In defence of sluts and slutwalks

Slutwalks are coming soon all over Australia. The Brisbane variant is in 2 weeks time and the Sydney one in 3 weeks.  The craze has reached us from America where the first one was held in Toronto on April 3 in protest of a local police officer who is said to have told 10 college students, “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”

Ken Parish was quick to condemn slutwalks, but on reflection, I basically think he is wrong and the sluts are right. No offense intended to either Ken or sluts.

There are two questions involved here. One is whether the immediate reason for the slutwalks is reasonable and the second is whether there is an important underlying issue worth demonstrating against. The immediate question is whether the police officer was out of line and the deeper question is whether society employs a double standard when it comes to the sexuality of men and women.

Ken and others raise the point that the police officer is factually telling the truth to his audience when he say that the dress-signals of women can incite the desires and abuses of men. That is undeniably true, but is not sufficient to exonerate the police officer in question. To see the unreasonableness of the remarks of the police officer, consider the analogy with theft. Would a police officer tell someone who doesn’t want his fancy car to be stolen not to drive in it so that it can’t be seen by potential thieves? The suggestion would be seen as absurd because it would be taken for granted that the whole purpose of having a car was to drive in it and, in the case of a fancy car, to be seen driving it. Think of another analogy closer to the topic of violence. Can you imagine a police officer saying to parents concerned about the threat of a pedophile priest that they if they were worried about such things that they should not have had kids in the first place or, if they did, that they shouldn’t send their kids to mass so as not to tempt the priest? Again, the suggestion would be considered hurtful and malicious because it would, rightfully, be seen as inferring that the parents should go without kids or should change their attitudes towards potential parenthood and religion because of the possibility of a pedophile priest.

It is this analogy that is the correct one, because dressing up constitutes an important signal sent from women to their potential partners (both male and female) about their attractiveness, habits, and willingness to at least consider offers of intimacy. Dressing desirably is not an open invitation for violence, even though it would be silly to deny that it is commonly understood as a signal of interest in offers. Just like a baker who advertises his bread on open shelves, and invites customers to make bids for his bread, does not want to be told by a police office that he should hide his bread lest he invites theft, neither should a desirable woman be told by a police officer to dress inconspicuously so as not to invite rape.

In this light, what the police officer said makes no sense.  Instead, what it reflects is a wider and implicitly understood message that the police officer (and perhaps his community of police officers) morally objects to the signalling function of ‘dressing like a slut’. It is an objection to being aroused by desirable women, and/or an objection to the possibility of such women having sex, that is needed to make sense of the police officer’s statement. One might counter by saying that a police officer might reasonably suggest to the baker that he should take due care in not abandoning his shop while his bread is on display, and that parents should not leave their kids unattended with males they do not trust. In the contest of dresses that would be a statement of the type ‘when you look desirable but are not seeking sexual advances, take care not to be alone in dark alleys or alone and drunk around men you do not trust’. That is the type of sensible advice any mother and father (I have 2 daughters nearing that age) would give their offspring. They would not tell the baker to stop advertising bread and for kids to stop going to school and to church.

Hence the sluts and the slutwalkers have a valid argument that the police officer’s comments were out of order and indeed indicative of a disapproving attitude regarding the signals given by dressing “like a slut”.

Then there is the question of whether there is a deeper issue here. Does society have a double standard regarding public signals about the sexuality of men and women? I cannot speak for all countries, but there can be no doubt that the answer for Australia is an unequivocal ‘yes’. I have lost count of the number of times I have been told as a father to lock up my two daughters and buy them chastity belts, whereas all signs of sexual awareness and activity on the part of my son are seen as healthy and worthy of praise and encouragement. I have had learned and heated arguments with eminent scholars on the subject (usually when drunk, but still). I have seen both fathers and mothers putting their daughters down warning them not to fraternise with boys whilst telling their sons the opposite. It invariably involves an element of putting ‘that girl in her place’, and is usually accompanied with gleeful faces on the part of the boys. There is not a tiff of doubt in my mind that in this country, women are derided for being sexually promiscuous whilst men are praised for the same activity.

