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.