In January 2011, while speaking at an event about campus safety at York University, Canada, Toronto Police Constable Michael Sanguinetti said: “I’m told I’m not supposed to say this, but women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.” Tired of the way women are routinely blamed for the sexual assault perpetrated against them, a group of local women translated their concern into political activism. Three months later, the first ‘SlutWalk’ took place in Toronto, attended by thousands. By the end of the year, SlutWalks were organised in over 200 cities in 40 nations, mobilising tens of thousands of women, men, and children.
As a grassroots organisation with no equivocal leader, SlutWalks have come to stand for a variety of goals, including improving the current judicial and police systems and how they deal with sexual assault; raising public awareness and educating the public about how to support survivors of sexual assault; as well as promoting respect for individuals and the variety of choices they make (including freedom to dress how they want).
However, what all SlutWalks have in common is their effort to challenge a culture in which victims, rather than perpetrators, are deemed responsible, and somehow ‘asking’ for the violence they experience. Furthermore, SlutWalk organisers around the world identify this victim-blaming as part and parcel of a larger ‘rape culture’ - which fosters the belief that men are entitled to women’s bodies, and one where rape ‘makes sense’ in certain scenarios (such as when women dress like ‘sluts’), and is an inevitable part of life.
What is particularly significant about SlutWalk is not the premise - after all, feminists have been challenging rape culture for decades. Instead, SlutWalk is significant because, unlike other types of feminist activism, which has historically been ignored, marginalised and ridiculed, SlutWalk not only attracted mainstream media attention, but was overwhelmingly supported in the coverage.
And to boot, most mainstream news outlets really ‘got’ SlutWalk – in that they didn’t try to frame it as a movement where women fought for their rights to dress like ‘sluts’. Instead, they took the movement seriously, and framed the movement from the perspective of organisers and attendees, regularly including feminist perspectives on the nature of rape, who is likely to commit it or be a victim, and crucially, what does and does not cause rape.
A stereotype that currently pervades our consciousness states that either ill maniacs’ commit rape, or men so overcome by sexual urges that they cannot help but rape in some scenarios. Rather than focussing on sources that propagated the former - because as my book SlutWalk: Feminism, Activism and Media shows, the reality is far broader and wide-ranging - the mainstream news when reporting on SlutWalk was instead filled with voices from women, mainly, who challenged these myths and instead documented the ways that rape is about power, control, domination, violence and entitlement.
That being said, while the mainstream news certainly supported SlutWalk and included feminist perspectives on rape and sexual assault, there is no doubt that coverage remained ‘shallow’ in many respects, particularly when compared to the feminist blogosphere, which, unrestricted by journalistic conventions, was able to cover the movement in much more depth and really explore these feminist understandings of rape in much more detail.
As a result, while the mainstream news often quoted sources stating rape is about power, not sex, little to no space was then provided to go into depth and explore what this really means. The result was that, while the mainstream news should be applauded for including more feminist views, what is really needed is much more context, discussion and elaboration. After all, if you have gone your whole life believing that women who dress provocatively are somehow responsible if raped, it is unlikely you are to change your mind from a one-off quote stating the opposite.
So, while I recognise that SlutWalk represents a significant shift in the way feminist activism is received, and do not mean to dismiss the mainstream news in its entirety, I believe that the news media, particularly in regards to its traditional ‘hard’ news stories, are simply incapable of challenging such stereotypes and commonly-held views about the nature of rape due to journalistic conventions, which require balance, objectivity, and are often restricted in terms of length. Columns and features face less of these restrictions and as a result offered spaces where some feminist ideas were explored in more, but still not enough, detail.
My conclusions, based on the research I conducted for my book, are therefore not to dismiss the mainstream news; After all, it continues to remain an important space where we come to learn about the world around us. But instead, I firmly believe that, despite the support SlutWalk received, I question the mainstream media’s potential in fundamentally challenging most people’s views on the nature of rape. This is where feminist blogs can play a complementary role – so long as people are able to find them or know where to look.
To order your copy of 'Slutwalk: Feminism, Activism and Media' by Kaitlynn Mendes, click here. £19.99 (paperback).
Words: Kaitlynn Mendes
Image source: Reuters