By Li Sian Goh
As an organiser, steward, participant, and all-round champion of Slutwalk, I was very surprised to be told in last week’s OxStu that I was ‘missing the point’. Luke Buckley wrote an article criticising Slutwalk Oxford, a march against victim-blaming which was held here on the 19th of May. Because I believe that it is important to critique the things one supports, I read the article with an open mind but was disappointed to find an article that rehashed old arguments about feminism.
Misconception the first: ‘No matter what you achieve or how brilliant you are, you are always a victim, and in the eyes of men, you are always a slut’. Buckley claims that this is the underlying message of Slutwalk. He argues that women are needlessly cast as ‘sexual objects’, that Slutwalk emphasises victimhood, and that this is outdated in ‘a world that has begun to move beyond the rigid socio-sexual divisions of old’. To put it politely: you’re wrong, Mr. Buckley. It is true that the movement towards gender equality has made huge strides: women in most parts of the world are allowed to vote, to work, and to control their reproductive destiny (though that is a right currently threatened by laws in the US). However, huge problems remain, and the prevalence of sexual harassment, assault and rape is amongst them. Last November, this paper reported that 60% of female students in Oxford have experienced inappropriate sexual behaviour in nightclubs. NUS research has found that 1 in 7 women in the UK will be raped while studying at university, and 1 in 4 women will be raped over the course of her life. Last Friday, the Guardian reported that 43% of women in London have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces over the past 12 months. Not only is the problem one of prevalence, but of dissatisfying redress: about 80% of rapes are not reported, and only 3% of rapes go convicted. Much as I (and most women) would prefer not to be a victim, my personal experiences of sexual harassment have told me that I am. Statistics and talking to other women have shown me that my experiences are shared, if not practically universal. We’re not making a fuss about nothing, and we’re certainly not making up our victimhood. Mr Buckley, thank you for complimenting my ‘wit, charm, finesse, intellect, presence, confidence, and personality writ large’. However, the fact that I am extraordinary in all these aspects does not obscure the fact that I, and other women, can be victims of rape and sexual assault, because that simply is not how rape works. One does not, by dint of being an amazing person, miraculously become immune to sexual assault.
Misconception the second: that Slutwalk is about the idea that ‘emancipation consists of self sexual degradation… that they must buy things to achieve this; fishnet stockings and Jimmy Choos’. Not to sound sniffy, Mr Buckley, but if you had even looked at our manifesto or our Facebook event or anything the Slutwalk Oxford team has been saying, it would become apparent that one of Slutwalk Oxford’s (and indeed, Slutwalks all over the world) key messages is to come as you are. Wear whatever makes you feel comfortable: during the march, we were pleased to observe that participants turned up as they were: in jeans, a skirt, a headscarf, a tank top, a dress, draped in a rainbow flag. Moreover, nowhere did Slutwalk Oxford suggest that sexual liberation lies in dressing ‘sexily’. The main point of Slutwalk is that no matter she (or he, or ze) was wearing, it is never the victim’s fault if they get raped. The very name ‘Slutwalk’ is in direct response to police officer Michael Sanguinetti’s statement to Toronto law students that ‘women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised’. Slutwalk Oxford, and Slutwalks the world over, have emphasized that you do not have to identify as a slut or even believe that the word can be reclaimed in order to agree with the key message of Slutwalk: that it is not the survivor’s fault. If she was wearing fishnets or Jimmy Choos, something which Mr. Buckley has suggested is both ‘petty and consumerist’ (another debate for another day), it is still not her fault. It is never, ever the victim’s fault.
We’re not denying that certain aspects of the Slutwalk movement are potentially problematic, and here in Oxford the organisers have discussed them at length. For example, we were worried that by highlighting a certain aspect of rape culture: victim-blaming based on the clothes and sexual history of the rape survivor, we were inadvertently neglecting others. ‘Other aspects’ include the increased vulnerability of sex workers and female asylum-seekers to rape, and the fact that between 70 – 80% of disabled women have been sexually assaulted. (The fact that sex workers and disabled women are somehow considered ‘unrapeable’ only helps to obscure the reality that they face much higher rates of sexual assault and rape.) The Slutwalk organising team has worked hard to make the movement as inclusive as possible, and hope that this has been reflected by the array of speakers we invited to the post-march speaker event, such as Black Women Against Rape and Black Feminism UK. At the same time, we have been ever mindful that there are some aspects of rape culture that we have not thought of because of our privileged status as young women in higher education. This was why I so eagerly flipped to the Slutwalk article, in hopes that we could take constructive criticism on board for next year’s march. An opportunity for fruitful feedback and dialogue has been wasted by denial, lazy misconceptions, and condescending assertions that really – far more than Slutwalk ever has – do miss the point.
Li Sian Goh is Chair of the OUSU Women’s Campaign. To get in touch, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. WomCam meetings are every 5.45 – 7 pm every Monday at Corpus Christi College’s Seminar Room.