Slutwalk is an international movement. Its purpose is to protest all forms of sexual assault, promote women’s rights, promote a healthy attitude towards body image and crucially point out that no matter how a woman is dressed, she is never ‘asking for it’. The movement promotes the idea that nobody deserves to be raped and that it is time to stop victim blaming. In essence, it is promoting the notion that sex must always be consensual, that women have a right to wear whatever they please without being harassed or assaulted and that the streets should be as safe for women as they are for men. It opposes and sheds light on rape culture and sexual harassment. It does so in the form of a short walk, the chanting of empowering and anti-rape slogans as well as various forms of peaceful protest. Both men and women participate and you are encouraged to wear whatever you like to bring home the point that wearing clothes, no matter what they are, does not constitute an invitation for sex. I participated in my first Slutwalk last year and I found it an empowering experience.
I believe that this movement deserves support. They are fighting to ensure that women are safe on the streets and that all members of society are made aware of the cultural biases that make it unsafe for us to walk alone. South Africa in particular has high levels of gender based violence as well as street crime. This means simply walking from your car to a restaurant can be a very scary experience.
I have experienced the sharp end of this a few times. Last year, I was in Durban on business and I stayed at Umhlanga Rocks. I was looking for somewhere to get a drink when a man I was passing by made a comment about my looks and then proceeded to follow me as I walked quickly away from him. This was at one and the same time affirming and very scary. Especially the fact that he followed me for quite some time. At the time, I put it down to my attire (I was wearing a denim mini, heels and a peep shoulder top).
This is of course (in retrospect) nonsense. I should not have made any excuses for his behaviour. But at the time I did. I thought, well you were showing some (quite a bit?) of leg and you should expect to be ‘noticed’. I was however quite shaken by the experience.
As a result of this experience, I decided to acquire a can of pepper spray and be even more careful than usual. I did so and have been carrying the pepper spray with me whenever I am out at night, whether alone or with friends.
On a recent trip to Cape Town (details to follow in a later blog post), I again experienced casual street level harassment. I was staying in Seapoint and due to a glitch with my credit card at the airport, did not have a hire car. I was therefore reliant on Uber and public transport. As my apartment was less than a block away from the main road which is full of restaurants, pubs and coffee shops, and because I fancied a walk in the cool evening, I decided to walk up and down the main road to find a place to eat.
I was dressed in my usual style, but as it was more than just a little chilly, I was not wearing a skirt. Instead I had grey denim leggings, a black top, a scarf, cowboy boots and a leather jacket on.
I hope I was ‘well dressed’, but I wouldn’t say I was overly ‘sexy’ and I certainly wasn’t showing any skin. I took the precaution of taking the lid off my pepper spray canister, putting it in my pocket and walking with my hand on the spray mechanism. I was ‘locked and loaded’ and ready for any unpleasant types!
I left my apartment just as the sun was setting. As I reached the corner of the main road and the road my apartment was in, I came across a number of young (homeless?) men who were using the corner as the base of operations for the night. One of them shouted out quite loudly as I walked past that I had made his night. I was really scared and walked as quickly as I could past him. Fortunately, he did not follow me, but when I passed him by later (on my way back) he asked if I had come back for him, so he clearly remembered me.
Incidentally, that night a man walking with his wife and children leered at me, and another man walking alone also commented to (on?) me as I walked past him on my way back from dinner. I felt much safer having my pepper spray on me, but it it would be far better of we did not have to arm ourselves with chemical weapons just to feel safe walking down the street!
This time it was clear to me that I was just being harassed (and I felt that it was harassment, even though on one level I was also feeling affirmed by the attention) because I was a woman. It was simply the way these men felt they could behave when confronted by a woman out on her own.
I do not mind a man ‘noticing’ me, but when he makes a comment that is able to be heard by a number of strangers and when he follows you, the attention crosses a line. It becomes scary and uncomfortable.
This is why I think Slutwalk is such a great initiative. Men must learn that their actions have consequences and that their ‘simple leer’, whilst maybe a simple acknowledgment of someone they find attractive also legitimises less innocent behaviour and inter alia makes the world a less safe place for women.
The Johannesburg 2017 Slutwalk takes place on Saturday 16 September at Pirates Sport Club, 4 Cruden Bay Road, Greenside. It would be great to see as many women (transwomen, ciswomen, gender fluid people, whatever) and men who support these notions participating in Slutwalk and showing the world that we care.