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SlutWalk: not so easy an issue

The SlutWalk protests may be inspired by commendable principles to prevent sexual violence. But the misreading of the Toronto police’s statements stop us asking harder questions about sexuality and gender relations
PH Lenix
4 June 2011

My guess is I’ll lose a friend or two over this article, and I’m worried they may be female. In the process, I’ll be exposing a lot of what I think are core vulnerabilities in men, and this could make some guys wince at me.

In any case, here goes. I make no apologies.

I’ve just read about the recent SlutWalk in Melbourne. SlutWalk is a global phenomenon that’s just arrived in Australia. It began in Toronto in protest to a local police officer telling women they should cover up a little to stop being victimised by sexual offenders. In any case, women rallied in the streets of Melbourne in fishnets and short skirts earlier this week as a celebration of their sexuality, bearing signs such as “Don’t tell us how to dress, tell men not to rape!”

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On face value this seems fair enough. And clearly, rape is a deplorable, despicable act.  But let’s take a step back for a bit.

What do we mean by sexuality? And more importantly, what do women mean by saying they wish to express their sexuality? My answer to this may seem pretty superficial, but I think it’s credible. What women really do when they go out in short skirts and fishnets is vie for male attention. It’s a way for them to feel significant, but their sexuality is also a way for them to gain a sense of power against the physically and historically fiscally stronger male version of gender. Let’s not delude ourselves with postmodern political correctness. Heterosexual women who enjoy going out on a Saturday night who were suddenly faced with a city that had no male inhabitants, wouldn’t bother donning anything revealing or low cut for all their girlfriends to marvel over. There’s a certain process at work here, which I think we all too often deny, particularly since the sixties came and went. Women are the selectors in the reproductive race, and their power stems from their sexuality. This has been the case throughout history, is the case in most species, particularly mammals, and is still the case in contemporary human culture.

So what am I getting at?

In my other life I study psychotherapy. I’ve recently been researching the field of feminist psychotherapy, a form of therapy that seeks to empower women by helping them appreciate the social pressures that have led to any particular ‘condition’ they are battling with. An obvious example is anorexia. In feminist therapy, there is no such thing as an anorexic, only a woman suffering from anorexia. She isn’t weak in her succumbing to body image problems, she is an innocent victim of marketing and the pressures on women to fit a certain body image, which will never be good enough and whose implications demand that a woman starve herself in order to punish herself for not being able to fit a certain, hypocritical, social model of body image. The social model she is a victim to is patriarchal; it’s the historically dominant way in which we are made to look at the world by corporate media; it’s, essentially, male power, at least in traditional terms, and rightfully needs to be regulated.

I love the precepts of feminist therapy and agree with its core principles.

But I mentioned something contextually important there: the idea of male power: that traditional idea of some guy in a business suit, taking no prisoners. (As an aside, I know many women are in the corporate and government world now, but I’m more interested in where this world evolved from, and how this was is grounded in patriarchy). The corporate world, and the traditions it has been born out of, has its place, obviously, but it’s important that its wider destructive influences impact on the way we are taught to see the world, particularly on impressionable young teenage girls who watch too many advertisements. These destructive influences should be regulated or stopped altogether. The powerful rich guy in a business suit can also seem pretty damn attractive to a hell of a lot of women, but how far should they be allowed to go? In the same way, a quite sexily-clad, seemingly confident woman can seem pretty attractive to a lot of guys.

So, the Toronto police officer who felt the original backlash of angry women (and men, too) on the streets of Canada wasn’t necessarily hating women. I don’t think that’s the way to look at it. Neither was he condoning rape. Essentially, even if sub-consciously, I think it’s fair to say he was empathising with the male condition. Don’t worry, that last sentence even sounds strange to me when I read it back to myself, but why should it? Why have I grown up in a society that talks about feminine values and the feminist struggle but balks at also sympathising with the conundrum of being male in this society? Only recently I’ve read an article on the nature of grief and gender. It talks about how since the seventies we’ve told men they’re not good at ‘dealing with their feelings’, but that this is being challenged now: it may actually be the case that men are simply better at grieving through action and not through a more feminine type of open verbal communication, and so have been encouraged to grieve in unhelpful ways. The problem is that we’ve been measuring their grieving capabilities by a feminine yardstick.

If that’s a possibility, then so is the following. A man is as vulnerable as a woman, especially in the face of the opposite sex’s central power mechanism. For women, in evolution, this is their sexuality. A luckless guy can be made to feel like shit by a woman who’s clearly got an agenda in the way she presents and carries herself, and in the way she acts in front of him. If patriarchal corporate marketing has contributed to anorexia, men are allowed to feel vulnerable in the face of a woman putting it out there for the sake of attention and power. This isn’t a one-way street.

A man might have decided that he’s “not into that type of girl”, much like a woman might have decided she’s “not into the bull, alpha-male type”. And my view is that the majority of people’s actions stem from their insecurities and not their self-assurance. But, nonetheless, some practices are simply intimidating. Why deny these things? Some women have natural beauty and class, of course, but you can tell those who are just in it for the clout. And this is, essentially, the point.

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What of that aforementioned sign? – “Don’t tell us how to dress, tell men not to rape!” What if from the corner of your office you saw some suit in shiny shoes step out of his limo with something like: “Don’t tell us how to advertise, tell anorexics to eat!” hung around his neck? Would it be so easy to accept a sign like this?

Obviously I’m not condoning rape or proposing Sharia Law, nor for that matter am I asking women to cover up. But I would like to remind people that the issue here is not simply telling women what to wear for the sake of control, much like the response to the anorexia epidemic is not simply about telling advertisers what to advertise for the sake of censorship. The discussion needs to be opened up to incorporate the wider context of what it means to be a man and a woman, and where we get our drives from. There needs to be honesty and patience, not everything demanding a left-wing protest or rally, seemingly a fall-out from the sixties. What was the hidden subtext in what that Canadian police officer said? What was he too proud to admit?

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