On Victims and Sluts

Reclaim the Night started in the UK as a response to the “Yorkshire Ripper” murders, but took off later particularly in the US in response to exposure of the high incidences of rapes on US campuses. Linked with campaigns for “blue light” emergency phones in dark areas of campus and increased security, these events typically saw women marching together along a set route with a rally at the end. Controversy has flared up amongst whether these marches should be women only, what the position of transwomen is within a defined safe space and also – particularly in the US – controversy over survivors tales which some detractors accuse of being defamitory.

I have issues with Reclaim the Night. The whole notion that women walking along en-bloc along a set predetermined route demonstrates to me just exactly how much we don’t own the night, it chimes to me with every admonishment not to walk through dark/non-CCTVed/remote areas after dusk and to always get a taxi home. It tells me that the night isn’t mine, that I can only be safe in a group of other potential victims and on occasions concludes with horror stories of the dangers of not following “sensible safety advice”. Moreover it feeds into notions of sexual assault being a phenomenon of strangers waiting in dark bushes waiting for unsuspecting damsels to fall into their trap.

One of my favourite anecdotes is given by the Victorian feminist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman. On attending a party in a local house, she announced her intention to walk home alone. A man in the company immediately challenged this, and asserted that he would walk her home announcing that “Any true man is always ready to go with a woman at night, for he is her natural protector. Gilman replied

Against what? The thing a woman is most afraid to meet on a dark street is her natural protector – singular. But I refuse to worry, there is little to steal and I am quite willing to be killed. It is not a woman’s right, but her duty to walk alone at night.

Women aren’t unsafe when they are alone, women are unsafe when they are in the presence of a preditory male. The standard advice given when there is a spate of stranger rapes within an area is for women is “Don’t walk home alone in the dark; don’t go down dark alleys; walk home with friends; get public transport.” Eh? No! Hows about sticking your keys through your fingers, working out how to aim a kick in the balls and practice screaming, then go for good long walks in the dark making every other woman on the street safer? Or then again hows about advising men how to avoid becoming rapists?

Most sexual assults occur within private and usually domestic settings, most victims know their assailant, and most are never reported to the police. No amount of blue lights, emergency telephones or marching huddles will address those issues. Making women afraid to walk home alone however puts them in danger, in danger of unregulated taxi-drivers picking up on increased demand, of staying somewhere that they would rather not be, of accepting offers of lifts/walks home by people that they would not usually be accompanied by and in danger of being even less inclined to report any assault for fear of being blamed for transgression.

A new phenomenon appears to be replacing “Reclaim the Night” and I for one am very glad. On the 24th January the Toronto Police issued a statement stating “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised”. The term “slut” has an interesting history – originally applied to women who were poor housekeepers or slovenly, it became increasingly associated with promiscuity, thus bridging the madonna/whore divide. A slut is a non-respectable woman, one who doesn’t shine her sink, stay chaste until marriage and faithful within it or accept the curtailments of liberty that the official safety advice entails. The sluts of Toronto were severely pissed off. Refusing to don twinsuits, pearls and control knickers, they took to the streets.

There have now been replicated walks across the UK. In a county where nearly a quarter of women will be raped in their lifetime, and over half of people think that there are circumstances where women should take responsibility for their assault, asserting the right to wear what you want, do what you want, go where you want and sleep with who you want has never been more necessary. Sluts, and those who dress like us, have as much right not to be assaulted as the next woman.

First published in the Scottish Socialist Voice, Issue 373 on 26th May 2011

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