Wednesday, October 18, 2017

‘Asking for it’

Why the SlutWalk Critique of Rape Culture Doesn’t Go Far Enough:

Respect, Consent, and the Problem of Shame

November 12, 2012

Mikołaj Sławkowski-Rode

What’s wrong with rape? As soon as we scratch the surface of the problem we encounter the deep complexity of human relations. It is important to recognize this complexity, particularly when the discussion of sexuality – arguably the most intimate form of human relations – is played out in exultant parades in which triumphantly brandished signs defend “slut pride” by proclaiming things like “my short skirt has nothing to do with you”, “we’re taking ‘slut’ back”, and “I’m a human not a sandwich”.

This faddish frenzy, which has taken thousands of people to the streets in dozens of major cities around the world, goes by the name of “SlutWalk” [1]. The organizers claim to be confronting the view that the victims of rape are somehow “asking for it” by putting sexuality on display – a view that is supposedly the result of “slut shaming” of women who “dare” express their femininity in the public sphere. What caused the half-naked, slogan-branded men and women to flood the streets was the advice of Constable Michael Sanguinetti, who, during the York University safety forum in Toronto in early 2011, suggested that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”.

In response, the movement has been rehearsing the rote jargon: the power discourse of the patriarchal establishment legitimizes male domination by stigmatizing the seductive behaviour of women as shameful, or “slutty”. These attitudes, socialized from birth, enable and encourage the subordination of women by victim-blaming and maintaining an environment in which rape is tied to victims’ shame. The result is a “rape culture” – pervasively hostile and threatening to women – that privileges men by promoting traditional gender roles.

To be sure, the implication of Constable Sanguinetti’s words, that women are to men like glitzy objects that automatically bait a perverted desire whenever they are provocatively outfitted, is deplorable. The vision behind it is shallow and materialistic, and it furnishes us with a purely contractual framework for human relations. On this view, consent is the currency by which one acquires the sexual favors of another and rape is a form of breaking a contract where, as with burglary, a shortcut is taken to the possession of another’s property. Crudely put: Don’t flaunt an expensive mobile phone in a bad neighborhood, and no one will jump you for it.

But rape is fundamentally unlike theft. Firstly, that which is desired is not what is taken. The rapist desires an object, but the object is also a subject who suffers, stripped of dignity and often self-respect. Secondly, therefore, no degree of concealing what is actually at risk will protect the victim. In fact, the more the victim retreats inwardly to hide from the lustful gaze, the more she reveals herself to the rapist as an object, leaving only physical obstacles in the way of his selfish pleasure. Finally, what is actually taken can neither enrich the ‘thief’ nor be returned to the person who was raped: the lost dignity, honor and sense of security cannot be transferred back to the victim’s account, and they cannot be retrieved from the offender, because he has destroyed rather than appropriated. These consequences are irreversible, just as are those of taking life. If they were intentional, then his wanton cruelty is similar to that of a cold-blooded murderer.

This is why advising women to avoid rape by not flashing the desired goods where they are likely to be coveted should be about as offensive as the suggestion to relax and try to enjoy it if they can’t escape. The latter, while thoroughly revolting, at least makes the distinction between the object desired by the rapist and the subject suffering the rape. The former is an advance acceptance of the rapist’s objectification at the cost of the victim’s self-respect. Moreover, such precautions presuppose that men are simply sexual predators for whom the physical possibility of rape occludes all decent forms of social interaction. Thus, the vision that the Constable should be accused of promulgating is the grotesque reduction of both sexes to periodically copulating automatons, between which the signaling sometimes goes wrong.

Unsurprisingly, however, the Slutwalkers’ outrage is far from any such considerations. It remains instead a vehicle for the old dictum of the supposed ‘right’ to adopt any model of sexuality one feels good about without the responsibility for the consequences it might have. Paradoxically, it endorses what seems to be the core feature of the rapist’s attitude to others: the disconnection between sex and meaningful interpersonal relations. This is a result of confused notions of what shame and dignity are in those relations, and what they mean for those involved. The Slutwalkers quite rightly condemn rape as a horrific crime, but they wish simultaneously to do away with shame the victim might feel as a result. The reasoning runs about like this: If rape is the result of male domination, and if the patriarchy constrains individualist expressions through the subjugation of women via strict gender expectations, then if the stigma of shame is erased from all sexual expression, male domination will collapse and rape will surely disappear with it. What they cannot see is that rape is a terrible crime precisely because of the shame it involves, and how that shame is related to our nature as persons.

