As the Slutwalk movement has spread internationally, it has increasingly come under fire from a broad range of communities. What started as a simple idea has been criticised for being exclusive, “white supremacist” and an insult to the victims and survivors of sexual assault.
The movement started in Toronto after a law-enforcement officer told a group of Canadian college students that women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised. The statement is an example of one of the world’s most prolific and destructive rape myths: slut-shaming. Slut-shaming invariably leads to victim-blaming, where victims are blamed for not following society’s rules about “how to avoid being raped”. Slut-shaming is not specific to any one colour, creed or class of people. Slut-shaming is not limited to “unsafe” spaces — it happens in schools, hospitals, police stations, churches and courtrooms. It happens in homes. It happens in bedrooms.
Slut-shaming happens when an 11-year-old girl is allegedly gang raped by 18 men and boys, and the New York Times writes that the girl “dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s”. Salon.com writer Mary Elizabeth Williams responds: “No one who has ever been sexually assaulted, and certainly none who has ever been sexually assaulted in such a sustained and inhumane way, deserves to have her makeup or clothing brought into the conversation, regardless of her age.” It is absolutely absurd to think that an 11-year-old girl could, firstly, understand what it is to behave like a slut and acted like one, and secondly, that her perceived “slutty” behaviour could in any way excuse or mitigate the brutal gang rape of any person.
Slut-shaming and rape myths happen when the crime at hand comes secondary to curiosity over what the victim must have done to provoke the attack.“Rape is a violent crime of control, a crime of power, not sex,” writes Zama Ndlovu. She adds: “The victim’s attire has nothing to do with the crime itself. When a man (or woman) decides to rape, it has nothing to do with the victim and everything to do with the rapist.”
Slutwalk Grahamstown emphasises that women are not only oppressed and discriminated against for their choice of wearing “too little” or for being sexually liberated — women are routinely persecuted for a perceived lack of sexual availability too. This is realised through the use of words like “prude” or “snob”. AV Flox for BlogHer.com argues that, when people turn to victim-blaming, “Slut-shaming is only half of the equation. To complete the tactics for control, you also need prude-shaming”. Women are assaulted on both ends of a false virgin-whore/slut-snob dichotomy. And, crucially, “anyone who plays the game will lose. That’s how rigged games work,” writes American feminist Sady Doyle for globalcomment.com.
In a game rigged against us, and as women and girl-children in South Africa, we need and implore women from a variety of social positions to come together, with Slutwalk as a vehicle, to drive this project against rape and rape myths. Slutwalk Grahamstown aims to engage with our community about the widespread and destructive power of rape myths. We hope to start a conversation — a “Dialogue on Foot” — about how rape myths affect women in different places and spaces around the world, but also in South Africa specifically.
Yet the movement’s relevance in South Africa has been repeatedly questioned. And considering our stated goal for Slutwalk Grahamstown, we contend that not only is Slutwalk relevant in South Africa but, as a vehicle for conversation and engagement around rape and rape myths, Slutwalk is desperately needed.
We needed Slutwalk when South African high court judges ruled that, because a woman “joined [her husband] in bed clad in panties and a nightdress”, she should’ve expected her husband to be aroused, and she should’ve expected to have sex with him. And because her husband used “minimum force” when he attempted to rape her, the judges sentenced the man to a wholly suspended five-year prison sentence for attempted rape.
We needed Slutwalk when Jacob Zuma argued during his rape trial that he had been obliged to have sexual intercourse with his accuser because she was sexually aroused. And when Zuma went on to argue that his accuser had given him sexual signals when she wore a knee length skirt and no underwear under her kanga (or sarong), and thus he believed she signalled her consent, we needed Slutwalk again. The use of this deplorable and baseless rape myth, both by government officials and at taxi ranks, resulted in “My Short Skirt” marches around South Africa — marches which, like Slutwalk Grahamstown, aim to combat rape and rape myths.
And when the mother of a murdered 14-year-old girl, an apparent victim of the Gauteng-based “Sunday Rapist”, says she wants to meet her daughter’s killer so that “I can ask him … whether she [her daughter] had said or done something nasty to him to deserve to be killed” we desperately need Slutwalk.
