You know this woman.
She catches the tram and sits beside you every morning on your way to work. You’ve seen her face briefly when she drops her children at childcare. She always sits in the front row at your Monday afternoon lecture. You chat with her at the water cooler in the corridor at work. She laughs at conversation when you catch up with her over dinner every week. You’ve passed her in the street. You’ve read her sad story in the newspaper and trembled with impotent anger. Perhaps she gave birth to you, or she grew up alongside you.
Perhaps the woman is you.
How many times have you heard “she deserved it”, “she always dresses like that – she was asking for it”, “she could have left any time but she stayed”, “what could she expect when she walks alone at night and has had a few drinks?”
Attitude is everything. And unfortunately, victim blaming women for rape, sexual assault, and violence against them is one attitude that starts very, very early. We practically imbibe it with our mother’s milk.
The statistics bear the awful truth. According to the Reducing Violence Against Women and their Children Report (2015), one in five Australian women have experienced sexual violence since they were fifteen. Women are significantly more likely to experience violence perpetrated by a male, than men are to experience violence perpetrated by a female. Two in five Australian women have experienced violence perpetrated by a male.
One Australian woman is killed by their current or former partner each week.
At the State Library on Swanston Street in Melbourne’s CBD I met up with Lisa Dib, a freelance writer and editor who is also one of the central organising members of SlutWalk Melbourne. It was a sunny, laidback afternoon, with people lolling about on the lawns and the background hum of buskers. A very different atmosphere to when SlutWalk convenes for its annual March at this very spot.
“It’s struck a chord with a lot of people,” Dib says. “Weirdly, it is a fun day. It is distressing, but there is also a great feeling of community and support. It is a good feeling, in terms of positivity when you are on a March and you feel like you are making a statement. All we want to do is be loud about it…the more often that women are blamed for their own assault, the more often women are slut shamed, the more we feel we have to remind people that that’s not the case.”
Dib also believes the normalisation, or socialisation, of victim blaming starts from the cradle and takes root from there. “It’s about unlearning sexism,” she states. “It’s about unpacking everything you’ve been taught since literally the day you were born. You’ve been taught that girls wear pink and boys wear blue, girls become wives and boys are allowed to hit girls because they like them.”
SlutWalk Melbourne is part of an organic, grassroots transnational movement that mushroomed to life in Toronto, Canada in 2007, after a policeman was recorded saying “women should avoid dressing like sluts” in order to minimise the chances of sexual assault.
Part of SlutWalk’s message is about reclaiming the slut word and putting an end to rape culture and victim blaming.
The name SlutWalk “does divide people,” Dib says. “Which is funny because one of the tag lines is it’s a controversial name, not a controversial message. If we had a completely different name, people would have no problem with it; the name is really the only sticking point for people.”
Having acknowledged that, Dib says she does empathise with people who feel uncomfortable with the word and any associations it may have for them.
“I understand if people don’t want to reclaim the word, that’s their decision,”
“I have no emotional connection with the word, a lot of people don’t want to reclaim the word because they’ve had trauma associated with it and that’s fine, we would never actively force people to come to the March if they are not comfortable with the word.”
She pauses. “Sometimes just seeing it is awful for people. I’m not actively trying to reclaim the word because I don’t have a personal negative relationship with it. I understand it’s role in patriarchy which is to punish women for having sex, so in that sense I like that women are reclaiming it.”
Dib believes that the word is linked to society having a strange and twisted concept of women’s sexuality, which is why women are shamed for being ‘sluts’.
“The word is tied in a lot with self-respect,” she says. “People think that if you have casual sex you are disrespecting yourself or you have no respect for your body. That question in itself is pretty interesting. Why is sex tied in with self-respect? Or how I feel about myself? And that’s the thing – there are just such arbitrary standards set on women that aren’t set on men at all. That old thing that if a man has a lot of sex he’s a player, but that if a woman has a lot she’s a whore. That is one of the many things that SlutWalk stands for.”
According to Dib, judgement about women’s sexuality happens all the time – but really shouldn’t.
“Your behaviour or your clothing or your attitudes are not tied in with the respect you supposedly have for yourself,” she states.
“And no one else should be telling you if you have respect for yourself.”
“That is someone else shaping your standards for how you feel about yourself – someone else ascribing societal standards for you, even though they are pretty archaic. There are a lot of people who don’t like the name just because it’s a ‘naughty’ word.”
In the United States, Brock Turner was recently sentenced to six months in county jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster at Stanford University.
Outrage at the leniency of the sentence, in addition to the trial’s insistence on trying to put responsibility for the attack on the victim, has society questioning victim blaming and male entitlement anew. The victim’s powerfully eloquent victim statement to the court has also illuminated the extent of ongoing trauma and anger at how she was treated. She states: “I was pummelled with narrowed, pointed questions that dissected my personal life, love life, family life, inane questions, accumulating trivial details to try and find excuse for this guy who had me half naked before even bothering to ask for my name.”
