A police officer in Toronto said that women should protect themselves from rape by avoiding dressing like sluts. Toronto's feminist community called bullshit on victim-blaming, an all-too-prevalent attitude in assault safety discussions, and organized a response called "SlutWalk" -- a group of women dressed like "sluts" and walked through the streets of Toronto carrying signs, to raise awareness that those attitudes are really not cool, and possibly to reclaim the word "slut."
Since then, SlutWalk has spread to other cities, and it appeared in Seoul last Saturday, July 16, 2011.
I attended in solidarity, because I strongly believe that the idea needs to be introduced, championed, and spread, that it doesn't matter what a woman wears: nothing even remotely justifies sexual assault, and focusing on what a woman should do to avoid the attack implicitly acquits men (and other would-be attackers) of their responsibility to not be rapists, which is where every discourse about sexual assault should begin and end: with better education of what rape is, and what the consequences are, until the slogan "No means no" jumps to the lips of 20-year olds as quickly as other slogans, like "don't drink and drive."
The proceedings for Slutwalk Seoul started at 2pm. I joined up near Gwanghwamun at 4 - demonstrations aren't allowed in Gwanghwamun Square proper - during a welcome pause in the intermittent downpours in Seoul that day. There were speeches, some songs, a non-verbal performance, and then a march down to Deoksugung palace, in front of which there was a dance, and then a return to Gwanghwamun.
The SlutWalk crew moved on to Hongdae, where I was a little too wet and cold to catch up with them, though I met with a few of my feminist and/or supportive friends, including The Grand Narrative (from whom I found out about SlutWalk Korea) and Popular Gusts, for some burgers and drinks afterwards.
signs were carried, slogans were shouted.
At the event, there were almost as many cameras as demonstrators, and rain concerns may have caused the "costumes" or "slut" outfits to be less extreme than they might have been at other slutwalks; however, the crowd was enthusiastic, and people were generally OK with the different people who'd come - including males with cameras.
They ran out of the red ribbons which indicated a person didn't want to be photographed, so I can only publish pictures I took where no faces show... in that respect, the rain and face-obscuring umbrellas turned out to be a boon... and even if it hadn't rained, the point of going wasn't to take lots of pictures of women dressed like "sluts" anyway -- that'd kind of be missing part of the point of the event, that self- objectification for the male/appraising gaze is not the reason for the event, nor the reason women dress the way they do when they go out.
Here's a link that includes a video made by the Hankyoreh.
body-paint was used to interesting effect.
Why did I especially like this event? Two main reasons:
1. Because it was planned and promoted by Koreans for Koreans - the blog and the twitter account and the poster were all Korean only, and I think it's awesome that Korean women are speaking with their own voice.
2. Because when sexual assault comes up in Korea, even in my classes (I like bringing a lesson based on this article into my discussion classes), the discourses I've heard have overwhelmingly focused on the victim's side -- "she shouldn't wear short skirts" "she should not drink too much" "she should use the buddy system" -- what the woman did to bring her attack on -- and barely brought the attacker's side into it (things like stiffer punishments or public awareness campaigns). Overwhelmingly skewing the discourse toward the victim's responsibilities eventually results in an atmosphere of complicity and maybe even enabling, for would-be attackers, in which they figure they can get away with it, if she's drunk enough, or dressed sexy enough, because that's what they always hear when sex attacks are in the news anyway.
Blaming a rape on a short skirt is like blaming a pedestrian hit by a drunk driver for using the crosswalk. Especially in Korea, where short skirts are just about the norm.
I'm strongly of the opinion that for every time somebody says "she shouldn't dress that way" somebody should say "she has the right to dress how she likes and not be attacked for it" and "it's on the attacker's head" twice, and for every dollar spent promoting the former idea, two should be spent on the latter, and so forth. So that no sex attack ever happens again because somebody simply didn't understand, or hadn't had it impressed strongly enough upon them during that one class during high school, where the law draws the line.
It reads something kind of like this: "Sorry my body's not beautiful. Ha ha ha. -From an unsexy slut"
SlutWalk has, predictably, been controversial in many places where it's occurred, and I'd like to touch on a few of those controversies.
1. Maybe SlutWalk makes sense in Canada, where it was invented, but it's not culturally appropriate for Korea.
A journalist asked me if I thought this was an appropriate kind of demonstration for Korean culture, which (by asking it of a foreigner) turned into a kind of loaded question, given that the event was planned by Koreans: I think Korean women should be free to express themselves however they want. Cultural appropriacy doesn't come into it when a. people raised in this culture made the choice to express themselves this way, b. cultures change all the time, and c. some cultures systematically suppress women's rights, and ignore women's voices.
Deoksugung gate. Note the boys dressed as sluts.
2. Isn't this a pretty shocking and outrageous way of starting discussion about this issue?
Maybe it is... but sometimes controversy gets people talking in a way that doesn't happen when one minds their p's and q's, and sometimes something a little brash is needed to capture public attention. A hundred women walking past city hall in lingerie counts as such.
