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Historical perspectives on Slutwalk


Melbourne SlutwalkSlutwalk is back. Tomorrow, the Australian expression of this international movement will see — according to the organisers' press release — local women and men march the city streets of Melbourne to 'take a stand against rape culture' and condemn 'victim-blaming and slut-shaming'.

That sexual assault has in recent times been justified and trivialised by American and British politicians, lame comedians, and professional footballers may well have a mobilising effect, resulting in a larger turnout than last year's inaugural event.

It may be a reflection of my current occupation — married 35-year-old full-time stay-at-home mother — but I have very little direct experience of the social dynamics that are provoking such outrage. I haven't seen what's happening on city streets at night or worked in an office for years. That my daughters are only three and one respectively means they have (hopefully) at least a decade before anyone starts flinging the insult 'slut' at them.

I remember as a teenager having 'Ugly dog!' and 'We want some pussy!' shouted at me from moving cars, and receiving regular enquiries of 'How much?' as a 20-something St Kilda resident walking home with my groceries.

But now, aside from reading press reports of increasing sexual activity among teenagers, the prevalence of porn, the bringing of sexual harassment suits against sleazy bosses, and the continuing difficulty of bringing rapists to justice, I feel insulated (with some relief, to be honest) from the issues many women deal with daily.

I'm at a loss to know what, exactly, 'rape culture' is. Who, aside from the high profile figures perpetrating or justifying sexual assault and harassment, are the 'shamers'? And who are the 'sluts' being shamed?

While I admit to being out of the loop, as a gender historian, I am familiar with some 100 years worth of past incidents involving the abuse of Australian women and girls. Consequently, when I first read about the emergence of Slutwalk I was instantly reminded of a 1954 article I once came across in a local scandal rag.

The reporter had interviewed several women who declared themselves victims of 'lecherous' 'foreigners'. Walking home from their jobs in lowly paid clerical and factory jobs, these women reported being accosted and harassed by men in Melbourne's inner north. The men were 'flashily-dressed street wolves ... lonely, pleasure-seeking New Australians who live in the hundreds of rooming houses in the Carlton area'.

'It is a shocking state of affairs and should not be tolerated but the district is now overrun with New Australians who regard it as their own territory,' complained one woman. The paper warned women that to be 'alone and attractive courts molestation'.

Italian and Eastern European migrant men were commonly accused of harassing Anglo-Saxon women (as well as running prostitution rings and plying teenage girls with cocaine). The government's post-war migration policy favoured single men as a labour supply source for the burgeoning heavy industries. By the mid-1950s thousands of lonely male migrants were notably present in the cities, and many local-born women found them threatening.

The article fascinated me because it documented — in salacious, sensationalistic language — friction between new migrants and lowly paid young women in a working class suburb.

In the same year, an Australian Gallup Poll revealed that opposition to the migration intake was highest among small business owners, farm workers, unskilled and semi-skilled workers. As historian John Murphy notes, because migrants were automatically assigned to labouring jobs, 'the Australian-born working class most experienced social change as a result of migration'.

For Carlton women that meant — according to the article — being relentlessly propositioned by 'foreign' men. The situation equated to a turf war: who had priority use of the suburb's streets? Local-born Anglo-Saxon women or male migrant intruders?

Like those women, Slutwalk participants defend their right to walk the streets day or night wearing what they want without being harassed or worse. They do not, however, identify certain groups as perpetrators; they are keen to avoid accusations of racism and snobbery. Nor do they argue that some groups are more vulnerable to assault and abuse than others (which could, in effect, patronise such victims for 'lacking agency').

To specify that certain men are victimising certain women would also disregard the prevalence of women 'slut shaming' each other — which surely has as significant an impact on gender equality as any male activity.

While seeking not to stigmatise, the Slutwalk movement's objectives can seem nebulous and confusing. To truly change behaviours, frank discussion of the economic, political and historical factors fuelling 'slut shaming' should be welcomed. Do widening class disparities, resentment between ethnic groups, and the continuing inroads women make into once male-dominated public roles provoke the kind of misogyny Slutwalk rails against?

Beyond the evocative placard slogans ('My clothes are not my consent!'; 'End victim blaming!') some cold hard analysis of who is doing what to whom should be welcomed. Then, maybe, people like me can gain a better understanding of what exactly Slutwalk is all about. 