I ask myself as a father and an intellectual whether that is a good attitude, and where it comes from. I ask myself ‘so what do all these fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, leaders and followers want for their women? Do they really want them to be virgin nuns until they marry a perfect suitor at the ripe age of about 30?’. That would be such a selfish wish. The males certainly don’t want this for women when they are in the pub hoping to get laid, but it is nevertheless the logic that follows from openly looking down on sluts in their own family and set of friends. It is a pure double standard, and a very mean one at that because it essentially denies women the idea that having an active and even promiscuous sex life is healthy and normal. It burdens them with the idea that they must somehow feel themselves to be unworthy if they pursue their desires, whilst not burdening men with the same stigma. And it smacks of a power game when it comes to the attitudes of the men: why do all these brother and fathers want their daughters and sisters to live up to a notion of sexual purity or repression, whilst they themselves do not? These sisters and daughters eventually will have sex anyway, with someone else than their brothers and fathers, when they are finally married off to someone else. One cannot help but wonder: what is the personal gain to the brother and fathers of the idea that their sisters and daughters have to go without until then? At the very least it is somewhat mean, and it also smacks of gender power-politics (if not something even darker).

Hence, hurrah to both sluts and their walks. From a utilitarian standpoint there is nothing wrong with being a slut since having sex is a healthy and pleasurable experience for which, in the age of contraception, there is no good reason to have one rule for men and another for women.  From an economic perspective, sending signals increases the flow of valuable information and hence lubricates exchange on the market for intimacy.  I think that the slutwalkers are entirely correct about both the inappropriateness of blaming victims of sexual crimes for the way they dress, and about the general societal attitude about sluttiness.

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28 Responses to In defence of sluts and slutwalks

  1. Craig Lawton says:

    I can’t see why we don’t expect and demand men to have self-control.

    We aren’t animals, are we?

  2. Lindsay says:

    I have a humble suggestion as to why the double standard has developed.

    Consider the “cost” of sexual activity on the part of men and women.

    The costs, when it comes to disease, I would *guess* are equal.

    The costs, when it comes to pregnancy, are disproportionate. Women bear more cost and it would thus seem wise for them to be more discerning. Whereas the men are at the opposite end of the scale. Thus what is happy, healthy and advantageous can reasonably vary between the sexes.

    So while I am not in a position to quantify this, the double standard may not be so double when applied to a ‘costs’ approach.

    Other points:
    1. The use of violence is never invited except by a small minority that (presumably) have their own issues. If in alternate-world dressing fully covered and modestly was an open invitation to abuse, what would happen?
    2. Happily ‘Lindsay’ is a unisex name.

  3. Fyodor says:

    We aren’t animals, are we?

    No, of course not.

  4. Mr. Eyesore says:

    I can’t help but wonder how the cop in question would feel if, on the next occasion he is sworn at or spat on in the course of his duty, he was offered the following advice:

    “Wear a Mountie uniform. People respect the RCMP more than they do Toronto beat cops.”

    Sauce, goose, gander.

  5. Jamie says:

    It is so much easier to tell women to not wear ‘provocative’ things than to ask men not to rape. And covering every inch of women’s skin has stopped all rape in Muslim and puritanical countries!

  6. conrad says:

    I entirely agree — and I’m glad it’s become a very successful awareness campaign highlighting the extent of victim blaming across the world. I might note that there is a very similar problem in the gay community, where they also get needlessly harassed if they dress in an obviously gay manner, and this could been seen as signalling also.

  7. desipis says:

    To see the unreasonableness of the remarks of the police officer, consider the analogy…

    I think those analogies fail, because I think such warnings would be reasonable.

    Here are some others:
    We can warn people of the dangers of eating unhealthy food without judging those who do it.
    We can warn people of the dangers of unprotected sex without judging those who do it.
    We can warn people of the dangers of traveling to other countries without judging those who do it.
    We can warn people of the dangers of crossing the street without juding those who do it.

