Slutwalk - For and against

As the infamous Slutwalk marches on to the streets of the Capital, Claire Askew and Jenny Kemp debate its merits as a valid movement

&#149 Do you agree with plans to hold a 'Slutwalk' in Edinburgh on Saturday? Vote here


By Claire Askew

'Slutwalk attendees are making the issue visible'

The first Slutwalk took place in Toronto in early 2011 after a local police officer, Michael Sanguinetti, who was supposed to be advising students on personal safety, advised the women present to "stop dressing like sluts" in order to avoid sexual assault.

The Slutwalk trend has been growing rapidly ever since, with events held in several major cities and more being planned by the day. For as long as rape and sexual assault have been topics for open discussion, people - and by no means just men - have been blaming the victims, and placing the responsibility for policing and preventing such incidents squarely at the feet of women.

Rape apologists and victim blamers are many, and the reasoning behind their attitudes differs. I once got into a heated debate with a man my age who claimed that "if all women took self-defence classes, rapists would be completely deterred". Other common arguments suggest that if a woman has been drinking, or has flirted with or kissed her would-be rapist, then the subsequent attack is "her own fault". But one of the most common examples of victim blaming is the argument that says if a woman wears a short skirt, tight dress, low-cut top, high heels or anything else that might make her appear sexually attractive, then she's putting herself at risk and "deserves" to be raped. Such arguments are truly ridiculous. They wilfully ignore the fact, for a start, that not only women get raped.

They belittle and disregard the very real pain and anguish of rape and sexual assault survivors - many of whom were attacked in their own homes, or by someone they knew well, or while wearing sweatpants and trainers.

Such victim-blaming reduces women to a state of constant fear (fear of walking alone, fear of visiting unfamiliar places, fear of appearing "slutty"), but does nothing to solve the actual problem.

Slutwalks are a way of raising awareness about these attitudes. Some Slutwalk attendees choose to don the kind of dress that is routinely dismissed as "slutty" or "inviting"; some claim they are trying to reclaim the word "slut" and therefore remove its potency for victim blamers; others carry placards or buckets to collect money for women's aid and survivor charities. But what all Slutwalk attendees are doing is making the issue visible and open for debate. By forcing people to think about their preconceived ideas, even for just a second, Slutwalks are a step on the way to radically shifting the way we think about rape.

&#149 Claire Askew is a poet, teacher and blogger from Edinburgh


By Jenny Kemp

'Women protesting in their underwear is prone to be misread'

Since the mid-1990s Zero Tolerance has campaigned to change attitudes to men's violence against women and to place the blame for domestic abuse, rape, sexual assault and sexual exploitation firmly at the door of the men who perpetrate such abuses.

So it is with great interest that we are watching the explosion of activism around Slutwalks, which are bringing a new wave of young women and men to the feminist cause and which are predicated on the idea that no woman ever asks to be raped, regardless of how she dresses or behaves. So far, so good.

However, we and others in our sector have worked hard over the years to change the terms of the debate around violence against women. We have campaigned to ensure that people stop asking why women don't leave abusive men, and instead ask why some men abuse; and with our Money and Power project we challenge people not to focus on why women might enter the sex industry but to ask why some men feel entitled to buy sex. So we have reservations about a movement which, although seeking to challenge men's sense of entitlement and the culture of victim-blaming, appears to focus too much on the women participants, and not the men who rape women.

Consider the coverage about the Edinburgh Slutwalk and the kinds of questions that have been asked about it. Who will be marching? Will it be young women? What will they wear? Will they wear so-called "sluttish" clothes or just jeans? In other words, what will the women be doing, saying, wearing? – which is exactly the wrong emphasis.

In a deeply sexist society, media coverage of women in their underwear fighting for the right to look and do and say as they please is prone to misinterpretation by those who are shamefully ready to blame victims – the majority who believe that some women are partially to blame if they are raped.

So, although we welcome a new wave of enthusiasm for an anti-rape and anti-victim-blaming movement, and the fact that younger women are getting involved in feminist activism, we wish to sound a note of caution: in embracing the Slutwalk concept, these new activists may unwittingly be colluding in a serious problem for the women's sector – the endless focus on women's choices and the institutional blindness to men's culpability. By all means rally against rapists – but Slutwalking may prove to be an approach which damages the very cause it seeks to promote.

&#149 Jenny Kemp is coordinator of Zero Tolerance