On 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.