    We can warn people of the dangers of dressing suggestively without judging those who do it.

    In this light, what the police officer said makes no sense.

    Just because you disagree with the significance of unstated elements of the comment doesn’t invalidate the explicit message. It might also imply an inappropriate judgmental factor, but the information on the risk remains valid.

    I can’t see why we don’t expect and demand men to have self-control.

    We morally expect men to have self-control and we legally demand men to have it. Yet we realistically expect that some men will behave immorally and illegally.

  8. Don Arthur says:

    Clearly if the police officer didn’t want to be attacked, he shouldn’t have made those remarks.

    The officer’s comments were interpreted as a signal of moral disapproval — a judgment of women ‘who dress like sluts’. Perhaps the officer would claim this wasn’t what he meant.

    Many women would say that by wearing a short skirt and a low cut top they didn’t intend to issue an open invitation to offers of intimacy — let alone sexual assault.

    But the officer is suggesting that it doesn’t matter what signal they intend to send. What matters is the predictable way some men will respond.

    And that’s exactly the position the officer is in if he complains about being attacked for his comments.

  9. desipis says:

    … and you’ve just equated the slutwalk protest with sexual assault. Brilliant.

  10. conrad says:

    Don and desipis, I think we’ll never really know what the police officer thought when he said what he said — maybe he thought this person is bringing it upon themself or maybe he was really just trying to offer some politically incorrect advice. I also don’t think what he said differentiates between these possibilities. Alternatively, as much as I might have some sympathy for him if it was the latter of these, I don’t think that detracts from protesting about the common assumption that it is the victims fault that something happened in cases like this, and if this statement has allowed groups to gets some focus, then good. For all I know, the police officer could be quite happy that his comment sparked this type of protest.
    .
    desipis, if you want counter examples to your advice column, then do you think it’s okay to offer this advice to me, being non-white, “don’t go to Central Queensland”, “don’t go to pubs unless there are no whites”, “don’t eat funny food”, “don’t hang out with your friends who speak in a funny accent”, “definitely don’t hang out with heterosexually challenged non-whites (twice the problems”, etc . I’m sure all of those things would reduce the risk of violence against me, but I’m not sure how useful it is to tell me.

  11. Don Arthur says:

    For all I know, the police officer could be quite happy that his comment sparked this type of protest.

    Probably not. Constable Sanguinetti was reprimanded and later apologised for his remarks.

    I agree with Conrad. This kind of thing doesn’t fall into the ‘useful advice’ category. As a Toronto woman who heard the remarks pointed out, women who’ve been assaulted need to know they can go to the police for help without worrying that they’ll blamed.

  12. observa says:

    “I ask myself ‘so what do all these fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, leaders and followers want for their women? Do they really want them to be virgin nuns until they marry a perfect suitor at the ripe age of about 30?’.”
    That’s highly unlikely but nevertheless, as has been pointed out there is a disproportionate risk of pregnancy here. How does it go again in the US? Fail to finish HS, have a child out of wedlock and marry before age 21 and the woman will have an 80% chance of being poor for life. Consequently I advise my daughter accordingly and didn’t marry a slut. Ditto for my socioeconomic set and consequently we don’t get the steam off a politician’s manure to warm our coffee. Quite the contrary in fact, as we subsidise the alternative lifestylers who think nothing of having 3 or 4 offspring to different sperm donors. I’d kick my daughter out of the house for such behaviour but that’s highly unlikely given her upbringing and value set.

    I await with bated breath the new police slut and bogan uniform choices apparently espoused here as a means to freeing the current wearers from the oppressive choices they so onerously have to endure. Nothing like a new siren song from the usual restless suspects, although you’d think they’d have some small qualms after their blindingly obvious prescriptive failures to date. Such prescriptions they avoid like the plague themselves, naturally enough. Do as they say not as they do sluts and bogans everywhere, for not to do so may deprive them of a much needed sense of liberal progressive, moral superiority, with nothing of much consequence to contrast themselves with. Still if you lack more modest, conservative vision about what works timelessly, there’s always their vision, complete with set top box, etc. Oh and a sorry thrown in occasionally for good measure.

