“However we dress, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no.” SlutWalk, the series of protests held in many cities worldwide since February, came to London this Saturday, an expression of resistance against ‘rape culture’ that deems some sexual assault survivors responsible or partly responsible for the crime committed against them.
Protesters carried signs saying “consent is sexy”, “my dress is not a yes” and “we are all chambermaids” – a reference to the arrest of former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the sexist, racist media coverage of his case – and the crowd chanted their support for “the radical notion that no-one deserves to be raped.”
Trafalgar Square last Saturday. Image: Rowenna Davis
The SlutWalk marches began in Toronto in February after Canadian police told a group of law students that ‘women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised’, perpetuating the notion that the imperative to prevent rape is still placed on women, who are told to modify their behaviour in order to prevent assault. Since the first protests in North America, protesters have taken to the streets in dozens of cities worldwide, with SlutWalks held and being planned in Australia, France, Argentina, Brazil and India.
Ken Clarke. Image: Conservative Party
In London, protesters expressed their anger at Minister of Justice Ken Clarke’s recent comments which implied some rapes are less “serious” than others, chanting “no means no, Clarke must go.” Several speakers in Trafalgar Square highlighted the statistic that the conviction rate for rape in this country shockingly still stands at only 6.5%.
Anastasia Richardson, the seventeen-year-old who co-organised SlutWalk London, was inspiringly passionate in her Trafalgar Square speech, speaking of how female asylum seekers in the UK still can’t report rape without fear of deportation, the pervasive attitude that sex workers “can’t be raped”, and how rape is the only crime in which the victim will be asked questions like “did you flirt with him?”
Cristel Amiss from the Black Women’s Rape Action Project spoke of how endemic and institutional racism presents a double obstacle for black women speaking out against sexual violence, reminding the audience of the compulsory virginity tests forced upon immigrant women wishing to come to Britain in the late 1970s. Activist Sanum Ghafoor linked the comments of the Toronto officer and Ken Clarke to Sarkozy’s statements and policies on banning the burqa, arguing that men in positions of power still feel entitled to tell women how to dress (either too little or too much flesh on show and we’re in the wrong). Chitra Nagarajan, in turn, spoke about the need to include women at the peace table in order to end violence in general.
Much media coverage of the London SlutWalk focused on the apparently “provocative clothing” of many of the participants – a Metro headline gushed about women “protesting in lingerie”. But although the protest had some of the carnival feel of Gay Pride marches – where the celebration of sexuality as an act of defiance against bigotry and marginalisation created a paradigm shift in protest culture – the London SlutWalk had its own particular feel: the ‘hoodies and hijabs’ bloc marched alongside those in fishnet stockings and feather boas, and women carried placards like “I didn’t deserve it” and “rape survivors have suffered enough”. Others cried and comforted one another during the speeches.
The multiplicity of voices at the SlutWalk felt like a response to the critique from within feminist circles that the SlutWalk protests reinforce elitist, white, straight, ‘Sex and the City’ consumer-feminism, or imply that only women who dress a certain kind of way are emancipated. The assertion of sexuality felt to me to be part of the beauty of the protest, since genuine human desire outside of the ‘male gaze’ of advertising and the celebration of un-airbrushed bodies are almost invisible in public life and media. But less of an assertion of sexuality in particular, the protest felt more like an assertion of solidarity, of humanness, and a demand that all be recognised as fully human, with the right to say yes and the right to say no: that we refuse to be shamed and humiliated on the basis of our gender or sex, that we refuse, as writer Jane Fae said in her speech, “to be divided into good girls and bad girls”, and we refuse to stay silent as long as sexual violence continues to go unpunished – that an attack on any one of us is an attack on us all.