organisers estimated 3000 people took part in yesterday's 'slutwalk' anti-rape protest yesterday in central london. the crowd filled trafalgar square to hear from a wide variety of speakers, and the event was seen by them as a success. it has certainly opened up a debate about attitudes to women, rape, dress, and misogyny, although not all agree with the premise of the march.
click on image for larger version. all images are 'some rights reserved' - free for credited non-commercial use, otherwise contact author for permission
as the crowd assembled outside the 'hard rock cafe' at the west end of picadilly, it became clear this was going to be much bigger than most people had imagined. the london slutwalk, follows similar uk marches in edinburgh, newcastle, cardiff and glasgow, and these in turn were part of an emergence of currently more than 70 similar events around the globe.
it all began in toronto, after an ill-judged, and later reprimanded, comment by a toronto cop, michael sanguinetti, in a rape case. he was quoted as saying that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised". there have been similar comments in british courts from ill-witted judges, and rape victims are routinely asked what they were wearing at the time. so the 'slutwalk' response is that women should be free to wear whatever they wish, and that rape is thus never invited or 'asked for'. infact, one particularly incisive banner at yesterday's protest simply pointed out that "by definition, you cannot ASK to be raped".
some feminists have opined that the protest doesn't address deeper concerns over the commercial sexualisation of the female in society, and that the word 'slut' is not one worth reclaiming. on a side note, etymologically, 'slut' doesn't originally appear to suggest any sexual connotation, rather being associated with dirt, and applied to women, often servants, who didn't clean properly.
all controversy aside, the trafalgar square speeches, from organisers and invitees, kept returning to a simple single-issue point to be made, and 'slutwalk' might be strongest and least divisive if it continues to be clear about that one issue.
i thought it was best summed up by one speaker who invited us to imagine the case of a man appearing in the witness stand after being the victim of a rape where some penis-like object had been shoved up his arse. the first question he is asked by the sympathetic judge is "can you describe what you were wearing at the time?". the farcical unlikeliness of this scenario brought laughter and a huge cheer from the crowd. and yet female rape victims are routinely asked this question.
a young muslim woman pointed out that her religious dress is under fire for too much coverage, while rape victims are under fire for too little dress. why does (patriarchal) authority believe it should interfere in this area at all? 'slutwalk' invited people to come dressed in any way they wished, and although many took up the challenge to dress 'provocatively' (isn't that word in itself a sign of how deep this problem is entrenched?), others rose to the call in other ways.
a trans-gender speaker spoke of her previous life as a man, never experiencing any sexual abuse, but that since dressing as a woman, she receives anything ranging from stupid comments to serious threats on a shockingly regular basis. sex workers spoke of their experiences at the hands of the police - claims of abuse or rape are routinely met with indifference because of the nature of their work, and the level of protection is minimal, non-existent or indeed negative. she told how she was currently fighting a conviction for 'running a brothel', when her only motive was to work in a flat communally with a couple of friends for safety after being brutally attacked herself (without any subsequent justice) when she previously worked on her own.
other speakers did of course make connections to wider women's issues, such as the use of rape as a weapon in war, the plight of women in AIDS ravaged countries, and the rights of women globally. one particularly eloquent speaker on global issues was crystal from 'global women's strike'.
but ultimately and simply 'slutwalk' is about challenging the arbitrary and ill-conceived connection between dress or appearance and the crime of rape. it is about fighting the perception among, mostly male, police, prosecuters, and judges, that rape can be invited by signals and implied consent. it is about raising these issues publicly and in the press, and pushing it into the judicial agenda.
it certainly seems to have captured the imagination of a wide cross-section of the public, and yesterday's london march and rally had men and women in all states of dress and undress, in unexpectedly large numbers, with a serious aim and as part of a global phenomenon.
quite by chance, yesterday's event coincided with the yearly 'world naked bike ride', and as the speeches were drawing to a close, hundreds and more hundreds of naked men and women rode past the square as part of that event, not one of them inviting rape - a delicious synchronicity on a sunny afternoon.