This is an edited version of an article which originally appeared in The socialist, published in London, on May 25. See www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/12111
On January 24, a Toronto police officer told a campus safety information session at Osgoode Hall Law School that one way women can limit the chance of being raped is to avoid dressing like sluts.
Immediately, staff and students demanded a written apology. A SlutWalk demonstration of a thousand people was then organized in Toronto against rape and against the false idea that victims bring it upon themselves.
Since then, a dozen other demonstrations have taken place across Canada, the U.S., and Britain. Already around a hundred have been organized across the world.
Comments like those of the Toronto police officer are not unique. For example, a 2005 Amnesty International survey found that 26% of people in the U.K. think a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing.
As a result, according to the U.S. Justice Department, less than 5% of rapes on college campuses are reported, even though one in five women will face sexual assault in their college years. Similarly, 15 out of 16 rapists will never spend a day in jail, (www.rainn.org). There is no typical rape victim: People of all ages, body types and races are raped. About 75% of rape is planned in advance.
Research has shown that much of rape is about power and control, not about sex. Whether someone is dressed provocatively has nothing to do with why they may be attacked.
It is very good that thousands of people, mainly young women, have come out onto the streets to express their anger at the upside-down way that rape is seen by some people. It has been decades since there was a sizeable womens movement and this could be signs of its revival.
But an outpouring of anger alone wont be enough to change things. This anger must be channeled into an organized, sustained mass movement. It is positive that the SlutWalk Toronto website stresses that the march is open to anyone of any gender, any age and wearing any type of clothes. To be successful in challenging attitudes the movement will have to draw in the mass of the working class.
The Toronto website says: ”Historically, the term slut has carried a predominantly negative connotation. … And whether dished out as a serious indictment of one’s character or merely as a flippant insult, the intent behind the word is always to wound, so we’re taking it back. Slut is being re-appropriated,” (www.slutwalktoronto.com/welcome).
However, using the word “slut” in an attempt to reclaim it is unlikely to appeal to the majority of women. The positive side of this is that it shows how far women have come in the last 50 years. Many young women now feel comfortable with their sexuality and are proud to say so.
It’s important to show that this increased confidence has nothing to do with rape.
But “slut” has always been a sexist, derogatory word for women, and most will not feel comfortable with the idea that accepting it and saying we’re proud of it will somehow change the attitude behind it. Also, it is not a term that will connect with the consciousness of most immigrants, Muslims, African Americans or Latinas.
There has also been some online debate about feminism between supporters of SlutWalk, with some being explicitly against talking about the conditions facing women more generally, beyond sexual assault and rape.
But a campaign against rape in isolation from all other aspects of women’s oppression will only ever have a limited impact. It is vital to address the increasing material problems facing women in all areas of their lives.
Large numbers of shelters for victims of domestic violence are under threat of closure because of government budget cuts. And job cuts and cuts in benefits, such as those for single parents, could mean that more women feel pushed toward dangerous work in strip clubs or even prostitution, where women are frequently assaulted. All of these will increase the risk of sexual assault and rape and must be resisted.
Rape, like domestic violence and sexual harassment, is a symptom of a deeply unequal class-based society that leads some men to think that they can control women, including sexually.
This is reinforced by women’s material inequality and lower status in society. We must challenge sexism and demand education about the myths and facts of rape and support for rape victims.
The last few years have seen massive attacks on social programs, most of which affect women. We are seeing growing struggles against budget cuts, often led by public sector unions representing predominantly female workforces. This process of struggle will see millions of people questioning the brutal sexist and exploitative capitalist society in which we live and looking for a socialist alternative.