On the 24th January 2011, during a talk about student safety, a Toronto policeman told a group of Law students that to avoid being sexually attacked, they should stop “dressing like sluts”. Although just another example of victim blaming when it comes to rape and sexual assaults, this one ignorant comment sparked the phenomenon that is SlutWalk. Since then men and women who are sick of the culture of victim blaming, shamefully low rape conviction rates and widespread sexual violence and harassment against women have marched through cities across the world to support women’s rights and reclaim the word ‘slut’. Today in London over 3000 people came along to the London branch of SlutWalk to show their support.
“Our authorities can help us only when society stops victim blaming and starts holding the rapists to task.”” explained Vicky Simister, founder of Anti- Street Harassment UK (read our interview with her here).
Finishing in Trafalgar Square, the march was addressed by a broad range of speakers from groups including Gender Action for Peace and Security (GAPS) who talked about their campaign No Women No Peace. The campaign is based on the fact that peace can only be achieved if women are given a chance to come to the table and have their voices heard. This is especially important since around 80% of victims of war are women and children. They look at recent examples including the war in Afghanistan and the revolution in Egypt, where women, despite fighting for their rights and freedom, have been largely absent in the hand-over of power.
Other SlutWalks have been criticised for being too white and middle class, citics saying that they only focus on a certain type of sexual inequality and violence. However the London walk was addressed by speakers representing a range of backgrounds including black and Islamic women, disabled women, sex workers and transgendered people. Although I had gone feeling very empowered and concerned with women’s rights, the talks made me realise SlutWalk is about so much more than just how you dress or street harassment. The talks about rape and violence in war torn areas, the sexual assaults by police in this country and the gender and colour pay gap really show how the viscous nature of sexism means that it permeates every part of life and society.
One of the speakers was a sex worker called Sheila Farmer, who is one of hundreds of women in the UK at the moment who is facing prosecution for working in the sex industry. She was arrested after she reported a crime in her flat where two men broke in, threw petrol around, threatened to light fire to it and brutally attacked her. When she went to the police, they arrested her for running a brothel and her attackers went free. She told us that they only reason she worked with other women was because when she worked on her own she was often attacked, including one time when she was nearly strangled to death. “I told myself after that, that I would never work alone again,” she said. Other anecdotes told included that of a serial rapist who’s case was dropped by the CPS as they said that a prostitute could not be a reliable witness. The English Collective of Prostitutes had to launch a private case against him and he was finally convicted for 14 years.
Another speaker, who wanted to be known by only Joe really brought the message home with his story about a couple of friends, one male, one female, who were recently stopped in the street by a group of police officers, were searched, sexually assaulted, put in a cell, sexually assaulted again and then put in police custody for four hours before being released without charge. “This happened in Frith street,” he said. “That’s only a couple of streets away from this spot. Back in the 70s the police were seen as the enemy, but today it is difficult to see that anything has changed.”
Hearing stories like this, as well as so many more, made me realise that if this is still happening in this country then we really do still have so much further to go, not only here but all over the world where women and children are still being attacked. Whether is it mass rape in Darfur or American soldiers in Afghanistan lighting a fourteen year old child on fire to cover their gang rape, these brutal attacks are happening every day and are being swept under the carpet by the men in power.
Caroline Coon is a feminist and artist who was told by The Guardian in the 80s that she looked too ‘come hither’ to talk about rape. “Slut walk isn’t about whether what you wear will make you more likely to get raped,” she explained. “It is about no violence towards women anywhere, at any time and in any place.”
“We are mothers and doctors and models and politicians… we are women together in this and we refuse to be judged in terms of whether we are more likely or less likely to be raped… No-one asks if David Cameron or David Beckham is more or less likely to be raped.”
We have to put a stop to this victim blaming. As long as our politicians are talking about different levels of rape and people are being put in jail for withdrawing their allegations, there will never be any change in the rape convictions. However as Simister said, the authorities will only start taking more action when society says it’s not OK for any women to be harassed or attacked, regardless of what she looks like, where she lives, what she does for a living, how short her skirt is and how much she has drunk. Whether we are a chamber maid raped by the head of the IMF or we are a woman brutally raped in the DRC, we are all women together and we need to stand side by side to say that we will not put up with this.