12 August 2011

Strong Thoughts on These So-Called "SlutWalks"

With all of the controversy erupting over these so-called "SlutWalks," I've decided to condense my thoughts into a Strong note regarding the current controversy, and in light of plans to hold one in the Milwaukee, Wis. area next month. I do wish to note that it is not my intention to impugn the beliefs and/or experiences held by people; I happen to know several acquaintances who are feminist and a few of my friends have either been the victim of or know of someone who has been the victim of sexual assault.

First, a background. Earlier this year, a Toronto police constable named Michael Sanguinetti made the comment that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order to avoid being victimised" during a safety forum at York University. This in turn sparked not just a public relations nightmare for the Toronto Police, but demonstrations all over Canada, Australia, the UK, and the United States. In addition, this trend has led to a renewed debate on the cultural issue, which is also stoked by the nascent and growing debate over feminism and the impact upon society (e.g. the rise of so-called "men's rights groups" around both the Internet and in various places around the country).

Demonstrators and proponents of the "SlutWalks" say that doing so is in part to redeem the word "slut" from its historically-negative connotations describing sexually-libertine women, and part to raise awareness to what they consider to be a culture of "slut-shaming" and blaming-the-victim on the parts of society, the criminal justice system, and law enforcement. In particular, proponents cite the stigma of being a victim of sexual assault and that less than half of all such crimes are reported. This, in their eyes, should be corrected not merely in the laws and institutions of society, but the prevailing attitudes people seem to have as well.

Opponents of the demonstrations counter that Sanguinetti's remarks, while perhaps worded murkily, are really based not on victim-blaming, but rather a call to better risk management and personal-safety awareness in everyday life. Some conservatives also decry the movement, arguing that such demonstrations by women have the effect of basically glorifying sexual promiscuity. Specifically, the opponent argument can be rooted in the idea that personal protection (and by extension, the related risk-management) is first and foremost the responsibility of individual persons. They often go on to say that while sexual assault is a heinous crime that should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, it is nevertheless preventable and the responsibility to prevent it to any given person cannot lie solely within the frameworks of society or the law.

With these two camps firmly entrenched, my position is not fully on either side, though I will freely admit that I tend to be quite opposed to the concept of these "SlutWalks" as a whole.

Yea, I realise this may be a shock to some people. But, as is often stated, there is a method to my madness, and I do have my reasons as to why I believe that these "SlutWalks" are at best misguided (as in "they likely won't solve the problem or effect needed changes"), and potentially irresponsible.

As a libertarian, I agree with the demonstrators in that they ought to have the right to wear what they want in public, provided it does not violate the decorum (e.g. wearing a skimpy bikini to religious services or in court), and is not already duly prohibited by the local law. Most adult men and women have enough brains and enough mental development to be able to decide what clothing to wear, and do so on a daily basis. For someone to wear what they like, provided it is not prohibited by decorum, is (and should be) a fundamental aspect of the freedom of expression. 

However, I also agree with the opponents and conservatives on another facet. While the demonstrators have the right to protest and the right to generally wear what they please, they are also ignoring the other half of the vital equation regarding rights--and that is the undeniable fact that with rights and freedoms come personal responsibilities and obligations. In particular, the right to wear what one wants entails that there are responsibilities and consequences (both positive and negative). Further, these responsibilities and consequences are inextricable from the rights and freedoms so associated.  

That said, let us regard the actual comment at hand. As I see it, Sanguinetti has a perfectly valid point. I will grant that it was not received as such, but to get what I find was really said, one must strip the emotion and the knee-jerk reactions away from the comment. This underlying spirit is, when one honestly considers it, one of prudence and, well, "common sense."

Further, I also find that the said underlying spirit behind what he said is ultimately not limited to the female sex dressing up provocatively. Nor is his admonition inherently misogynistic--rather, it's a common-sense thing to keep in mind the risks someone faces when doing anything. He could have just as easily said, "men should avoid dressing like wealthy preppies and walking around the rough neighbourhoods alone at night" and have the same intentions and the exact same underlying spirit, which is:

Don't do things that draw attention to yourself if you have good reason to believe that doing so can put you at risk for any sort of serious harm. Think before you act and fully weigh the risks against the benefits.

