Photography and words by Zarina Holmes. Research and edit by Salina Christmas.
SlutWalk is fast becoming a global movement that provides feminists, and women of less political leanings, an expression of their feelings towards sexual abuse and sexual violence. Zarina Holmes follows the “sluts” and ponders: how on earth did women get here?
London, UK. The SlutWalk finally reached London yesterday, stretching from Piccadilly to Trafalgar Square.
The movement’s aim is to fight for a sexual assault survivor’s right not to feel that they were guilty in crimes that were committed against them.
The SlutWalk movement began in Toronto, and spread to other cities in North America and Europe.
In January this year, a spokesperson for the Toronto Police said: “Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised”. Not long after that, and the subsequent Toronto Slutwalk protest, UK’s Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke put his foot in the mouth, saying that “date rape” did not count as a serious offence compared to others. He was forced to issue a public apology in May.
In 2010, it was reported that only 6% of rape complaints to police lead to a conviction in United Kingdom. It is a dismal figure for a country that had championed women’s right for to vote over a century ago.
At the London event, there was an ample display of provocative dressing and bare breasts. Underneath the Lord Nelson’s column, a middle-aged lady sunbathed topless in the middle of the fully clothed crowd. A couple of young men standing next to her giggled nervously, not quite knowing how to deal with the status ambiguity of the situation. There were no catcalls from male onlookers and by-standers, however. This collective demonstration of female sexuality was no invitation for that type of response.
Who gets to determine the female “sluttiness”?
Not just in the West, but in many societies, the female body is something women themselves have to apologise about. In some cultures, showing the hair and even wearing jeans would have earned harassments. Women have always been regarded as ‘property’ of men. Not surprisingly, the female bodies owned by these men become the yardstick of which men measure their dignity. Not the women’s. Therefore, how women appear visually matters a great deal.
True, due to rules in culture, we are bound by a set of dress codes because the way we dress, in Bourdieu (1984) terms, is a means of displaying social symbols. Our ability to follow the right dress codes is not just a matter of taste, however. Within the Phillipe Bourgeous (1995) context, it’s “social capital”. You are screwed if you get it wrong. For women, however, another set of rules also apply (see paragraph above: ‘property’). Women have to dress appropriately. To not dress appropriately is to invite some kind of ‘punishments’. The punishments become a proxy for behaviours such as losing sexual control and behaving like animals. Clarke’s careless comment underlines what he really thought of this proxy measure – one loathes to think what really goes on in his head. So, according to this proxy measure, if a woman walks down the street at night in a mini skirt and fishnet stockings, she is asking to be raped.
The media perpetuates this, through hyper-realistic and sexualised female images. Assaulted by the same messages over and over, we began to accept the distorted images of femininity.
The varying degrees of “sluttiness”
Sluttiness depends on cultural context. Most rape cases have got more to do the men’s attitude than the women’s appearances.
In countries that exercise extreme views such as the Congo, being a female is enough reason to be raped regardless of age (see paragraph 8 above: ‘property’). In some orthodox Middle East countries, such as Saudi Arabia, rape charges often lead to imprisonment of the female victims instead. By ‘not being careful’ enough (and despite being covered up from head to toe), they dishonour themselves and their families. In some parts of Asia, like India, females perceived of having “Western values” are often considered as highly accessible for sex.
Interestingly, the “slut” phenomena exist only in developed societies where structured religions function as moral foundations.
Topless and scantily clad females were accepted in many indigenous cultures around the world, until religions such as Christianity and Islam came to tell them to ‘cover up’.
In this context, the notion of ‘looking respectable’ is a recent idea introduced by the colonisers. For social mobility, indigenous women were encouraged to embrace progressive values and abandon the old way of dressing (or un-dressing).
Bad boys are good, sluts are bad
We have been excusing misogyny and supported the male psychosis by saying “boys will be boys.”
Bad boys are endearing and almost innocent of everything they do. “Sluts”, on the other hand, know what they are getting into.
It is unacceptable to think that a woman would prepare for her own rape in advance, or deserve to be antagonised more than others.
It is ignorant and deplorable to think that the female body is responsible for the waywardness of the heterosexual males.
Zarina Holmes is a photographer and an advertising art director. Photos © Zarina Holmes.