt/tight top/whatever does not give that person the right to assault you, or to abuse you verbally. It pains me to know that there are people in this world who disagree with that. I fear for the security of the women in their lives. And while I understand the point the sluts are trying to make with their (lack of) clothing, it creates sensationalist photo opportunities for the tabloids who will not necessarily focus on the issues the sluts themselves are trying to draw attention to. One of the news articles I saw in the London Evening Standard dsecribed the sluts as marching "to protest against threats to womanhood." No mention of sexual assault or the victim-blaming culture that the sluts want to rid us of.

It is a great discredit to men to assume that they have no control over their own sexual desires – when most men manage to have sexual desires and somehow not rape people, it's clearly not invoking sexual desire that's the problem.

The problem is the idea held by many men and some women, that disregards the status of women as complex, autonomous human beings and relegates them to a sub-status, on this planet for the enjoyment or service of others. This is something that has been ingrained in various cultures, including our own, for centuries, and it'll take a whole lot more than taking to the streets in your panties to undo that.