The Problem with Having a Problem with SlutWalk


sexual assault prevention tipsOn January 24th, 2011, a representative of the Toronto Police speaking at a university campus safety session made the upsetting statement that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.

In response, the Toronto SlutWalk was established:

“We are asking you to join us for SlutWalk, to make a unified statement about sexual assault and victims’ rights and to demand respect for all. Whether a fellow slut or simply an ally, you don’t have to wear your sexual proclivities on your sleeve, we just ask that you come. Any gender-identification, any age. Singles, couples, parents, sisters, brothers, children, friends. Come walk or roll or strut or holler or stomp with us.”

I don’t want to get into all of the details of the walk, you can read about them on the Toronto event website which also includes links to sattelite events such as the one that took place in Ottawa on April 10, simultaneous with another march in London.

Writing about this event in the Ottawa Sun, columnist Anthony Furey1 struggles to understand what all the fuss is about:

“In taking one man’s actions and extrapolating it into a systemic problem, the protesters are guilty of exactly the same fallacy the Toronto officer conducted. They are using one instance to vilify an entire sector. All this accomplishes is creating a wedge between police and protesters.”

In case you are not getting this, Mr. Furey is suggesting that drawing attention to attitudes that blame victims of sexual assault for their choice of clothing is the wrong thing to do, because it will make the police upset.

“Those of us who know victims of sexual assault understand the last people you want to alienate are the ones tasked with protecting you. As [Chief] White said, “The reality is we want victims of crimes to report it to the police to allow us to get involved.”

I’m no expert but to me it’s impossible to avoid not knowing that the justice system is a brutal place for victims of sexual assault. The resistance of victims coming forward is not based on groundless fears. It is based on dealing with a viciously personal and invasive act of violence that must be relived, challenged, and dragged on through various stages of the investigative and judicial systems, with conviction rates that are less than encouraging.

Charges are only laid about 1/3 of the time, and if a sexual assault case does make it to court, there is only a 40% conviction rate. With my limited math skills I believe that means coming forward to report a sexual assault results in a conviction about 13% of the time. That’s not very encouraging, and on that basis alone it should be easy enough to understand why reporting rates are about as low as the rate of conviction (about 1/10 victims come forward).

Of course Chief White wants these crimes reported. But perhaps he should have been out there leading the SlutWalk, instead of encouraging Mr. Furey and those who are equally ignorant of these issues to dismiss the critical importance of communications from police officers and justice officials. Any police officer than is comfortable talking about “dressing like a slut” at a crime prevention seminar is not making a little slip. To me this is like a police officer tasked with racial relations who uses the “n-word” to describe his audience. Would a strong reaction to such an incident be inappropriate? Why is a slur against women and victims of sexual assault of lesser importance?

I personally believe that very few police officers think this way. But that number needs to be zero. We simply cannot have sexual assault victims being confronted by these attitudes. This is one of those areas where there is no room for shades of grey. It just can’t be, and we cannot continue to be mystified by low reporting rates until we are all on board that blaming the victim is 100% unacceptable.

Yes, these are the comments of one officer. But as recently as February a judge in Manitoba saw fit to described a man convicted of sexual assault as a “clumsy Don Juan” noting that the victim and her friend were dressed in tube tops, no bras, and high heels and that they were “wearing plenty of makeup.”

These incidents are not trivial. They deserve a strong response, such as that provided by the SlutWalk. Maybe it’s not a tactic that makes you comfortable. That’s a “bad word” and not everyone understands the idea of “taking it back.” Well, get over yourselves. There are more important things at stake than your sensibilities about curse words.

I wasn’t part of the walk myself, but I can’t think of my own better way to combat these dangerous attitudes (other than speaking out if I hear them or writing this blog to opposive the dismissive attitudes of a local reporter) so to all the SlutWalk organizers and participants across the country, I say keep on walking! Well done!

1 It’s been suggested to me by friends in the blogosphere that Mr. Furey is not actually ignorant about this issue and that this column and others like it in the past are simply designed to draw attention, which draws readership, which fuels adverstising revenues. I really don’t know, so as a compromise, I don’t emphasize links to the article, I quote from it and do so in a way that I hope is fair and doesn’t lack appropriate context. The choice to read his column or not is yours, the link is here, and if you are concerned about promoting bad journalism motivated by profit, you are free to ignore it.

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About Keenan Wellar

I'm a citizen of Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) and co-leader of local social change charitable organization LiveWorkPlay.ca which supports a good life for people with intellectual disabilities. I'm a very active user of social media. Find me on Facebook http://fb.me/kwellar on Twitter @SocialKeenan on LinkedIn http://tiny.cc/keenanw. I also manage organizational accounts http://fb.me/liveworkplayfans and @LiveWorkPlay. I make a lot of connections locally and worldwide with people who share my belief in inclusive communities, but I also talk sports, food, and travel, and there are few topics that offend me, so please don't be shy.
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20 Responses to The Problem with Having a Problem with SlutWalk

  1. Jenn Farr says:

    Thanks for writing this post.

  2. Death-Rae says:

    Very nicely said, thank you. I did participate in the Slut Walk, and it was a remarkable experience. As a survivor myself, being surrounded by 3,000 people who were on my side and believed that people who’ve had similar experiences didn’t have to be ashamed helped me to further come to terms with what happened to me, and lit a fire under my ass to strive for justice. I cannot see this as anything but positive.
    I wrote an entry myself the day before the walk (http://raerage.wordpress.com/2011/04/03/made-for-walking/), and I was glad to see that it more than lived up to my hopes and expectations. I hope you don’t mind if I post a link to this piece.

