Well, just how progressive are we? Such rhetoric is not confined to the auspices of Sharia law - it can be found in media reports, in political speeches, even judicial decisions. The implication is always the same: women must manage their sexuality appropriately, or face the risk of violence.
Today, thousands of people are expected to gather at Sydney Town Hall on the Queen’s Birthday for SlutWalk, an event to condemn the shaming of sexual assault victims. Whether or not you support the idea of reclaiming words like “slut”, the event is a timely reminder that we still have much further to go to challenge the social currency of sexual shame.
If a woman is sexually active, we label her a slut. If it is an incident of sexual assault, the female victim often becomes an object of public scrutiny and the subject of morality. Did she flirt with him? Was she drinking? Did she invite him home? Former AFL footballer Peter “Spida” Everitt’s tweet controversy is an apt reminder of this commonly held logic: “Girls!! When will you learn! At 3am when you are blind drunk & you decide to go home with a guy ITS NOT FOR A CUP OF MILO!”
For men marching in SlutWalk, it is a reminder of our own complicity, while not intentional, in facilitating misogyny and sexism. For heterosexual men, the shame levelled at women is transformed into praise when it comes to sexual activity. If a man is sexually promiscuous or assertive, we laud it as a statement of his masculinity.
We only need to look as far as a FHM quiz titled, “Are you man enough for her?” to locate this fusion of heterosexuality and masculinity. One of the questions allocates “10 man points” for having sex with a woman when she has told you she does not want to (because she wants to get to know you first). While framed as a joke, the emphasis on aggression points to how popular culture still relies on ideas of masculinity that privileges coercion over respect.
Many men would agree that physical violence against women is reprehensible. Yet, we are reticent to hold ourselves accountable to the social predispositions that give rise to such violence. Whenever we try to, the discussion often concentrates on the “hypersexualisation” of young girls. The “logic” of this argument is fairly straightforward: men are going to be aggressive and demand sex when titillated by young women who dress provocatively at parties or who are overly flirtatious with them.
Responsibility is then assigned to women to manage their behaviour, or risk unwanted advances from men. Women are denied any space to enjoy or embrace their sexuality, let alone express one. If they do, it is perceived as a moral or social failure on the part of women. Men seem to lack any responsibility here.
Why does this continue to be the case? Perhaps it is because when we think about violence against women, we imagine a slap, a punch, or perhaps some more threatening forms of physical abuse. Those kinds of acts are easy to identify. Our thoughts and beliefs, however, are a lot more slippery. The challenge for us then is addressing the more complex social questions of consent, coercion, objectification and vilification.
Marching in SlutWalk will not provide easy answers to these questions. However, it does begin a dialogue that ending the victim blaming (and shaming) of women requires us to respect their right of women not just to say no, but their capacity to say yes as well.
In challenging the underlying sexism, misogyny and homophobia, we must not shy away from the term “slut”. We have to interrogate how the term is used to malign people on the basis of how they choose to live their lives. After all, SlutWalk is about promoting a culture of respect and freedom of choice, not about confining ourselves to four simple letters.