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"Take Back the Slut?" by Cassandra Hough

Should women avoid dressing “like sluts” in order to avoid being sexually victimized?

One Canadian police officer thought so.  But now thousands of young people are marching in protest of this “safety tip” he gave to a group of York University students in January.  The first walk in Toronto drew nearly 4,000 people, and earlier this month over 2,000 marched through Boston.  Although the officer apologized for his remark, these “SlutWalks” have continued to spread across the country over the past few months with marches in Dallas, Texas, Asheville, North Carolina, and Ottawa, Ontario, and others planned in Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Austin, Texas.

According to organizers, the walks aim to “take back” the term “slut” and are “in protest of a culture that … is too permissive when it comes to rape and sexual assault”.  One Toronto protestor told CNN affiliate CTV, “Just ‘cause I’m a slut doesn’t mean I want to be raped”.  Another organizer wrote to CTV, “We should be beyond the myths of people ‘asking’ or ‘deserving’ to be assaulted due to their behavior or appearance”.

While some marchers have tended to the extreme, there is certainly some truth to their concerns and message.  No healthy person would want or ask to be assaulted.   And, although campus sexual assault statistics differ, many report at least a 1 in 10 chance of an undergraduate woman experiencing some form of sexual assault while in college (this recent study finds “13.7 percent of undergraduate women had been victims of at least one completed sexual assault since entering college and 4.7 percent were victims of physically forced sexual assault”).  Undoubtedly this is a big problem meriting greater and more serious attention.

But, in order to move forward in educating on these issues, we must understand well the circumstances in which assault happens.  According to the same federally supported report referenced above, “7.8 percent of women were sexually assaulted when they were incapacitated after voluntarily consuming drugs and/or alcohol”.   And with a majority of victims knowing the person who sexually assaulted them, we must remember that we are rarely dealing with a strange man attacking a woman who clearly rejects his advances.  With the prevalence of “hooking up” on college campuses, we are frequently dealing with occasions where there is consensual contact up until a point, and it is the communication and understanding of that boundary that is often the problem.  Indeed, one study found that as many as 78% of unwanted sexual intercourse took place while “hooking up”.

On this point, I cannot help but think back to my freshman orientation program and a play I attended as a college freshman at Princeton University in 2003.  The play, “Sex on a Saturday Night”, aimed to educate against date rape and sexual assault by showing a variety of scenarios a student may be likely to encounter while in college.  The scenes centered around the budding relationship of an average, fairly-decent senior guy who asks a cute, seemingly smart freshman girl to go to a party with him.  They proceed to enjoy each other’s company, get drunk, make out for hours, and finally the play ends in a drunken stupor where the guy thinks his nearly-passed-out date is signaling that she wants to go all the way.  Well, he was wrong, and has to face the fact and the consequences of the date rape he committed.  Although I take issue with many of the other relationships featured in the play and the raunchy humor that distracts from the central lesson of the production, I believe the play is effective in bringing to life the delicate nature of date rape experiences.

In another scene an upperclassman girl (let’s call her “Jane”), who is admired by her girlfriends for her prowess in always leaving the guys “wanting more”, goes about her typically Saturday night routine with a new male acquaintance (“Jack”) and follows him back to his dorm room.  Jane flirts, suggesting sexual interest, but playing hard-to-get.  When Jack understands her behavior to mean she is interested in having sex and begins to come on to her, she gets offended.  He angrily swears at her, calling her a “tease” and storms off.

Both the date rape scene and this one speak to a very real problem faced on college campuses and in our contemporary sexual culture.  The “anything goes”, hook-up mentality has led to much ambiguity and confusion about appropriate and wanted sexual attention.  In the first scene, a night of hooking up leads the guy to mistakenly believe that he can assume sex is ok too.  In the latter scene, Jane has fun putting up “boundaries” and then leading Jack on to push and test those boundaries.  Jack, for his own part, enjoys the challenge of this interplay.  The problem arises when Jack continues to play along to a game that Jane has just ended.  Without warning, her flirty evasions of his sexual attention stop being playful invitations to push on and become actual objections.

