Thursday, 16 June 2011

Liberty, equality, fraternity

but what about sorority?

I was reading an article in the weekend papers about the new phenomenon known as Slutwalks. These started in Toronto as a protest against a policeman's comment that suggested that women who were subject to sexual assault 'asked for it' through the clothes they chose to wear. As most women will know, this is just the latest in a long line of attempts to blame women for the crimes some men comment against them. Whether it's the rape victim who was too sexy, or the one who said no when she really meant yes, or the abused wife who 'provoked' her husband through some failing on her part in tending to his needs. Slutwalks attempt to reclaim the right of women to wear what they want without it being seen as an invitation to men to assault them.

It is, of course, a tricky issue. We've probably all done a double take at a young girl wearing a skirt not much longer than the standard belt, often with plunging neckline and copious cleavage thrown in for good measure. We unconsciously probably make value judgements about the clothes she chooses to wear.

Most women would be liars if they didn't admit to being secretly pleased to draw admiring glances when wearing a slinky little number, or even the odd wolf whistle or two. Does this objectify us? Yes, probably. Do we like it? If we're honest, yes probably. Do we wear clothes to attract attention, often from men? Again, if we're honest, probably. Does it mean we are 'up for' anything a man wants to do to us? Definitely not.

Slutwalks are drawing mixed reviews. Many see them as the rebirth of feminism, an affirming declaration of the girl power of the 21st Century. Others see them as misguided endeavours that play into the sexual stereotype, the irony lost on the 'lads' the walks are intended to challenge. Some are uncomfortable at the anti-men message inherent in the concept. Not all men are rapists. These days not all rapists even need be men.

Rape and sexual assault are serious issues. They are crimes of sex, of violence and of power. They are as much about intimidating and cowing as they are about violation - if not more so. And they are the extreme manifestations of attitudes sadly still prevalent in our supposedly modern, liberal and equal societies.

These are the attitudes that label women with many sexual partners as promiscuous sluts, while lauding the equivalent men as 'jack the lads' or Romeos. That see ambituous women as ruthless, while their male equivalents are go-getters. That create the term cougars and lolitas for women, and sugar daddies and toy boys for men. That see women as the easily swayed or influenced in any relationship, the led rather than the leader.

It's also the society that still almost universally assumes the woman will be the caregiver and homemaker and the man the breadwinner, regardless of what either sex wants to do. How often do you hear a male colleague referred to as a working father?

Of course, it works in reverse too. Why is it that Page 3 pin-ups and posters of topless women are frowned upon, but it's perfectly alright to have a hunky guy with a nude torso and a honed six pack displayed in work environments? That a group of guys commenting on a woman's physical attributes is denigrating but a group of women doing likewise about 'fit blokes' is all just good clean fun?

Our double standards remain astounding. Sadly they also remain real, and they continue to have a real impact on our attitudes to and experience of equality. Can the two genders ever be equal? I genuinely don't know. It's true, we are different from each other but being different doesn't mean we have to be treated less fairly. Have I experienced inequality? Yes, but I always perpetrate it too. I am guilty in things I say and do, and things I think. We all are. The next step, I suspect, is realising it and acknowledging it. And then, hopefully, doing something about it.

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