Posts Tagged ‘SlutWalk’

My current laptop was purchased around early March this year – an act of necessity after its predecessor suddenly carked it. Though I ported all my files across, the one thing I didn’t do – have never done, in fact, because I can’t be bothered – was save my browser settings and bookmarks. Starting afresh on the current machine, I defaulted to Firefox for the first week or two before finally conceding to the superiority of Google Chrome. After that, it was another week or so more before I bothered to set up specific folders for any links that caught my interest. Factoring in the fact that we moved house on March 20, that makes their approximate start date the 1st of April. It is now the 31st of August – meaning that my folders have been live for roughly 122 days.

Since then, based on nothing more than my daily browsing of Twitter, Facebook, blogs and news sites, the folder titled Feminism, Motherhood, Sexism and Sexuality has accrued a grand total of 208 links. That’s almost exactly 1.7 articles per day that have struck me as pertaining to the feminist debate. The first link is to a green paper on rape statistics in Camden, written by PhD student Brooke L. Magnanti – who, as some of you may recall, was revealed in 2009 to be the author of a once-pseudonymous biography titled The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl. The paper debunks the previously established idea that the prevalence of strip clubs in the borough directly contributes to a higher incidence of rape. The most recent link is one I added this morning: a t-shirt made by American retailer JCPenney for ‘girls [aged] 7 to 16’ which reads: “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother had to do it for me.” A random sample of other bookmarked articles includes:

And this is before we cross over to my other folder on SFF, YA and Literary Culture, where a vast majority of the 274 articles bookmarked concern the portrayals of women in narrative, culture and subculture, as well as discussing issues like racism, homophobia, culture and discrimination. Some of these include:

Feel free to look at all those links, or some, or none. There’s not a lot of coherency between them, except for the fact that they all relate to the treatment, perception and acceptance of women, whether in the positive or the negative. But they’re all things I’ve read since April this year – bookmarks of discussions I’ve had, arguments I’ve followed, scandals that have broken, cultural linchpins I’ve railed against. The creation date of some posts predate my finding them by weeks, months or even, more rarely, years; others popped up on my radar almost as soon as they were published. All are relevant to feminism, to women and to society. If I’ve had a conversation with you about anything even vaguely feminist at all this year, the chances are I’ve made reference to something bookmarked in my links folders. Possibly I might even have sent you the articles themselves, if you expressed interest in seeing more.

I didn’t use to be a feminist. As a teenager, I did the weaselly thing of calling myself an equalist, which is a way of saying that I thought women should be treated the same as men (good) but that I was afraid of being associated with man-haters who just wanted to turn the patriarchy into a matriarchy (good in principle, bad in that this is a toxic misconception of feminism). Crucially, I also thought the change in terminology was necessary because, apart from sounding more, well, equal, it seemed as if feminism itself had already succeeded to such a degree that the very word, feminist, had been rendered as anachronistic as bluestocking. Sure, I’d copped my share of flak for having short hair and acting the tomboy, but I went to school and was praised for my brains; I had equal rights with men under the law; I had the vote; I wouldn’t be married off or penalised for divorcing an unwanted husband; I could sleep with whom I wanted, use contraception, aspire to any profession I chose and wear pants with impunity. Surely all of that freedom meant that feminism had seen its use and should gracefully pass on, the relic of a bygone era?  Wouldn’t calling myself a feminist under such circumstances be an innately radical act, putting me in the same camp as those hysterical man-haters I’d heard so much about? What more did I want?

The successes of feminism thus far are many, and huge, and vital – but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to fix, nor that all the remaining problems are small. Women are still paid less than men for doing the same work. They must have better qualifications to be hired for the same job. They are still the primary domestics and caregivers for children, even when both partners work. Discrimination is still widespread. Sexism, misogyny and chauvinism still exist. Institutions like the business world, academia and popular culture are still rife with negative stereotypes, to say nothing of the progressive under-representation of  women the higher up the food chain ones goes. Yes, we can vote, and yes, we have rights – lots of them! These are all good things. But they are meaningless if we do not exercise and fight for them; if we ignore every person who impedes equality as an anomalous upstart; if we are afraid to call ourselves feminists because we don’t want to be perceived as radical; if we are content to assume that everyone thinks as we do, because it’s 2011; if we dispute the existence of anti-feminist (or anti-equalist) sentiment on the large scale of culture, institution and subconscious bias simply because we’ve never experienced it ourselves (that we know of).

Looked at in isolation, any of the articles listed above – or, indeed, any of the myriad others I’ve never encountered, or haven’t mentioned – might well seem like a storm in a teacup; a glitch on the social radar that, while dispiriting, is ultimately a minority example of behaviour that everyone knows is unacceptable. Looked at in the context of the whole, however, a different picture starts to emerge: one where, quite possibly, there are still miles and miles to go before we sleep. And that’s why I argue with people in pubs and online; why I get frustrated at having to explain, over and over and over, why I bother; why feminism is still necessary.

