Health warning: Enormo-post.
Most legal eyes this week have been on the various Legal Walks taking place in London and elsewhere, to raise funds for Law Centres and Pro Bono legal advice (and in Bristol it was an Access to Justice Walk). Not satisfied with that, half of my chambers seems to have participated in the Bristol 10k run at the weekend for charidee. But this post is about a whole other kind of walk. The SLUT WALK. Some of you may have seen Paxman last week (see 27.45m on iplayer) apparently oscillating between overexcited, bewildered and just plain petrified, pinned between a pair of variously vociferous and voluptuous women arguing the pros and cons of the proposed SLUT WALK – the contrast between their visual appearance was surely no coincidence – one tight lipped, pinned back, steely and contained; the other wild haired, verbally passionate and physically demonstrative (guess which was the Tory MP). I myself found it a strange mix of amusing and excruciating – I could almost hear the boys from my school chanting “Bitch fight!”. The polarised comments on twitter during and after carried on the theme and kept me absorbed for a whole glass of chianti.
But the quaero-erotic tableau contrived by the producers of Newsnight last week is not the topic of this blog post. I do actually want to talk about the slut walks. You can read about them here, if the whole concept has passed you by. Because to me the real issues have been slightly lost in the (predictable) media hoo ha (And in the coalition style drafting “pause” before publication of this post a further broo-ha-ha on the topic of rape has arisen from Ken Clarke’s outrageous suggestion that not all rapes are of identical degrees of gravity).
Back to the sluts. Let’s just take the offending word “slut” out of the equation and place it to one side. We will deal with it later. Now we can look a little more objectively. What we are left with is Police Constable Sanguinetti’s suggestion that young women may expose themselves to greater risk of sexual violence depending on how they dress (incidentally I am trying SO hard to fight the persistent visual image of Canadian law enforcement qua Malcolm the Mountie). The notion that women should take some responsibility for the consequences of their actions rather than rely upon unrealistic expectations of male behaviour is not new (see for example the always controversial Camille Paglia – sorry, can’t find a quote and my copy of the book is lost / leant out / hidden by toddler). This is not the only thing that Paglia has said that has made her unpopular, but it certainly has been one of them. It’s a very delicate topic – for good reason, because of the tension between how the world is and how it ought to be (or how we would like it to be).
But, lets put Paglia to one side (she too makes people too hot under the collar to focus properly) – there are a number of really important questions here (to which I do not know the answers, and which I cannot see anyone asking let alone attempting to answer):
- Statistically speaking, does a woman’s choice of clothing whilst out in public impact upon the risk of her becoming a victim of sexual violence?
- As opposed to (say) whether or not she is alone, drunk or taking a poorly lit route?
- And in any event, what proportion of sexual violence takes place in the snatch and assault stranger rape scenario that Sanguinetti apparently has in mind, as opposed to rape at home or by an acquaintance or (ex-)intimate partner?
- Which leads on to important questions about who rapes, and why / when do they do so? How much rape is opportunistic rape arising from an impulsive response to a woman’s choice of clothes? If I had to guess I would say a pretty small proportion.
It seems uncontroversial to me that in the course of their crime prevention duties (as distinct from detection, prosecution and punishment) it is right for the police to educate the public about risk factors and help them to keep themselves safe and avoid becoming victims of crime. I think that includes sexual crime. But that’s the easy bit. What I don’t know is whether the risk factor to which PC Sanguinetti is alluding is in fact a risk factor at all. And I wonder if there are even statistics available to answer that question – my guess would be not, but it would be great if someone could tell me in a comment. (The only stats I have been able to find are a reference to the 2004-5 British Crime Survey Interpersonal Violence Module which suggests that 51% of serious sexual violence was carried out by partners or ex partners, and that only 11% was committed by a stranger to the victim.
Because it is one thing to suggest that women can reduce their risk of sexual violence by modifying their appearance if there is an evidence base to support that as an effective risk management strategy, but quite another to put forward such a proposal based upon assumptions about how men and women behave and relate to one another. For me, the use of the word slut is telling – he could have said “don’t wear skimpy clothes” but he chose to equate a(n unspecified) mode of dress with a sexual attitude. “Slut” is evocative as well as provocative, but not objectively identifiable – it suggests to me that the guidance offered is based on assumption and stereoptype rather than evidence or analysis. But that may be a wrong guess.
We do not criticise other public education or health programmes such as safe sex campaigns, safe sun campaigns, anti theft campaigns etc, even though they in some cases urge us to modify what we consider socially acceptable or normal behaviour (including sexual behaviour). And I don’t see the provision of good information about risk as inimical to the right of women to make choices, to express themselves and their sexuality and to take risks if they want to. Sound information (as opposed to social assumption) enables us to make informed choices and to take known risks.