  13. Pedro says:

    You can support both the slutwalk and the advice from the cop if given in the sense described by desipis. A warning about risk is not necessarily a moral judgement. But the Slutwalk is a valid statement against victim blaming, which does exist for sexual assaults.

    Lindsay’s cost-based argument doesn’t overcome the moral objections to victim blaming, but perhaps he was not suggesting it did.

  14. Marks says:

    I dare say that police will not be handing out this sort of advice in future. If it was superfluous, then no big deal – what’s the point of being given superfluous advice. If it was useful advice and is no longer being given, possibly someone will be hurt.

  15. Tel says:

    From an economic perspective, sending signals increases the flow of valuable information and hence lubricates exchange on the market for intimacy.

    On the presumption that such signals are honest, and not manipulated for political purposes.

    I have a humble suggestion as to why the double standard has developed.

    There’s a book called “The Red Queen” that goes into this in some detail, with many examples from both human society and the natural world.

    Wear a Mountie uniform. People respect the RCMP more than they do Toronto beat cops.

    I suspect you will find they have very strict rules about who is allowed to wear what uniform, precisely for the purpose of allowing particular units to earn the respect that they do get.

    I await with bated breath the new police slut and bogan uniform choices apparently espoused here as a means to freeing the current wearers from the oppressive choices they so onerously have to endure.

    I can still remember when police wore shoes, and tidy civil uniform. Now they wear jungle boots up to the knee, canvas trousers tucked into the boots, and the sort of gear that you can go out bush for three days, sleep in, never shower and come back looking reasonably similar to how you went out. These things worry me a lot more than anything the street bimbos choose to wear. I worry even more to think that somewhere behind closed doors, a group of “Madmen in Authority” has made a calculating decision that police will get better productive output by utilising fear and intimidation rather than neatness and civil respect.

  16. Tel says:

    Constable Sanguinetti was reprimanded and later apologised for his remarks.

    A smart cop is a quiet cop. If you see something, let someone else say something.

  17. Incurious and Unread (aka Dave) says:

    As advice goes, it was pretty unhelpful. At best, it was the statement of the bleedin’ obvious. At worst, it carried with it an implication that, should anyone not take heed of it, they would share in the blame for any consequences.

  18. observa says:

    The great moral imperative of liberal progressives everywhere is always to place themselves in hypothetical situations and imagine their freedoms and rights being trampled on. The particular individual choice that possibly led them to that predicament is of no importance whatsoever. There is no cause and effect, just victims and oppressors so naturally it is incumbent upon them as producer groups to treat particular victimhood accordingly-
    http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/welfare-trial-for-northern-suburbs/story-e6frea6u-1226054286270
    As you can see from a typical example it’s a perfect world for them with no unpleasant tradeoffs re their hypothetical rights and freedoms. It’s those bloody nuisance conservatives that are always trying to cloud the issue with minor technicalities.

  19. murph the surf. says:

    Slutwalking in areas with compliant and supine male populations is one thing.
    Where does the need to be culturally sensitive come into play though – I don’t imagine the pro argument has any problem being relevant globally but the first Slutwalk down the streets of Dubai or Kuala Lumper might be more useful at exposing double standards.
    Extending this concept further I expect militant camera and ipod waving crowds to Touristwalk through Kabul soon.And why not? The poor have to learn self control too!

  20. Pedro says:

    Observa, the fact of a cause and a resulting effect is irrelevant to the morality of the effect. Conservatism might seem a fine idea in general, but can be troubling in the detail of the numerous petty infringements of personal space and expression.

  21. Lindsay says:

    Pedro said:

    Lindsay’s cost-based argument doesn’t overcome the moral objections to victim blaming, but perhaps he was not suggesting it did.

