Demos challenge attitudes to sexual violence

The “slutwalk” phenomenon began in Toronto in January, in response to what should have been a routine talk on personal safety given by a police officer at a local university. The officer, Micheal Sanguinetti, told the assembled women that “We’re beating around the bush here. I’ve been told that I’m not supposed to say this-however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order to not be victimised.”

Staff and students immediately demanded an apology and called a “slutwalk” demonstration of a thousand people against the disgraceful idea that women should take responsibility for the abuse perpetrated against them.

Since then, similar demonstrations have spread across Canada and the U.S and about a hundred have taken place across the world with more planned. Thousands of people, mainly young women, have come out to voice their disgust and anger at the regressive attitudes towards rape that are still prevalent in our society.

According to a report commissioned by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre in 2002, 42% of women and 28% of men have experienced some form of sexual abuse in their lifetime. Despite this, only 7.8% of women and 1% of men report these experiences to the Gardai.

Comments such as those made by the Toronto police officer promote a culture of victim-blaming which makes it even more difficult for people to report these crimes so that the perpetrators can be held to account.

Unfortunately these sorts of comments and attitudes are not unique. Recently a tape emerged which recorded Gardai in Corrib, Co. Mayo making jokes about rape and in Britain, the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke unleashed a furore after he tried to draw a distinction between “serious rapes” and “date rapes”.

Sanguinetti’s comments clearly hit a nerve with young women rightly furious and exasperated with this culture of victim-blaming that engenders the trivialisation of these serious crimes. However, the use of the term “slutwalk” has drawn much criticism even from veterans of the women’s rights movement.

The Toronto website says: “Historically, the term ‘slut’ has carried a predominantly negative connotation… the intent behind the word is always to wound, so we’re taking it back. ‘Slut’ is being re-appropriated.”

While there is no doubt that it is extremely positive that young women are taking to the streets to challenge this culture, it is worrying that these women think that this can be achieved by labelling themselves “sluts”.

The word is so saturated with negative connotations about women and their sexuality it is beyond redemption. It should be confined to the dustbin of history, not reclaimed. Women should be out on the streets demanding respect and equality, they should not settle for making a nasty label nicer.