    • keenanwellar says:

      Thanks so much for the comment, as a man who didn’t even participate in the event I was a bit nervous writing about it, but I was really impressed with the way the SlutWalk got organized at the grassroots so quickly and to me the concept got it exactly right. I am concerned that our police are treated fairly, and hopefully the SlutWalk helps them in their work because the less sexual assault issues are in the dark, the better it will be for them to help victims. But frankly, if it did somehow cause some bad feelings, surely the feelings of victims are more important here and anyone who is uncomfortable can rise above their own selfishness and at the very least respect the courage of people like yourself.

  3. Elaine C. says:

    There is a chance that what I’m about to say won’t be the most popular… 😉 Let me first start by saying that no one (male or female) deserves to be sexually assaulted. I also do agree that “No” means “No”. I would tend to think (and hope) that reasonable and sane people would agree. Having said that, this world is not made up completely by reasonable and sane people. The way some people, this applies mostly and possibly completely some women, dress is very revealing. Of course it doesn’t mean that the woman is “asking for it”, but at the same time, anyone who would dress in a highly provocative manner in public where there are some mentally questionable people around (they’re all over), it can’t be much of a surprise that they would be victimized. I don’t know exactly what the Toronto cop was wanting to say because I don’t know the guy, but in a way, I could see what he might have been getting at and it came out really badly. I’m hoping that’s what it was but, who knows…

    • keenanwellar says:

      I think the point is the idea that someone “dresses in a highly provocative manner” is part of the problem. If there’s a person who is going to attack someone because of their clothing, that person is the problem. As an excuse anyone can be labeled a slut or some other term intended to put blame on the victim no matter what they are wearing – sometimes it is about clothing, other times the statement will be that the victim “was acting provocatively.” The only answer for me is to say 100% that none of that matters. Because I’m certainly never going to say a victim deserved to be victimized by how they were dressed or who they smiled at or how they danced.

      • Elaine C. says:

        I was just pointing out that for anyone to victimize someone does not see things rationally. I think the more unstable the offender is, the worse the degree of assault. I think it would be more likely that a woman who’s dressed provocatively would have a higher chance of being victimized than someone who is not. I’m not saying anyone deserves to be victimized, I’m saying that it’s more likely for someone to be victimized depending on what they’re wearing which makes it not as surprising.

      • keenanwellar says:

        I think someone who sexually assaults another person will find whatever excuse they need and that the clothing the person is wearing, or how they smile, or what perfume they are wearing, or how they walk, doesn’t make any difference, the criminal is to blame.

    • Kate says:

      It’s a fairytale that assaults and rapes are perpetrated by insane strangers, psychopaths. They’re not. They’re committed by people the victim knows, people who appear normal and trustworthy – until they’re not.

      • keenanwellar says:

        Yes, “stranger danger” is vastly overstated. I work with people with intellectual disabilities one of the most likely-to-be-abused populations, and one of the reasons they are so much in danger is that they tend to end up in situations where they are isolated and thus targeted by perpetrators who can get close to them. We fight this not only with education for the individual but also by working hard to make sure that people we support have a broad network of people in their lives.

  4. Lisa says:

    I am glad there was a march and support so that women can be who they are. I love to wear spaghetti strap tops and that. What I hate is the word ‘slut’! This word is so derogatory. It does not uplift women to hold their heads high > in my opinion….

    • keenanwellar says:

      Thanks Lisa, I think the point is that the word “slut” is part of how sexual assault is made acceptable, someone says “She’s a slut, so whatever happened to her, she brought it on herself!” and we see time and time again that is a real argument made in the justice system as a defence by criminals, and as we’ve seen, even judges and police officers can reflect that attitude.

      Therefore, the SlutWalk is about everyone getting out there to march together and say we can dress however we want and whether you like it or not, it’s our right, and it doesn’t make it OK to victimize someone because of their clothing or labeling them a slut. It’s an attempt to take the power away from the word.

  5. Lisa says:

    I live with my ex who I still love as a gf and honestly I think if you really care about the person you would not harm them sexually or otherwise therefore the people who abuse sexually etc are the ones with a problem or apathetic and are unable to empathize with someone elses pain. Our world can be a really messed up place. Its important that we all learn to value ourselves. No one who really ‘loved’ themself would hurt another human ie a woman…

  6. Kalie says:

    I don’t understand why a victim of rape or sexual assault has to prove their innocence. If you have an expensive electronic like a cell phone is it your fault for talking on it if it gets stolen. Or if your listening to an ipod is it your fault for flaunting it if someone takes it. This is 2011 enough is enough.

    Great blog btw.

  7. Kate says:

    It’s your blog, so I guess you have the right to edit comments — but could you please fix the typo you introduced into mine? Thanks.

  8. Thank you so much for writing this. Feeling the gender solidarity in Ottawa.

  9. Skye says:

    Well said Mr.Wellar.
    The purpose of SlutWalk, as I understand it, is to challenge and hopefully eliminate any kind of attitude that discourages victims from coming forward and report a crime.
    I think one of the positives of SlutWalk is that it can draw attention to ALL victims. While this issue is something that disproportionately affects women, there are a number of men who are also victims of sexual harassment /assault who would never report it for fear of being ridiculed. I’m not talking about young boys abused by educators or priests. I’m talking about adults victimised by another adult, often a female. I think males who are harassed/assaulted face their own issues and their own stereotypes. SlutWalk (or any initiative) can help in debunking ALL damaging attitudes.
    Re: the word slut, it’s no different than reclaiming the word nigger. By reclaiming it in this way, over time you reduce its power to stigmatize considerably.

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