For right or wrong, people base their assumptions based on what they see all the time. In a very real sense, perception is reality, and those perceptions drawn by other people will inevitably create both wanted and unwanted attention. It is from these perceptions that some (though definitely not all) of these crimes may very well percolate from. Thus, one rather easy way to mimimise the risks of these crimes would be to dress in ways that don't draw so much attention to one’s own self--a point relevant to this debate that I feel cannot be emphasised or stated enough.

In this, I fail to see how this can be inherently misogynistic. The exact same principle holds true for either gender--be it a woman wearing a low-cut shirt, miniskirt, and no bra when she goes out or a man dressing up in his finest clothing/jewellery and walking through a high-crime area of the city. Yea, both can wear what they want and what they feel comfortable in. With this comes the undeniable fact that their attire will necessarily draw attention from other people to themselves, and some of that attention will be unwanted.

Here's another example to ponder: what about going to a stereotypical nightclub in any major American city? If I pull into the parking area in a Maserati and dress to the nines (e.g. Jay Kos or Armani clothing and wearing a Rolex), is that not going to attract more attention (both wanted and unwanted)? If you're at the club's bar and see me stroll in while donning such attire, what are your first reactions going to be? What are you inclined to infer about me?

I would have to expect that people are going to be looking at me in a certain way. It is the image I present, and in this case, I would most likely be marketing myself as being a wealthy guy that might be willing to throw down plenty of quid for a lady (or for the club). Accordingly, people are going to interact with me in certain ways and with certain assumptions.

Now, what if I don't want the glaring sort of attention from females (and perhaps jealous males)? What can I do? The answer is quite simple: don't dress in a way that suggests wealth, influence, and power--and in particular, dress more low-key--as in the manner of a blue-collar man, plebeian, or low-level professional. I'd likely be less likely to draw attention in a polo shirt and cargo pants from Walmart or your basic shirt and jeans than with the latest men's fashions.

[Side-note: This is what I usually do, preferring to dress more casually, low-key, or sometimes even outrightly "poor." I find it's quite effective at keeping attention away, particularly when I know I don't feel open or receptive to it.]

Or, what if I want that sort of attention only from certain females? Then, I dress up in the "attention-getting" garb ONLY when I'm in the private company containing that subset of females, such as at a private party I decided to throw. If I'm only surrounded by people with whom I want attention from, then why would dressing up in certain ways bother me? Would it not be reasonable to argue that doing so provides a greater impetus to participate in the event and focus the metaphorical spotlight upon me?

So, let's extrapolate it for a gender-neutral application. This solution is quite simple and addresses all of the concerns so raised on both sides of the proverbial aisle: if one minds certain people looking at them and/or giving attention that said one isn't actively asking for, then perhaps one might want to consider not wearing outfits that are likely to trigger those reactions in other people. As I've suggested (and again for emphasis), one ought to dress in a lower-key and/or seek to blend in with the average for the crowd, and not knowingly attempt to stand out one way or another.

Yet, instead of this common-sense solution, it appears that many women would rather wear provocative clothing anyways--and then promptly proceed to complain that men attempt to ogle, fondle, or otherwise initiate some other sexual response with them. It is my observation that many women like to complain in public when people stare at them (particularly at a given woman's breasts and pelvic region). Now, I am not saying that staring is acceptable (it really isn't), but it's going to happen.

Why? Suffice it to say, some people simply have no respect for other people and/or have no qualms objectifying others. Yes, it's something most of us have been told by our elders not to do, and it's rude. But, one cannot assume that any other given person on the street will have such senses of manners or right-and-wrong.

Yet despite all of this, here's the kicker that many don't realise: people react to what they see--men react to the suggestion of sexual activity, and women react to a variety of things (e.g. suggestions of wealth and excitement). When a woman wears provocative clothing in public, she obviously cannot tell Jason, Chad, and David that they can (and perhaps should) stare at her while George, Ted, and Bill cannot and should "go away." Somehow, I'm quite sure that all six of them will try to get a peek of (or leer at) said woman and whatever is visible.

