Sunday 29 May 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

You know the drill. Woman (regardless of age), wearing short skirt and high heels, walks past construction site. Wolf-whistling ensues, comments are made about her physique, leering eyes follow her figure... until the next member of the opposite sex strolls by. Sometimes (rarely, actually) well-thought compliments, what we call "piropos" in Spanish, accompany the attention heaped on the woman. But, most of the time, the woman alluded to is subjected to a barrage of sexual profanities, especially if she refuses to acknowledge her ad lib audience. And despite the overt, aggresive nature of the act of which they are ultimately responsible, the men involved in this daily routine still use the same word to label their targets: sluts.

Depending on how you feel about this term, you might have agreed or disagreed with the recent protests by the Slutwalk movement in Canada and the USA. Sparked by comments made by a police officer in Toronto, who advised female students not to dress provocatively, the marches' organisers quickly rallied on Facebook and Twitter and coordinated events in different parts of the world. Their main objective was to remonstrate against a culture where the victim is usually made to feel guilty for the crime that has been perpetrated against her.

Noble effort or naïve idea? The jury is still out on the long-term effects of the Slutwalk movement but what no one can deny is that its members have helped raise awareness of a social phenomenon that is tacitly acknowledged. If a woman dresses in a certain way, she might trigger off reactions of an unwholesome nature in other people, i.e., men. And she's the only one to blame. Unfortunately, I count a younger version of myself amongst those who used to buy that argument. The problem is that it's not that simple.

With the passing of time I have realised that the Neanderthal Beast vs Sassy Lady of the Lake scenario infantilises both sides. In men's case, it has become a sad indictement of our attitudes to women as it lumps us all in the same category and erodes the nuances that our rapport with the opposite sex involves. In regards to women, it victimises them, rather than strengthening them. It's also a handy way for (male) religious leaders to clamp down on female freedom of choice, as they can claim to have the answer in their fight against the 'decadent west', namely, cover up. Lastly, it points at a supposed sexual availability that might not be what the lady in question has in mind.

The Slutwalk is more than just a movement about women's rights. It goes deep into the territory of sexual assault, rape and domestic violence. The second of these themes is the subject of a future column, so I will leave it for now. However, what's interested me so far is the way many of the participants have gone about rolling out the campaign.

Scantily-clad and holding banners that read: "Sluts Say Yes" and "Sluts Pay Taxes", the protesters have shown sass and boldness. How much of the latter gets absorbed by the former is anyone's guess. And there lies the rub. In the UK, straight after the marches were announced the tabloids went to town. Whether the movement's attempt to reclaim the word 'slut' can cope with the likes of The Sun and other redtops hijacking the upcoming march in London and turning it into a Page 3 double-spread should be taken into account. My other concern is that by focusing on the physical side of the debate (how a woman dresses), as opposed to the moral and educational angle of it (how we convey the message to boys and girls, especially boys that 'no' means 'no' and 'yes' means 'yes') the Slutwalk can become a parody of itself.

This debate about the right to wear what one wants comes at an interesting time. In France, a woman can be issued with a fine on the spot if she's wearing a veil, yet in the UK, you're also penalised if you dare to bare a bit of leg. That the latter is not enforced by law is no succour, as the connotation is the same: women, you have forfeited your right to do with your bodies as you wish, we, men, call the shots. Plus ça change.

Will misogynists feel threatened by the popularity and radical agenda of the Slutwalkers? I doubt it. In the era of smartphones and social networking fora, those protesters taking to the streets of London next month will very likely end up on dodgy websites or as a tabloid editor's smutty headline. However, at a time when women still have to invoke Julius Caesar's famous phrase "Alea jacta est" everytime they walk past a building site, or worse, happen to find themselves in a dark alley at night, the fact that they are coming together - young and old - to say they've had enough should be applauded and supported. After all, the Roman leader did cross the Rubicon in the end.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana’, to be published on Wednesday 8th June at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Hmmmm. Very well put. As a woman, I completely endorse the fact that people should have the right to dress as they will. Note I said people. That's because as a thinking, rational person I get a bit nervous around radical reactions no matter how valid the original concern.

    You rightly point out that the crux of the matter is how we educate the future generations (irrespective of gender) to wisely use their moral choices to transcend gender or other differences. We need to learn that freedom of the individual comes with the responsibility of respecting the other person's rights as much as we demand they respect ours (or else we'll become like the Athenians in the Melian Dialogues-using tyranny to protect our democratic rights!)
    Judy, South Africa

  2. A hundred years ago, a friend of mine, who didn't dress particularly provacatively, (sp?), and carried a camera started a series called, "Hey, baby, will you take my picture?" At that time, you didn't need to get releases the way you might now, so she didn't have to stop, get out the release form and pen, etc...I thought this was a good idea. Otherwise, everyone I knew, just ignored the guys who had to have some sport on hot days...

