Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg

Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg
Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg © Gernot Keller, 2007
Blinkered Justice articles also appear on CrimeTalk and Government In The Lab

Friday, 13 May 2011

Slutwalking: Empowering women?

Thanks to Canadian policeman, Michael Sanguinetti, women across the globe are taking to slutwalking. In February, he advised students at Osgoode Hall Law School "I've been told I'm not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised." Since then,  thousands of women have got together, via Facebook and Twitter, to organise walks designed to alter the public perception that women are at fault for their rape if they dress in a revealing manner. Foucault's vision of power borne out by social media, as women empower themselves to take a stand and address the injustices that rape victims face.  

Yet it is vitally important to remember that victims are not always raped because of the way they dress. Rape happens domestically. According to Walby and Allen (2004), of women who reported being raped, over half claimed that they were raped by a current or former partner.  Other studies support this finding (e.g. Coleman, 2007).  Children are also rape victims, although this tends to be covered using other labels, such as paedophilia, thereby subtracting notions of innocence away from perceptions of rape. We should remember that men, too, are raped. 

Rape victims are also considered at fault in other ways. An Amnesty International (UK) report (2005) found that 34% of people thought a woman responsible if she acts in a flirtatious manner, 30% of people thought a woman responsible if she had had too much to drink, and 22% of people thought a woman responsible if she had had many sexual partners. A further 37% of people consider it a woman's responsibility if she had failed to say "no" clearly. 

Whilst legitimate concern has been made of the policeman's quote, it has focussed on the second part. "I've been told I'm not supposed to say this" also concerns me. Why would there be a need to keep it quiet? This implies that, institutionally, the police hold similar views about the victim's blameworthiness for their rape. Such a stance can not be good for the pursuit of justice.  This reminds me of the institutional racism that was found endemic within the Met Police following the Stephen Lawrence enquiry. 

Changing public perceptions of crime can only be a good thing for the achievement of justice. Slutwalking may reach an audience otherwise ignorant of the fact that rape is about the rapist, not the victim. But, if one were to apply a similar form of social action in highlighting the injustices of racial crimes, it would not work; the victims are already "dressed". They are not just seen for the way that they appear, but for what they represent. For men who rape, it is often associated with feelings of power and control. Thus, women represent more than just someone who is easy to have sex with.   

It is society's and institutions' underlying perceptions of rape victims that needs challenging. Rape has different constituents, as identified above, and is constructed through discourse.  With the conviction rate for rape as low as approximately 5% in the UK, this only fuels current public thinking that victims are somehow to blame. As well as educating the general public about rape, we need to educate those on the bench, the bar and the jury, during trials,  to raise convictions rates in order to change public perceptions. In this way, justice for victims might finally be achieved. 
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