The recent media circus surrounding the domestic violence case involving actor Johnny Depp and actress Amber Heard saw it happen again.
Straight away there was instant denial and finger pointing at Heard on social media, with accusations of her being a “gold digger” and disbelief that an eminent actor such as Depp could be capable of such a thing. The overarching message being loud and clear, once more: the man is always given the benefit of the doubt, and the woman – her life, appearance and behaviour – hauled over the coals to prove she somehow deserved it, or at the very least, is fabricating it.
In our country, violence against women has become so endemic and ingrained that the Federal Government has recently attempted to tackle it head on with the ‘Respect’ campaign. In the television advertisement, a boy trips a girl and the girl is told it’s “only because he likes you.” A boy takes a photo of a girl’s cleavage and he is applauded by his mates. A man stands shouting abuse at a woman cowering on the ground – but when next we look, it is the same little boy. The issue of respect for women is also central to SlutWalk’s message.
As such, it is proud of its vision of inclusiveness for women of all backgrounds and orientations, including trans gender and sex workers. The movement also attempts not to be ‘classist’.
“I think that’s what is so good about SlutWalk,” says Dib. “We try to be absolutely inclusive, trans inclusive, totally non gender binary, and sex worker positive as well.”
Another reason this inclusiveness is so important is to continually chip away at attitudes about what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour in women – usually linked to their sexuality. The extreme end of this is to demystify sex work and pornography: to humanise women working in these industries. This is especially important for sexual assault, as sex workers are particularly vulnerable to it. According to the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, attitudes range from beliefs that it is not as bad to rape a sex worker as a woman who is not, to the extreme that “sex workers are always consenting to sex and thus incapable of being raped.”
“There are women who choose to be sex workers,” Dib says. “I would never defend sex work if it was against women’s wishes – obviously human trafficking is abhorrent – but that’s not the same because there is no consent there. If women consent to engage in those industries, it’s up to the industries to be safe for them.”
Breaking down stigma associated with sex working and attitudes to female sexuality are part of the bigger solution of eradicating victim blaming completely – in particular, the constant references to women’s appearance and behaviour in sexual assault cases, which, according to the Australian National Institute of Crime, have among the highest rates of acquittal and lowest rates of proven guilt compared to other offences.
“Inherently rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power,”
Dib states; “so once you learn that, it doesn’t matter what they (women) are wearing or doing or where they are. Like marital rape – it doesn’t matter what she’s wearing, it’s not about that. There’s a lot of women who come to the March wearing the same outfit they were wearing at the time that they were attacked. And they’ll say, ‘well, this is what I was wearing – did I deserve it?’ And they might be wearing jeans and a t-shirt. There’s no such thing as a perfect rape victim.”
Dib believes that wrong ideas about rapists and rape victims have to be expunged before honest dialogues about rape can emerge. “In society’s mind this is the woman who will be attacked: ‘short skirt walking down an alley way listening to music, attacked by the monster in the shadows’. That’s not accurate.”
Dib continues: “We try to unpack people’s ideas about who gets assaulted,” she says. “It happens to old women, children, Muslim women, Indigenous women, trans women, sex workers…it happens to every type of woman. The overwhelming scenario is that it is done by men. So maybe society needs to look at what is common about these scenarios, rather than what is different.”
SlutWalk has marched in Melbourne since 2011. What does Dib see for the future of the March? Will it be needed forever?
“We will keep doing it,”
She replies “The numbers go up and down. It does take a lot out of people, especially survivors…and it’s not even necessarily about ‘getting big numbers’, because you can make as much of a statement with one person as you can with five thousand. It’s more about the strength of the message. That said, it is good to have a lot of people there, because it is fun to lead a really massive crowd. It makes you feel good about how many people you have on your team and really positive for the future. We will keep doing them until there’s less of an obvious overarching societal problem of victim blaming and slut shaming.”
She pauses. “The end result would be that it’s an individual problem, as opposed to something which society just accepts and happens all the time and no-one thinks it’s weird that people say ‘what were you wearing? Or how much had you had to drink?’ That should be the kind of thing that if anyone said it to you everyone else would find it abhorrent.”
With Melbourne behind her, Dib and her fellow comrades at SlutWalk will continue to keep chipping away at the stereotypes and attitudes.
“There’s a million and one different types of survivors, but there really is only one type of rapist – and that is someone who rapes.”
To keep current on what is happening regarding the March for 2016 ,go to www.slutwalkmelbourne.com.au or SlutWalk Melbourne’s Facebook page for more information.