    I'm far more interested, now, a hundred years later, being this much older, in the fact that when you look at film credits, there are hardly equal numbers of women, and in lists of CEOs, etc...I don't think women are equally represented in many ways, nor are people of color or different origins...there's so much worth fighting about....

    thanks for the are such a curious creature...I don't mean odd, but full of curiosity and thoughtfulness..

  3. The moral dimension is most important, of course, but there's an aesthetic one as well which requires some educational attention - which I suppose gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "Cave Art".

  4. I worked in schools where dress codes were the rule. Most parents accepted this. Some, refused the rule, and encouraged their girls to break them. Ouch!
    The fact is that society behaves better is everyone follows a certain code of conduct, including a dress code. Would I impose a dress code on the entire society?

    Only in certain cases, in a work place, in a place of worship, at school.

    Can we change human nature with education and dialogue? We can try.

  5. I'll pick up on that last point: the dress code. In my secondary and college years (what's called high school in the States) girls used to roll up the hem of their skirts. Why? At the time, I thought it was with the objective of entrancing us, men, but now, decades later, I would probably say htat they were breaking the rules. In the same way that an untucked shirt was considered rebellious.

    I still have not got any answers, I just keep posing questions.

    Many thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    Greetings from London.

  6. Last year I participated in Boobquake Day because of the comments made by that Iranian cleric. I blogged about it and posted a picture of myself and talked about it with everyone one I met because I wantd to raise awareness of how these sorts of misogynist opinions cause so much suffering for women. I agree also with the protests this year that were sparked by comments made by that policeman.

    However, I do disagree with the name they chose for this movement. "Slutwalk"? Really? That name is as dumb as people who try to reclaim the "n" word because they think it's empowering. It doesn't empower anyone. It just perpetuates the pain and suffering these derogatory words cause.

    I can't believe they called it a "slutwalk". It's the opposite of a "slutwalk". It's about saying that what we do with our bodies is our decision and no one has any right to judge our clothes or anything else. By calling this movement a "slutwalk" they've labeled everyone with a derogatory term. Glad I wasn't at that protest.

    Last year I was accosted by a guy who used abusive language towards me because I was wearing a short skirt. He ranted and raved at me. I blogged about the incident too because I was so shocked to be treated like that. But it didn't make me stop wearing what I wanted. I stood up to that person and told them what they could do with their opinions. Then I carried on. That's what we women have to do: Stand up for our rights and carry on with dignity.


  7. The SlutWalks were and are a response to a Canadian police officer's statement: 'women should not dress like sluts if they want to avoid being raped or victimized.'

    The Walks are not just about the right to dress as one pleases but a protest against blaming the victims of rape.

    Will the protests effect change? Or other there better ways to stop rape and harassment? That's the question.

  8. Intelligent musings, Cuban, on a subject I have exercised myself about and still not come to any conclusion. I am also wondering the role age plays in this - do the much younger see things differently?

  9. Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! Another well- thought out post on a very difficult subject! I don't care for the title "Slutwalk" because I think it plays into the hands of those who defame and victimize women but I understand why they chose not to cringe under that title but to celebrate it. As an early feminist, I used to think that things would be better for the younger generation and am saddened to see that we are still fighting the same battles, over and over and over. One of the problems is that women, as a gender (not a class) don't have the power that men have. Unfortunately, those who have the power call the shots and I don't know if that can ever change. I remember an old title on MS Magazine about whether male/female relationships are possible in the "era of feminism." I wasn't optimistic then and I'm not optimistic now, having seen how so many of the old values are entrenched in the culture. Yet - women are more visible, are protesting - are even daring to speak out against rape and violence. So, change does happen; just not as fast and not as radically as I would hope. Of course, I have a personal stake in this. When I was younger, I was what you would call "well endowed" and draped myself in over sized clothes to avoid certain types of male attention. I have five beloved nieces and three beloved great-nieces who I want to see treated in a more just fashion.

    On another, slightly different topic, I've expanded my biography of Leonora Carrington on my blog. Now, there was a woman who first fell into certain kinds of gender behavior but struggled free, to become her own person and a great artist.

  10. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  11. Te echo de menos y espero que estes bien.

  12. Hi ACIL,
    Curiously enough, I was just reading about the horrible issue human trafficking has become in Mexico City (but everywhere, really). Women and children forced to dress & perform. I come here and read about women demanding the right to dress & perform.

    How odd. Obviously, kidnapping and forcing a person into prostitution is wrong, it's stripping away their natural human rights. But it seems to me a government telling a person not to walk on this street and dont wear this item of clothing is taking away rights too. Not only that, it is only emphasizing the whole "Slut" women objectionalizing that leads to this cruel human trafficking. The decision what to wear and where a person walks needs to come from the individual based on his/her own morality (as you talk about) and self respect.

    I wonder what the victims of the human trafficking rings opinions would be of this topic.

    Interesting topics and thoughts as always my friend!

  13. Indeed, Jodi, that's very interesting. My guess is that the victims of trafficking would take a very dim view of the whole 'I want to dress like a slut' business. But I agree with you that ultimately it is about choice and in both situations choice is wrested away from the women involved.

    Greetings from London.



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