Because suffrage wasn’t the end of things. It was only the beginning.

I’ve just been reading the transcript of Kenneth Clarke’s recent interview on rape sentencing in the UK, which has left me feeling angry and flabbergasted. For a while now, I’ve had problems with the idea of statutory rape: not only does it result in some teenagers being branded as sex offenders for sleeping consensually with their slightly younger partners, but by virtue of lumping such consensual (yet illegal) acts together under a non-consensual heading, the terminology has opened the door for what seems to be a sliding scale interpretation of forced rape. Nowhere has this latter problem been made more apparent to me than in Kenneth Clarke’s stumble-tongued assertions: reading through his statements, it is painfully obvious that he views some kinds of rape as being worse than others – and more, that different ‘kinds’ of rape should merit lighter sentencing. When told, for instance, that the average sentence for rape is five years, he defended the statistic by saying:

“That includes date rape [and] 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15-year-olds”.

I’m sorry, but in what possible way is date rape comparable to consensual sex between teenagers? One is unequivocally rape; the other is not. And yet, despite the fact that the majority of rapists are known to their victims – a statistic that the phrase ‘date rape’  was originally intended to publicize – it has somehow become twisted in our cultural vocabulary as a means of distinguishing rape that is somehow less “distressed”. According to whom? From calling one kind rape distressed and another not, it’s a very short step indeed to assuming – as Mr Clarke evidently has – that a smaller amount of physical distress during the rape itself (because, you know, the woman is drugged or drunk or otherwise unable to say no, and therefore less likely to incur the same injuries she would by fighting back) must logically equate to the victim feeling less emotionally distressed afterwards.

This is what I mean by a sliding scale: the idea that the circumstances under which a rape takes place must always be a mitigating factor in how horrific that rape is considered to be. From his comments, Mr Clarke seems to hold that the most terrible form of rape is universally one in which the perpetrator is violent and unknown, and where the woman fights back to no avail, despite the fact that – crucially – she has done nothing at all to provoke a sexual response in her attacker. (Take careful note of that word, provoke: we’ll return to it shortly.) For people who hold to the sliding scale, either consciously or unconsciously, this is what makes date rape different from forcible rape: that the women in question had willingly entered a sexual arena as (however tenuously, however potentially) willing sexual partners; that they dressed a certain way, or dared to become intoxicated, or both, or neither; perhaps even that they consented to kiss, touch or otherwise romantically interact with a man they didn’t want to sleep with, or who they subsequently changed their minds about.

It is not different. A rapist who assaults his victim without attacking her beforehand should no more win points for his ‘considerate’ methods than the law should consider a victim who wasn’t beaten or tied up to have been somehow less raped than a victim who was. Rape is rape, Mr Clarke. Funnily enough, it’s why we call it that.

And then we come to the age-old and sadly non-antiquated question of provocation. Was she asking for it? Did she dress like a slut? Let me give you a hint as about answering these questions: a woman wearing a FUCK ME shirt doesn’t want to be raped any more than a man in a SHOOT ME shirt wants to be shot. However distasteful or improbable you might find these hypothetical shirts to be, the point is that clothes are many things, but an open invitation to assault is not among them – and if that’s still true in an instance when FUCK ME is actually written on someone’s outfit, then you can pretty much assume that the logic holds universally. No, I don’t care how much skin a woman is showing, what fabric her clothes are made of, what she wears on her legs and feet, what her profession is, what time it was, where she was or with whom, or whether she thought to change into a skirt. Anyone still confused by the issue should read Ben Pobjie’s excellent piece, How Not To Rape People: A Handy Guide For Modern Men And Footballers. It’s actually very simple!

For the life of me, I don’t understand why women’s clothing is considered relevant to rape cases. Where does it end? Women who wear bikinis rather than one piece swimsuits are asking for it! Topless sunbathing should be legally reclassified as an unequivocal sex invite! Schoolgirls, nuns and nurses who walk through red light districts deserve to be mistaken for sex workers! Women who dress up for a night on the town in accordance with their own individual tastes all want to have sex with strangers!  Oh, wait…

To carry the argument further, trying to assert that women who join nudist colonies do so because they want to have sex, or because they crave sexual attention, or because they’re tacitly asking to be raped, or for any other reason other than that they like being naked, would be ludicrous. And yet part of our culture persists in asserting that women who dress a certain way must only do so because they want to have sex, or because they crave sexual attention, or because they’re tacitly asking to be raped. Take note of that phrase, a certain way: how bloody subjective can you get? As judged by whom? (One only hopes it isn’t Kenneth Clarke.)

The recent wave of SlutWalks began when a male police officer in Toronto suggested that women should avoid dressing like ‘sluts’ if they didn’t want to be raped. Our culture should be beyond this sort of idiocy – the fact that we aren’t saddens and sickens me. Rape does not work to a sliding scale. Women do not ask for it by dressing a certain way. Rape is rape.

It really is that simple.