And especially in women's issues, where part of the problem is that women are programmed that being loud, and demanding their rights is unladylike, imprudent, or not "demure" the way a good filial daughter and dutiful wife should be, I'm all for women getting angry, and loud, until middle-aged, male middle-managers feel ashamed to say "well I think women's rights have come far enough in Korea because women have taken over every entry-level position in my district office, and I can't find a single man at the entry-level to promote into division manager," and until women feel empowered enough to confront them on actually believing Korea's come far enough when Korea's Gender Empowerment Measure was woefully low in the last year it was measured (61st of 109 in 2009 - shockingly low when compared to its very HIGH Human development index (26th in the world).) (for the record, yes, Korea does better when you include women's access to quality healthcare and education here)
Sometimes a vanguard comes along with a pretty strident message, and acts as the shock troops for an important idea. After they've put the idea out there, it becomes OK to talk about it, where before people just changed the subject. Once it becomes OK to talk about it, very smart, less brazen voices (hopefully) appear to present the idea in a way that is palatable to those who feel accused and attacked by the stridency of the vanguard. Over time, idea enters the mainstream. I'm OK with that process taking place. I'm OK with there being a noisy vanguard for important ideas. I'm OK with some screeching about important ideas, especially because marginalized populations are marginalized because people don't listen to them: clearing their throat and raising their hand and saying please hasn't worked.
I liked this boy's sign.
3. But isn't it true that women who dress that way are dressing that way because they want men to look at them? Why would a woman dress like that if she wasn't looking for sex?
Hmm. Something I've learned: despite how I like to think the world is aligned, it's not always about men.
There are any number of reasons a woman might dress up nicely/sexy (and let's not forget that what's sexy to one person may be absolutely modest to another):
1. To pick up other women
2. To impress other women
3. To make their friends jealous
4. To make their boyfriends jealous
5. To display status
6. For their own damn selves
7. To feel more confident
8. To enjoy being admired by other women
9. To enjoy being admired (and only admired) by men
10. To balance feeling bad by looking good
11. To show off those bitchin' new heels she just bought, the sixteen pounds she finally lost, the hairstyle she's been waiting to try, or the great (name accessory) she got as a gift
12. To live out a Sex And The City, or similar, fantasy she has
13. Because of a bet she won or lost
14. Because going out and flirting with boys or girls helps her forget something that's bothering her
15. Because most women dress that way at the place where she's going
16. Because she was raised to believe looks were the only important thing
17. Because she was taught that sexual attractiveness is the best way for women to gain power over men
18. Because she grew up in a culture where people judge women who don't dress up and look good as "lazy" (I've had a man say that in class)
19. To attract the attention of men, because she wants to talk to men
20. Because she likes getting free drinks when she goes out (jeez. I'd dress in a tube top and high heeled boots if it meant I drank for free every Friday night. Wouldn't you?)
21. To turn on the boyfriend/boyfriend prospect who came out with her that night
22. To advertise she's looking to make whoopie with some guy she meets that night
That's twenty-two I thought of just now, and I'm not even a woman, and only one of them invites a proposition from a stranger who was ogling her across the room.
I wasn't catching every word, but the point of the event wasn't man-hating, as far as I could tell. I had an interesting conversation with a journalist about it, and the fact is, this is a really complex issue with a lot of variables...
1. There are any number of ways women can dress and behave, for any number of reasons (see above)
2. There are any number of ways that dress and behavior can be interpreted by the (usually male) observer (though too many automatically assume reason 22, and act accordingly)
3. There are any number of ways a male can act on their interpretation of a woman's dress and behavior
4. There are any number of ways that male's behavior can be interpreted by the woman he approaches
And clearly some things are out of line from the start, but there are others - certain types of compliments, certain types of eye (or not-eye) contact, and other kinds of movement and attention, that can be easily misinterpreted, on either side, at numerous points in the interaction... and it's unfortunate that the amount of alcohol flowing increases the chance signals will be misread.
But in the end, it'd be great if responsibility for those misreadings and misunderstandings were blamed equally on the dudes thinking with their one-eyed trouser-snakes (that's penises, y'all), as on the ladies who supposedly "brought it on themselves." And until responsibility for those misreadings and misunderstandings is shared by both sides, and moreover, until it is recognized that men are capable of better than acting on every sexual urge that comes along, and thus share more responsibility, women have a reason to hold slutwalks, and whatever other demonstrations bring these issues back to the forefront, where people have to be confronted by them**, and think about them, and hear ideas they don't necessarily agree with, that might force them to change some of their ideas.
And that's the point of SlutWalk, to me.
**I'm lucky, as a man, because for me, these issues are things that I can touch on from time to time, read about at my leisure, and comment on when it suits me. It's not something that confronts me every time I dress up to go out, or get leered at in a bar; it's not something that casts a bit of suspicion and even fear on every night out, or every up-and-down I get from a stranger. I'm lucky to be able to approach the topic so academically, because I've never in my life felt like I'm three, or two, or even one decision from being raped. And the fact I haven't, and many males in these conversations haven't, means (I think) that some of us wildly misjudge what's at stake for others taking part in the conversation, because they, or someone they love, was. Because I'm not confronted by these issues every Friday night, I'm still learning about them. Somewhere stewing in me is a post, or maybe a series, about why these discussions get so fraught, and dramatic, and (frankly) ugly, when people go beyond preaching to the choir... but for now, suffice it to say I know I'm in a lucky spot, to be approaching the topic so casually. That bears on everything I write about it.
Comment moderation is on. I don't like deleting comments, but I also don't like trolls, flames, misogyny, misanthropy (that'd be man-hating) and general disrespectfulness of either the host (me), women, men, or other commenters.
And by the way: If you're about to go into the comments and say that "Yes, well, it's still true that women should be careful etc. etc."
To save you some time, I know. I never said otherwise. Everybody in the presence of strangers should use their smarts. Public awareness campaigns can help people who don't understand their choices, or who wrongly think their justifications are enough, but they won't stop pure predators. I know that, and I'm not saying parents and teachers should stop teaching would-be victims to get reckless... I AM saying that message should be a distant second to "Don't sexually assault people" in emphasis, but right now I don't think it is.