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Culture, Reality

Slut

by Linda Stupart / 07.07.2011

‎”They wore blouses with buttons down the front that suggested the possibilities of the word undone. These women could be undone; or not. They seemed to be able to choose. ”
— Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1985.

If you’ve been trawling through Facebook lately you may well have seen something about a “Slutwalk” in Joburg or Cape Town. These events mark the South African leg of an international protest against victim blaming in rape cases, sparked, rather obscurely, by an incident in Canada where a representative of the Toronto police told a university assembly, “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”. The comment, which is understood as hugely problematic in its conception of sexual violence, agency and assumed complicity (or blaming of women), has caused ‘slutwalks’ around the world in protest.

Internationally and locally, writers, bloggers and tweeters (who are often women) are mostly treating the slutwalks with derision, a lot of which seems based on a set of knee jerk responses that can be summarized as such:

“Slut” is a derogatory term, one that oppresses women, and is not something to march for the right to be labeled as. (But, I ask, what about the right to be promiscuous, without being labeled unclean?)

Women dressing “as sluts” continue to define themselves in terms of male definitions of desire and desirability.

Women are objectifying themselves here, reducing themselves to the realm of object, which undermines sexual rights and subjectivity.

Women, particularly in South Africa, put themselves in danger by dressing “provocatively” and walking in public. (And surely this in itself is profoundly distressing and worth protesting?)

I mention these criticisms because they are easy to make; and also because, in part, many of them have an element of validity. I myself am extremely wary of this slut walk action, particularly in South Africa. However, my reasons are more complex; and more context specific.

Yes, South Africa is the rape capital of the world, so, yes, any action that protests sexual violence seems relevant, and important. However, while this kind of protest is completely at home in New York and Toronto, somewhere where women might engage, theoretically, in what it means to reclaim the word “slut”, in South Africa is this really our issue when it comes to gender inequality and sexual violence? When sexism is so entrenched in government policy, where rape fantasies are published in the UCT newspaper (thanks Anton Taylor), where a man may legally have as many wives as he wants, where women are raped by policeman, parents, brothers every minute of every day and lesbian women living in townships across the country live in fear of “corrective rape”, and fear reporting this violence lest they be ridiculed by their community and the police?


Tracey Emin, Psycho Slut, 1999

Perhaps it’s this last bit that somehow makes me, a white middle class academic feminist, feel a bit uneasy. In the same way that black American women started to question the issues of the early Feminist movements, which claimed to speak for all women, I cannot help but feel apprehensive that many women who risk rape daily, and the majority of women in South Africa, women of colour, seem at present to be absent from this event. Is it, perhaps, then, a misguided, privileged white feminist academic cause? Is a group of women in skimpy clothes in the face of real violence against real women maybe a bit irrelevant, a bit silly even?

Then again, it should be pointed out that I also know what it is to fear rape. And many of my privileged feminist friends have been victims of male sexual violence, of rape. So this, then, is certainly the issue of every South African woman.

One might also argue that in South Africa, after Zuma’s rape trial in which he famously used the “short skirt” excuse, the Slutwalk is particularly powerful. Zuma claimed that his accuser wearing a short skirt indicated that she was “ready” and that, “in the Zulu culture, you cannot just leave a woman if she is ready” and that “to deny her sex, that would have been tantamount to rape.”

So the women’s-choice-of-clothing-is-to-blame –for-rape argument is important in South Africa, but how can this protest move beyond a fun, if angry, gathering of a few hundred young white women? How do we move beyond spectacle into something powerful, how can we be taken seriously within these very parameters? Perhaps what is important is to find the voice of a broader section of South African women within this cause. What do gender groups think of the Slutwalk? Will they be there? Where is Sonke, Masimanyane, Luleki Sizwe, Rape Crisis? What do actual rape victims think?

Instead of these voices, what I can share with you are selections of the multiple Facebook dissidents of this protest, and this cause. Pieter Ulrich Fischer is distressingly typical in stating:

“Women must also understand that the way they dress will influence men. I am not saying they asked for it, or am justifying it but am saying that women must dress modestly. At least 20% of rapes would not happen in my opinion if we did not have nudism and or over sexual clothing. Cover up people!”

Further arguments happening locally hinge on the idea that walking around in skimpy clothing is tempting men to rape: like putting “booze in front of an alcoholic” (thank you Annelize Rust McDermid) or that men are programmed to rape (James Watts). These suggestions not only deny women our subjectivity, our rights as human beings, but also position men as, literally, animals. Suggesting it is in their “nature” to rape, to fuck, to abuse women. Not only is this incredibly sexist towards men, it is at the center of the perceived male/female sexual dichotomy that is at the heart of the Slutwalk’s cause. Because of course, the corollary is then also true; that it’s in our nature, as women, to submit, to wait, perhaps to protest (too much) and so on.

As misguided as it may appear on the surface, Slutwalk is a very important, empowering event because it deals with the concept of freedom.

To end, as I began, I’d like to quote further from Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale in pointing out that: “There is more than one kind of freedom […]. Freedom to and freedom from.” This march is about both kinds of freedom. It says that women need to be free to have as much sex as we want to, and to dress however we please, to be empowered sexual beings, to claim agency. And most importantly women need to be free from sexual abuse, rape and violence.

We talk a lot about freedom in this country, maybe it’s time we start taking it seriously.

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