What the woman has to do is accept that by wearing specific clothes in public, this generally implies that everyone can see her in such a state. Sure, she can tell George, Ted, and Bill to go away or she'll sic a sexual-harassment suit against them. And, unless she's dressed that way in the workplace, that's not likely going to prevent George, Ted, and Bill from trying anyway. Even so, taking a lawsuit is a costly process in time and resources in that she would have to prove that the three are egregiously breaking the existing laws in a trial.

In the end though, what this implies is that she cannot have her cake and eat it as well--she has to accept that with the wanted attention she gets from the so-called "acceptable" men staring at certain aspects of her body comes the unwanted attention from the so-called "creepy" men she doesn't want. To an extent (and as I've already covered), it is for better or worse an unavoidable fact of life.  If she is willing to accept that and any negative consequences as the metaphorical "price" to pay for appearing in a certain way, then what exactly is the problem? If not, then why is she publicly displaying herself in such a fashion to begin with?

Whatever happened to the ladies taking responsibility for themselves and their actions? Surely a woman who wears provocative attire in public knows she's going to be an attention-grabber--is this not at least one of the reasons why she is wearing those clothes to begin with? Seriously, if provocative clothing didn't draw attention to her, why would she be wearing them in public to the bar/club, or for a night on the town? What other motive would drive her to do that?

And further, if such women are dressed that way in public, anyone can see and pick up on the image that is being marketed (e.g. this woman is attractive, and quite possibly "easy" from a sexual standpoint). If she doesn't want that perception or image to be effectively broadcast to every Tom, Dick, and Harry on the street, she should simply use her head and refrain from doing so. Surely there are other ways to achieve the goal of looking great and attracting other people without necessarily turning oneself into a walking sexual advertisement.

Why do I say this? With every action comes both positive and negative consequences, and every decision necessarily requires that anyone (male AND female) take personal responsibility for their actions. Yea, it sucks, but it's just the way things have been since the dawn of time. There are consequences to wearing certain kinds of clothes in public, and they vary based on what is being worn. How? Different types of apparel in different situations colour people's perceptions.

And, as I've said, perception is all too often the reality that is in play.

That all said and contrary to popular belief, it is NOT sexist to point out that people need to use common-sense when they interact socially, and what they wear. Just as it is not misandry to point out that I should not be wearing flashy clothes in areas where I'm likely to be mugged (and don't want to be) or a meat-covered suit in a dog pound (unless I want to be gnawed on by hordes of canines), so it is not misogyny to point out that women should not be wearing "sexy" clothing in public if they don't want every Tom, Dick, and Harry to be staring and visually-undressing them.

Now, as for the word "slut," I also do think the reaction to that word is essentially making a mountain out of a molehill. I find it is crucial to remember that in the past, the term "slut" was used to describe a dirty or slovenly woman--not merely a sexually-promiscuous woman, but an unkempt and reckless one of low character. Now, I will grant that in ages past, being promiscuous itself was thought of as dirty, reckless, and careless behaviour.

In my mind, a slut is a person of either gender who is not only promiscuous or libertine sexually, but does it in a patently-irresponsible, reckless, or careless manner. Being a sexual libertine is not the issue in today's society; rather it is the attitude that one can have sex as he/she pleases and not have to take personal responsibility for their actions and consequences. It is not the responsibility of anyone but yourself to see that your sexual liaisons aren't done carelessly, or leaving costs for others to bear--it is your responsibility to employ safer-sex practices, be tested regularly (and before commencing sexual activity with a different person), and use multiple means of contraception.

If one takes personal responsibility and undertakes their sexual activity responsibly, then there is no problem with being a libertine. If not, then in my mind, then such people (of both sexes) deserve to be branded as sluts, with all of the negative connotations. It is the same idea I hold with non-sexual activities as well--I would equally brand a driver who regularly travels down the road doped up on prescription medications to be a reckless individual.

Rather, it is common sense, and something I fear a great many of us sorely lack. In my opinion, the overblown reaction to Sanguinetti's remark as well as these "SlutWalks" all over Canada, the UK, Australia, and now the U.S. just further demonstrate that. These people are well-intentioned, but seriously all I can say to them is:

"Lighten up, Francis..."

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