    Indeed not. There is only 1 guilty party in an assault and that is the person responsible for doing the assaulting.

    Tel, thank you for the book suggestion. If my ‘guilt pile’ were not so high I would place it on my reading list.

    Murph said:

    compliant and supine male populations

    Perhaps it is a definition of male as either aggressive and manly or whipped and compliant.

    Manly Men!

  22. murph the surf. says:

    Why do we have responsible service of alcohol obligations then ?
    And they are monitored by highly esteemed members of society such as ex footie players.
    Isn’t this oppression on a person’s desire to get legless?
    Dress how you like , drink yourself into a stupor and reclaim the world for the oppressed.Sounds like every Friday night at Manly.

  23. john walker says:

    why are there no?..or few female comments?

  24. Jamie says:

    John Walker:

    Because you rarely need to tell us how much a problem slut shaming and rape culture are? There’s a few of us posting in the thread though.

  25. derrida derider says:

    I used to walk across well-marked traffic lights on a busy road every day. I was perfectly entitled to step out on the green without stopping to look out for oncoming cars. If I did so and got hit it would be unequivocally the speeding driver’s fault, and I wish we all did more to show our disapproval of such drivers. But none of that would, I am afraid, have been much consolation to me.

    Rape is always and unequivocally the rapist’s fault. Woman are perfectly entitled to dress as they like, are entitled to be angry that they can’t, but that is no consolation to a raped woman. The cop’s choice of words was insensitive (well, cops as a body aren’t models of tact) but the advice was sound.

    True, if we continue the analogy further then perhaps the slutwalk is like an organised mass road blocking of at lights to protest the behaviour of arsehole drivers. But that’s a different thing from protesting a cop’s advice to look before crossing.

  26. Meg says:

    The problem with the cop’s choice of words is that it makes women think there is something they could do to prevent rape and obscures why people rape in the first place.

    Women going for a morning jog in a daggy tracksuit are assaulted too, Desipis, in which case, I’d say the cop’s advice is dangerous and lulling them into a false sense of security.

    You might reply that they shouldn’t have jogged alone as another “common sense” piece of advice.

    The problem is that men don’t have to worry about this to the same extent. This “common sense” advice is restricting the agency of one group to the point of inhibiting everyday living. That’s just ridiculous and it’s bad advice.

    It ignores that the reason for rape is often power or control, as acknowledged at the end of this post.

    You know what happens when people are assaulted and are also made to think they could have somehow prevented it?

    They don’t report it because they think the police will blame them.

    Thank God a parent gets it, who has seen this gender socialisation first hand.

  27. BB says:

    True, if we continue the analogy further then perhaps the slutwalk is like an organised mass road blocking of at lights to protest the behaviour of arsehole drivers. But that’s a different thing from protesting a cop’s advice to look before crossing.

    This is a facile and inappropriate analogy. There’s no moral judgement implicit in advice to look before crossing. My cousin is mentally retarded from a car accident; back when we were arsehole kids we used to call them “Speds” (for special education). A more correct analogy for your example would be “Don’t be a sped, look before crossing”.

    It implies “speds” are responsible for their condition and denigrates them further using the language of their oppressors and bullies.

    Better?

  28. dsc says:

    I can’t see why we don’t expect and demand men to have self-control.

    We aren’t animals, are we?

    Since we’re doing that, we could take the opportunity to expect and demand men to have self control and not commit any sort of crime whatsoever.

    Then crimes will end.

    Because criminals, rapists or of any other kind, will then, finally be aware that their behavior is unwanted. “Oh, dear! How could I have been so blind all this time? It never crossed my mind that indulging in some degree of spontaneity once in a while could be so annoying to the other parts involved. Silly me! But life goes on. Phew! Good that it’s clear now. I’ll have in mind from now on that other people might not interpret these actions as cheerfully as I did”.

    How come no one ever thought that before? Just demand that people have self control and stop being criminals. Gosh, who would imagine solving all the criminality stuff would be so simple.

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