In both situations, the guy is wrong to assume that sex is wanted and ok.  But there is another problem that lies more at the root of each wrongful assumption.  In a culture where romantic scripts and traditions have been replaced by an “anything goes” mentality toward sex and relationships, the absence of commonly understood boundaries have made for much trouble between the sexes.  Today’s sexual norms offer few guidelines for understanding what sort of attention is an appropriate response to sexually suggestive behavior.  In these scenes, the exact same interactions could have reasonably gone either way.  Young people will admit to drinking for the purpose of lowering their inhibitions so that they can have sex.  Others, even if they don’t drink for this reason, regularly go about their Saturday nights drinking and hooking up.  One can similarly envision Jane continuing to allow Jack to pursue her in her game until the two go all the way.

In educating against date rape and sexual assault, we would do well to realize that our education should be two-fold.  First, we must continue to educate on the nature of date rape and sexual assault so that young people can recognize the situations when they arise and understand the importance of giving and receiving consent and respecting each other’s boundaries; and, as in the above case, to understand that a drunken “yes” is not full consent.  But, our education must go beyond this and put greater emphasis on the behaviors that put you at risk for finding yourself in situations like those described above.

In educating about sexually transmitted infections, we don’t see any problem with telling young people that sexual contact and intimacy is risky business.  Nobody who has sex asks or deserves to contract an infection, but they do put themselves at risk.  Drinking is a huge problem on college campuses that puts men and women at risk by impairing their judgment and ability to clearly articulate boundaries they each may want to set.  But even beyond the obvious risk of drinking, we would be wise to consider how certain dress and behavior may increase the risk of finding oneself in situations of unwanted sexual attention.

If I were to say something to a friend that was misunderstood, I would learn from the experience to articulate myself more clearly or differently next time, decreasing the risk of being misunderstood again.  I do not see why in matters of sexual expression we should not follow the same train.  In Jane and Jack’s situation, Jack should learn that an invitation for some sexual attention is not an invitation for all sexual attention.  But Jane should similarly learn that in playing hard-to-get, she is essentially communicating that it is ok to test and push the boundaries she sets.  All too many young women today play this game, and it is a risky one.

I would similarly argue that dressing provocatively is risky business.  Those who dress “like a slut” will often readily admit that they like the attention it gives them.  The trouble is that dressing that way puts them at greater risk for unwanted sexual attention as well.

A 2009 study by Princeton professor of psychology Susan Fiske, showed that when men viewed images of women in bikinis, the areas in their brain that lit up were those associated with handling tools and the intention to perform actions.  A supplemental study found that men tend to associate bikini-wearing women with first-person action verbs such as I “push”, “handle” and “grab”, while associating the third-person equivalents of she “pushes”, “handles” and “grabs” with fully clothed women.  This would seem to indicate that the fully clothed women were perceived as in control of their own actions, while the scantily-clad women were perceived as objects of the man’s action.  “They’re not fully conscious responses, and so people don’t know the extent to which they’re being influenced,” Fiske said of her study.  “It’s important to recognize the effects.”

Does the somewhat unconscious nature of a man’s response to provocative dress excuse him for proceeding to disrespect the woman he views?  Not at all.  But the association here is revealing.  Our dress and behavior are essentially social and we cannot simply regard them as isolated means of personal expression.  How I dress is an expression of who I am, to be sure.  But I am not just expressing who I am to myself.  I am expressing it to those who see me and interact with me.  It is the same with what I say and how I behave.  One problem with dressing provocatively is that, like Jane’s situation, it sends confusing and conflicting messages.  On the one hand, it welcomes attention.  But how much attention is unclear.

Should assault perpetrators be held responsible for their actions and should we put greater effort into educating about the seriousness of sexual assault?  Most definitely.  SlutWalk protestors are justified in demanding this.  But before they take back the term “slut”, they should ask themselves if they really want to and what messages they send by embracing the name and the messages that come along with it.

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4 Responses to "Take Back the Slut?" by Cassandra Hough

  1. Kelly says:

    What a gentle and honest assessment of a tricky topic-well done.

  2. Pingback: On Sluts. « Super flumina

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