So let’s look at the word slut. What does it mean? What was it meant to convey when used by PC Sanguinetti? What does it’s use in this context reveal? Well, it connotes sexual promiscuity. How does one dress “like a slut”? Presumably by signalling through clothing that one is sexually available by choosing revealing clothing. Of course the notion that we can identify something we can’t even define is rubbish anyway. There are lost distinctions between sexually confident, sexually active and promiscuity, and more importantly a lost distinction between perceived or actual promiscuity and consent. Promiscuous individuals say Yes a lot. But that doesn’t mean their Nos don’t count as much as any other person’s.
It is abhorrent to think that a woman has to be ashamed of her body and deny her sexual self because our expectations of male behaviour are so low (religiously based codes of female modesty are quite difficult for me to come to terms with for this reason – why should women cover up because society doesn’t expect men to keep it zipped? Equally, biological determinist arguments about male socio-sexual behaviour give me the shivers). It would be abhorrent to think that the society I live in accepted any argument that men simply cannot help themselves when faced with naked flesh. But wouldn’t it also be stupid to ignore good evidence about risk factors if that evidence exists?
Society doesn’t accept burglary or car crime is socially acceptable; but we are educated by the police in how to protect ourselves and our homes from this unacceptable behaviour and we follow that advice even though it curtails our freedom and our autonomy (we lock doors, set alarms, clutch possessions) – we all judge for ourselves where the line should be drawn, but every day we take sensible steps to reduce risk based on advice because we know that crime is a reality. And if my car is nicked because I didn’t bother to lock it people might think I was daft, but they wouldn’t treat the taking of my car as acceptable behaviour. It would still be car theft. Like lots of other sensible people I get very uncomfortable, and angry whenever there is a suggestion that a victim of sexual violence was “asking for it” or that the violent behaviour is less culpable because of the victim’s own behaviour, but it seems to me that the tendency towards hysteria about the perceived minimising of the seriousness of rape, and the general hypersensitivity about anything that suggests women are to blame for male behaviour is a barrier to sensible discussion about women’s behaviour. To suggest that we talk about that is not inconsistent with the idea that sexual violence is not OK and should be punished. Women’s behaviour doesn’t make sexual violence more or less serious. But it might make it more or less likely. As I say, I’d like to see any statistics that exist on the extent to which dress actually impacts on the prevalence of sexual attacks.
Last time I was out in Bristol on a Saturday night I walked along the Waterfront by the Watershed. It was like a cattle market. I have a particularly memorable image of walking behind a gaggle of overweight young women, maybe 19 or 20 years old, all heavily dolled up, wearing short dresses and heels, and one with a dress so short that both bum cheeks were hanging out of the bottom of the dress, like a pair of cellulite pelmets. I’m still quite traumatised by it. But does their poor choice of dress make them vulnerable? Maybe. But I would guess that being rolling drunk and wearing shoes that would prevent a quick escape were their biggest risk factors. For me the bigger issue is why women feel like they have to put on a show of sexual availability as some kind of Saturday night ritual? I’m all for choice, and I’ve done my fair share of revealing clothes and drunken nights out (in days of yore), so this doesn’t come from prudishness – I’m all for celebrating our bodies, our youth and our sex. But I sometimes sense that what for young women of my generation was a choice, a rebellion – has somehow slipped into a way of conforming, of fitting in, and an expectation for girls growing up today – and it begins before girls even reach puberty.
What is most upsetting about the use of the word “slut” to me is that we seem to expect our girls to dress revealingly, provocatively and in a sexually adult way from a very young age (like sluts?), and then society tells them it’s their fault when they become victims of sexual violence. And in some ways reminding young women that they have choices about who they become, and they are responsible for those choices is no bad thing. How much of the way we raise our girls as sexually precocious eye pleasers is a barrier to changing social attitudes to and about women and sexual behaviour? That the choice of language used by PC Sanguinetti was so massively provocative is telling of the underlying reality – that male and social attitudes to women’s sexuality and sexual choices are not as far forward as they ought to be.
Our girl children are raised in an environment in which sex is just another commodity, they are under chronic social pressure to present themselves as physically appealing, and to conform to a pretty narrow and standardised version of physical attractiveness. That’s why, for me, the idea of reclaiming the word slut is missing the point – it’s symptomatic of the lack of intellectual rigour in the idea that young girls are somehow empowered women. How are they empowered when society condemns their very conformity as sluttishness?