By Mvelase Peppetta
When Canadian police officer Michael Sanguinetti said “don’t dress like a slut”, he’d made a huge mistake. In fact he’d touched that rock the women who’d made their way up to the Union Buildings in 1956 had warned against.
Sanguinetti’s words, uttered a few months ago when giving university students safety tips, found me waking up this past Saturday morning to take part in the Cape Town leg of a global movement known as “Slutwalk”, a hot potato of a name I’ll soon get to.
The aims of Slutwalk are … this is where the issues arise.
Slutwalk – very en vogue, a la the Middle-East uprisings or the quick trip to the high streets the youth of England recently made – is a movement organised via social media.
The brilliant upside of using social media to organise a movement, opposed to you handing out pamphlets on a street corner, is that far more people will find out about it. The downside is that the chances of it spinning out of control and becoming something you didn’t mean for it to be are far greater. One need only look to the demonstration against the death of Mark Duggan turning into the UK riots as an example.
As it were, with Slutwalk, there’s been a slight shift from the stated goals of the original Slutwalk organisers in Canada and the organisers of Slutwalk Cape Town. When I got the chance to speak to one of the organisers, Umeshree Govender (a very impressive UCT masters student) she saw Slutwalk as being part of a wider anti-rape movement.
But Heather Jarvis and Sonya Barnett, organisers of the original Slutwalk, saw it as a movement against “victim-blaming” ie “rape is wrong, but don’t dress like a slut”.
Certainly society’s idea, as seen in victim-blaming, that men being “animals” have some twisted “right” to access a woman’s body whenever they want is part of the wider issues of rape. But within South Africa’s context, where rape, never mind victim-blaming, is still so prevalent, I like Govender’s slight recasting. And here we get to that hot potato of a name which, for me, seemed to distract from that simpler, more straightforward reason for the march.
Though most saw fighting against rape as enough of a reason for the Slutwalk march, for some co-sluts the name itself was a reason. For that minority, the march was more about reclaiming the word “slut”.
There was something poetic about finding out that the slutwalkers who had most grabbed my attention, two 16-year-olds in full (or rather, very little) slut regalia, attended my conservative, all boys alma mater. My first memory of a “slut” was from another alma mater, an even more conservative all boys school.
It was a Friday afternoon and we, myself and some schoolmates, were hanging outside at the end of the school day when a woman walked by. In that age-old tradition of teenage boys, and the lesser evolved male, wolf-whistles and catcalls were made because, as one of my schoolmates catcalled while leering, she was dressed like a “slut”.
Those two 16-year-olds I spoke with, (un)dressed as they were — surely a mini practice session for the Gay Pride float they’ll most probably be go-go dancing on in a few years — showed a level of maturity I didn’t possess at that age.
I sure as hell would’ve loudly shouted Slutwalk’s anti-rape slogans had the 16-year-old me been told that the “slut” from my high-school memory was later raped. I’d probably have also added that “perhaps she ought to not have dressed like that”.
But those two not only know rape is wrong, they know a woman has every right to dress how she wants and if she does get attacked, it is in no way her fault.
They were quick to say they had issues with the name but decided to participate because they’re “against rape” and that to me is the crux of the issue.
Some people, like 5FM’s Anele Mdoda (who tweeted that the name Slutwalk was an “epic fail”) decided to not participate because of the name. Some people, not Mdoda though, would say “rape is abhorrent” but then warn you “not to dress like a slut”.
Rape is about power. If you can grasp that you should understand that the notion that “dressing like a slut”, even when said with the best of intentions in any context regarding rape, is just plain wrong and something to stand against.
If you were there to just stand against rape, that’s also admirable. As long as there are men who force themselves onto a woman, we need to do anything we can to make it clear it’s not acceptable.
Govender put it very well.
“We can argue semantics until we’re blue in the face but we have to admit that calling it Slutwalk has made it the success it is … it gets people to stop and think about it and it’s sad that calling it Slutwalk is what it takes. It’s better than a so-called ‘tasteful campaign’ that gets zero-to-little attention.”
That is fact.
I’m against rape and victim-blaming but were it not called “Slutwalk” I wouldn’t have marched on Saturday morning nor would I be writing this.
Marches are not a useless relic of history. We may get tired of saying the same thing time and time again; it may seem to be achieving nothing but then again, at the time, so did the march by the women of South Africa to the Union Buildings in 1956.
Mvelase Peppetta is a writer for Memeburn.com with a chronic case of being too opinionated. Doctors are looking into a treatment.