There is a distinction to be made between social shame (which rests on external judgment and is sometimes called disgrace) and personal shame (which depends on an internal sense of dignity and is sometimes called guilt). Social shame is the result of a shared understanding of what is good and right and of the accepted responses to deviations from that order – in other words, an ethic. Personal shame, while undoubtedly amplified or damped by the conditions of the former, is grounded in the individual’s own sense of what is right and good, which constitutes morality. The latter is a healthy response to suffering a moral wrong that has undermined some fundamental aspect of our humanity. But the Slutwalkers ignore this distinction, being interested only in consent and the conspiring patriarchy. In consequence they implicitly condemn all notions of “social good” as expressions of the subjugation of individuality, and are therefore obliged to reject shame altogether as a tool designed for debasing women. The goal is to vindicate socially the liberation from personal shame. The contradictory result is an assault on shame that renders meaningless the attempt to use consent as the shared standard of moral permissibility.

On the one hand, it is said that only the things you don’t acquiesce to can be shameful. This is the rationale for reclaiming the word “slut”. In the words of Heather Jarvis, one of the co-founders of the original SlutWalk: “Who you are and what you do, if it is your choice and you feel good about it, is not shameful”[2]. “Slut and proud” demonstrators hope that “slut” will lose its negative connotations and become an idiom for authentic, un-oppressed sexuality. Less interested in why rape is so emotionally devastating, Jarvis “constantly aims to shed shame around sex and sexuality…through increased respect, consent, understanding and acceptance”, as her mission is described on the movement’s original website.[3]

Yet, it is simultaneously asserted that what one does not acquiesce to cannot be shameful either (“Sluts say yes” is another popular slogan). Nobody is ever truly shamed by rape, this ‘argument’ goes, as the victim of rape is not the one to blame for the assault and no one deserves to be raped (which nobody doubts, not even poor old Constable Sanguinetti): To feel shame as a victim of rape, the Slutwalkers say, is to succumb to the oppressive labeling of a patriarchal society. If both positions are maintained simultaneously the only logical conclusion is that there is no such thing as legitimate shame, for neither what we acquiesce to nor what we refuse can warrant it.

Notwithstanding, activists make use of shame when criticizing behavior that could lead to assault, laying it squarely on men’s shoulders. “Society puts the emphasis on how not to get raped and that’s wrong,” Jarvis says, “what it should be doing is teaching about how not to rape”.[4] This idea is summed up in a satirical ‘How not to rape’ instruction manual of sorts by a feminist blogger, who lists “Sexual Assault Prevention Tips Guaranteed to Work”[5]:

  • If you pull over to help someone with car problems, remember not to assault them!
  • When you see someone walking by themselves, leave them alone!
  • If you are in an elevator and someone else gets in, DON’T ASSAULT THEM!
  • USE THE BUDDY SYSTEM! If you are not able to stop yourself from assaulting people, ask a friend to stay with you while you are in public.

The humor comes from the absurd vision of human sexuality that emerges from the list. But the earnest intention of the joke is, paradoxically, to humorlessly condemn the image of male sexuality on which the Slutwalker’s criticisms of “victim blaming” are based. But wait, aren’t men who need this kind of counsel simply the Constable’s automatons? Thus returns the familiar materialistic image, which the Slutwalkers turn out to share with their enemies. Consequently, their solution could only be a version of Sanguinetti’s advice, but in reverse and now aimed at men: if you find someone’s behavior or attire attractive you should depend on a buddy to remind you what an incontinent fool you are – an idea succinctly expressed by another Slutwalker slogan vaunted during their spectacles: “Rape – a crime of opportunity not appearance”. The contradictions go beyond the confused slogans. In a single breath, supporters proclaim that “there is nothing wrong with looking like a sexual object – it’s just attractive” and advise: “If you have a son in college you should call them and say ‘if you ever touch a woman you will go to prison’”.[6]