Where South Africa needs vehicles like Slutwalk Grahamstown, which strives for conversation and engagement around rape and rape myths, Africa needs Slutwalk too. Africa needs Slutwalk when women are denied their choice regarding sexual intercourse, as in the case of rape, and they are abused and punished for being survivors of rape. When three sisters’ throats are slit by their father in Libya after they were raped by militia, we need Slutwalk. When women and girl-children are victims of not only rape, but of “honour” killings for being raped, we need Slutwalk.
When the gang rape of a Nigerian woman is recorded and disseminated on YouTube, and the Nigerian nation calls for justice against her rapists, we need Slutwalk. The lead investigator of the case allegedly stated that “gang-rape is often videoed as a tool … to rubbish the self-esteem of snobbish girls”, and that even if the rape survivor had not consented, he speculated that she had cheated on her boyfriend, and thus the boyfriend “probably assembled a gang to teach her the lesson of her life”. It appears Nigeria needs not only a Slutwalk, but a Snobwalk too.
Reclamation of the word “slut” is an important aspect of the movement for many Slutwalkers, and also the cause of the most vociferous criticism of Slutwalk. Slutwalk Grahamstown is not solely concerned with reclaiming the word “slut”. Everyone has a problem with the word “slut” — Slutwalk Grahamstown is no different. We would be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes that the current use of the word “slut” is acceptable. “Slut”, like “prude”, is a social construct that, at best, uses the myth of the “slut” to shame and oppress women. At worst, it is used as a mechanism to deny women the right to make their own choices about their bodies, including those pertaining to when they do and do not engage in sexual activity.
The word “slut” has real and damaging repercussions for women and rape survivors. Some men and women have protested the current use of the word “slut” by reclaiming it, while others have continued to express their discomfort with the term. Of this second group, some have joined Slutwalk despite their discomfort and used it as a reason to march, while others have used this as a catalyst for criticisms against the Slutwalk movement in its entirety. This has led to a polarisation of views with regards to Slutwalk, and an ongoing and heated debate. One of the most common criticisms lodged against Slutwalk are those that say “good cause, bad name”.
As Slutwalk Grahamstown, we say that we cannot ignore the word “slut”, nor can we distance ourselves from it. By ignoring it, we allow and assist in the eventual deployment of the word “slut” in the oppression of women and victimisation of survivors of abuse. We need to talk directly to it, and remove the word’s power to dehumanise women of any and all races, religions, and sexual orientations. Some may do this by reclaiming the word, but at the very least we need to engage in a conversation about how the disempowerment of the word “slut” can and must happen in order to protect and empower women and girl-children in South Africa. Slutwalk Grahamstown does not seek to alienate socially conservative people, and we believe Slutwalk and conservative communities are not mutually exclusive. Protecting women that you may describe as promiscuous does not preclude your ability to choose a modest life, in whichever way you define it, and that is the driving force behind Slutwalk Grahamstown. Women are raped and victimised, and their perceived sexuality, be it one of promiscuity or prudery, is used as an excuse to mitigate not only the effect of rape on a victim, but to absolve the rapist of his criminal responsibility.
Rape affects us all. What you do with your body, from how you dress it to how you express yourself with it, is entirely and completely your own choice — be that choice one of modesty or more bare. And until the day that rape and rape myths no longer disfigure our communities, we will need vehicles that speak against them with and through our communities.
Our project is unified through Slutwalk Grahamstown. The oppression of women and girl-children, which includes the secondary victimisation of victims and survivors of abuse and rape, must not and cannot continue. The fallacious deployment of rape myths in our communities must be brought to a decisive end. We stand in solidarity with victims and survivors of rape and abuse.
Slut or snob, prude or whore, woman or girl — our sexual expression is our choice, and no-one’s excuse.
Full disclosure: Michelle Solomon is a spokesperson and organiser of Slutwalk Grahamstown, due to march on October 29 at 11am from the Drostdy Arch at the High Street and Somerset Street intersection.