Protesters gather together for a photo at Melbourne's SlutWalk last May.
A few months ago, I was invited to participate in a TV pilot for a proposed panel show whose aim was to explore the disconnect between men and women. The intentions of the host and creator were sound. He supported many of the feminist politics that are dear to me, but wanted to provide an avenue for men to bring their own insecurities and frustrations to the fore. Fair enough, I thought. A bro's got problems too.
But I sat there, seething in the kind of frustration that comes from continued exposure to blithe idiocy, as one particular line-up of guests tackled the tricky topic of girls and their clothing. Specifically, should we be concerned about the kind of message 12-year-old girls are sending when they 'dress up like prostitutes'? I listened as the kind of opinions generally offered on talkback radio and in the letters pages of tabloid newspapers were bandied around unchallenged without proper interrogation of their validity. An all too familiar consensus was reached regarding clothes and their multi-talented capacity for meaning and unspoken invitations - essentially, we need to educate young girls about dressing in a way that might give people the wrong idea.
And I thought to myself, congratulations team. Well done. Because if statistics are anything to go by, you've just reinforced to one-third of the women present in this studio something they've always been afraid of - that they were responsible for their own rapes. That if they'd just dressed differently, acted differently or resisted differently, they might not have sent the kind of message that says, 'I'm looking to be raped tonight. Any takers?'
Protester at Mexico City's SlutWalk last year. Photo: Getty
The view that clothes emit an irresistible siren call to would-be predators is nothing new. Yet no matter how many times and in how many different guises the argument is offered, it never ceases to be anything other than unintelligent nonsense. More worryingly, the frequency with which its invoked only reveals our own culpability in perpetuating a rape culture that blames the victims and seeks at every angle to find excuses for perpetrators who couldn't be reasonably expected to help themselves.
You've probably heard any or all of the following variants of the argument:
I'm not saying it's right, but women need to start taking some responsibility for their own actions
You wouldn't leave the keys in your car for everyone to see, would you?
Look, it's all about precautions. The sad fact is, there are bad people out there who'll take advantage of women, so it's up to them to look after themselves. Don't get too drunk, don't wear revealing clothing and don't flirt with strange men. I'm not saying they're entirely to blame, but it's pretty obvious stuff.
These kinds of arguments have two things in common. Firstly, they're completely stupid. Rape is possibly the only criminal act in which the victims are expected to take partial responsibility for the choices of the perpetrator. Victims of muggings aren't asked why they were flaunting their wealth in 'bad neighbourhoods'. Banks aren't expected to hide the fact they have vaults of money because some people might be tempted to rob them. Statistically speaking, you face a greater than zero per cent chance of being killed by a drunk driver at any time on the road, yet victims of motor accidents aren't expected to shoulder partial blame for deciding to get in their cars. And speaking of cars, you know what they aren't? A flipping vagina. When women leave the house in anything less than burqa, they are not recklessly driving their vaginas around, asking people to steal them. The only relevancy a set of keys could possibly have is to lock the chastity belt some people think women should wear in order to prevent their vaginas being joyridden around town. Also, women in burqas get raped too.
But second, these arguments posit rape as some kind of murky act in which extenuating circumstances need to be taken into account in order to exonerate the perpetrator. At their heart, they betray an unconscious belief that men cannot be held responsible for the ways in which women tempt them - nor should they be forced to. Rape apologists usually tend to view feminism as something that demonises all men as villains, so it seems curious to me that they would perpetuate the view that men are animals whose restraint goes out the window at the merest glimpse of cleavage. Of course, rape apologists also subscribe to the idea that there are two kinds of rape - Real Rape (or legitimate rape, as Todd Akin so mind-crunchingly called it) and Rape Where Women Asked For It By Dressing Or Acting Like Sluts And Then Complained. There is no greater misogynist than a rape apologist, because they value a man's right to take what he believes is being promised to him over a woman's right to say no. Perhaps more tellingly, they hold deeply the view that the world and all its choices belong to them, while women are obliged to merely figure out how they want those choices to affect them.
I have never been raped, and for this I feel extremely lucky. Because many of my friends have. On more occasions than I can count, I have been the recipient of a sudden confidence, a casual reveal, a hesitant uncertainty about what may or may not have happened to them. In all of these cases, the perpetrator has been known to them. They have been friends, boyfriends, family members and yes, sometimes new acquaintances. These women have also been bound by one very clear fact - they did nothing to deserve what happened to them.
This weekend, Slutwalk 2012 will take place in Melbourne . I am not a fan of the word 'slut'. The idea of reclaiming it is fairly abhorrent to me. But I will march in it because I subscribe to the civilised view that clothes do not provide some kind of caveat for men to sexually violate, abuse and rape women. More to the point, I want to live in the kind of society that will not honour that excuse through intolerable hypotheticals and caveats. Every time we provide an extenuating circumstance for the gross crime of rape, we tell the victims that they didn't try hard enough, and therefore they have no one to blame but themselves.
Rape culture thrives on the kind of apologetic obscenities that suggests women's clothing and behaviour encourage men to rape them. We spend more time telling women what kinds of clothes they should wear in order to avoid being raped than we do telling people not to rape. When you place responsibility at the feet of potential victims, you tell the actual ones that they didn't try hard enough. If you spend all your energy telling women not to dress like sluts, you have none left to tell men that a skirt doesn't give them an Access All Areas pass to a woman's body.