Consistency, however, does not seem to matter as long as we are “breaking down stereotypical social norms that create and sustain numerous inequalities”. As one student columnist wrote in anticipation of a London demonstration: “I will be fully supportive of any who chooses to whip out their Gaga-esque pointy bras for the occasion. Whether the protestors wear lingerie, jeans or gorilla costumes, it all means the same thing”. Indeed, one is tempted to say, it does: “A rally to find the slut in everyone”, as the organizers of the Australian SlutWalk billed their event.[7]

But there are, of course, purely lascivious dealings of mutual consent, as when humans engage in sexual acts to relieve themselves on each other’s bodies. In the Slutwalkers’ telling, there is nothing wrong with this as long as two (or more) adults agree to such mutual exploitation (although presumably, as we have seen, if consent were absent there would still be no reason for the victim to be ashamed). Even if there is space in the Slutwalkers’ position for the possibility of intercourse with ends other than gratification of sexual urges, exploitative sex is what they in fact encourage. They lead us to believe that it is the only thing males are capable of anyway, and so the only thing which the females (allegedly proud to be sexual objects) can appeal to in their dealings with them. The frequency of fornication – being the last remaining problem in human intercourse – is then left to be regulated merely by the consent of the female.

So what is wrong with rape? It is probably the most humiliating crime one can experience, precisely because one is treated purely as a means of satisfying another’s urge. While free will is proper to persons, the lack of consent is not crucial; it only lays the objectification bare. Rape violates the sphere wherein one makes the most intimate offering of the body, in acknowledgement and anticipation of a similar gift made by the other. To give one’s body to the other is the deepest expression of the trust in the other’s recognition of our subjectivity. This trust can only be won by sacrifice and can never be free from risk. By taking another’s body without consent, a rapist destroys (often forever) the victim’s ability to express herself as a person by trusting another in this most intimate way. This is the reason that the experience of rape is coupled with shame: it is not the shame of doing something wrong and being judged so, but of being exposed to another’s lust and denied the dignity which could protect one from it.

Much is made of the statistics showing that it is predominantly not the individuals who wear revealing or sexually aggressive clothing that fall victim to rape. It is only part of the truth that assault is not the immediate result of one’s choice of attire (which undoubtedly it is not). More important to notice, and involving deeper consequences, is the fact that dress codes accepted in the public sphere both shape and are a result of a common understanding of the human and of the consequent social prescriptions for human interaction. If we begin to consider it normal to treat each other as tools for sexual gratification, “a liberated expression of individual sexuality”, we have no grounds for moral outrage at the rapist. Through this ‘liberation’ from oppressive labeling we are ‘emancipating’ ourselves from the cultural background which gives meaning to our relations. Yet we are morally fragile beings, inseparable from the dignity and responsibility of personhood, and so we shall always be vulnerable to rape and the shame that comes with it. In a sense we are all ‘asking for it’ just by being human, since we all have a capacity for trusting and the need for another to trust.

The Slutwalkers hope that if shame disappears from the context of both sexual assault and sex in general, then rape will cease to be a social problem. In a perverse way they are right. Without the possibility of humiliating someone there is no possibility of raping her. However, when sex becomes completely decontextualized, one of the most important and intimate ways of relating to another is lost. A world without the possibility of rape is not a world without lust pursued without consent. It is a world without persons.


[1] The official website of the first Slutwalk is: It has currently become a forum for bashing the idea of privilege understood as “anything that you have and others don’t”.

[2] ‘”SlutWalks” and Modern Feminism’, an interview for The Agenda.


[4] “’SlutWalks’ and Modern Feminism”, Ibid.

[5] The site’s slogan is “Feminism, Sarcasm, Buddhism… you know; girl talk.” And it mainly concentrates on proving how “Our society is seriously screwed up”.

[6] See interview with Tamara Holder, Fox News contributor.



One Response to “

‘Asking for it’

Why the SlutWalk Critique of Rape Culture Doesn’t Go Far Enough:

Respect, Consent, and the Problem of Shame

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful and critical piece. A kind commenter on an article shared a link to this article you’ve written. I am very grateful for the suggestion to have read what you wrote on the subject of rape and shame.

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