Madeleine HamiltonDr Madeleine Hamilton is an historian and the co-author of Sh*t On My Hands: A down and dirty companion to early parenthood


Topic tags: Madeleine Hamilton, Slutwalk



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Existing comments

Ask Germaine Greer, Madeleine! Seriously, though, when I was a few years younger than you I read "The Female Eunuch" and what an articulation of women's 'predicament' that was. I think women are judged by the clothes they wear, the company they keep and the choices they make much more than men are. In this country we have a female PM, a female Governor-General (and NSW State Governor), all accomplished women. And look at the flak Gillard, in particular, has copped. The church has been one of the great contributors to gender inequality - do not start me about the Sydney Anglican diocese marriage vow issue. My comment would run to well over 200 words!!

Pam | 30 August 2012  

sexuality between a man and a woman enlivens life -treat it with respect - for men and for women - there is no panacea - there never has been - there never will be - recognise sexual predatoriness is there - look after yourself if you're a woman - respect yourself and your behaviour if you are a man - outlaw and shame sexual bullying if you are a legislator and make it stick - there you have it - it wasn't too hard was it?

f hetherton | 30 August 2012  

Any effort to put the blame for rape where it belongs is welcome. Women have been blamed for 'asking for it' forever...even little old ladies who left the toilet window open on the third floor, or failed to find their key in time to open their car were apparently 'asking for it'. Men rape. Men have to take responsibility for it and stop doing it. Men and women have to stop making excuses for men's bad behaviour. It seems men are able to control themselves on nude beaches. Why can't they control themselves on dark backstreets?

Bernadette Duffy | 30 August 2012  

Thank you, Madeleine, for expressing your desire to gain a better understand of what exactly Slutwalk is all about. Thank you, Eureka Street, for giving some coverage to the issue of violence against women and blame-shifting. Now could we have an article by an organiser of Slutwalk? From what I have heard and seen and read in the mass media there are certainly some very articulate and thoughtful women involved in organising Slutwalk. If anyone would know what exactly Slutwalk is all about it would be one of them.

Uncle Pat | 30 August 2012  

Bernadette Duffy, I don't find your comments helpful in the fight for women's rights and I would go as far as calling them offensive. Men don't rape - criminals rape. Men who rape know they are committing a crime. The men you refer to who are in control on nude beaches are nature-loving, psychologically integrated human beings. But who can't control themselves in the dark backstreets are criminals. It's like cheese and chalk. Some issues are black and white.

AURELIUS | 30 August 2012  

Uncle Pat, the Slutwalk organisers are indeed dynamic, intelligent and admirable in a host of ways. Unfortunately, due to their high demand from the mass media in the weeks leading up to the march, they were unable to respond to questions I posed to them regarding the issues I identify in the article.

Madeleine Hamilton | 30 August 2012  

Thanks for the article and raising such an important issue. Can I suggest using the terminology sexual violence rather than sexual assault as this may to heighten people’s understanding of the severity of rape and its long term effects? It seems to me that sexism & verbal violence toward women in this country is not only alive but increasing. The almost daily verbal attack on prominent women from the PM to the ABC’s Leigh Sales is overwhelming and extremely disturbing. I thought we had laws against gender vilification but yet it flourishes. A few speak out but there is an almost deafening silence from our media and our law makers. Verbal and sexual violence destroy and harm women and therefore effect our community; neither should be tolerated.

Lynda | 30 August 2012  

There is NO excuse for sexual assault or harassment but there is a place for respect for the feelings of others. Dress for where you are. It is disconcerting and deeply uncomfortable for many men and women to be confronted with deep cleavage when standing in public transport or facing someone across a desk, or to be sitting opposite someone whose skirt is so short their nickers are showing. It is not pleasant to walk behind a gaping bum crack.
It is however a joy to swim naked with someone you love and fun to wear cheeky underwear in private. If I want people to be thoughtful and respectful towards me it is clearly sensible to be thoughtful and respectful towards them and their standards. I regularly nursed my children in the presence of others but always with a light scarf so as not to discomfort others. It is not rocket science. It is either ignorant or arrogant to think that one's own behaviour has no effect on anybody else.
There will always be people who have little self control so why make their difficult lives more difficult?

Mary | 01 September 2012  

Aurelius...no matter how you move the pieces around the fact is that the 'criminals' are men. Male. So rather than calling some men good and others criminals we need all the men to make a stand against rape. Why haven't we heard from the 'good' men speaking out strongly against this male crime. They are too busy defending their mates against 'false' claims of rape and relating other horror stories where men have been badly done by. I have often heard the claim that women rape men. You'd probably be one of the blokes that prefers to put that forward than face the fact that men have to change their behaviour. They have to teach the new men coming through that rape is never an option - even in war!

Bernadette Duffy | 04 September 2012  

No, Bernadette Duffy, I am probably NOT one of the blokes who would claim that women rape men, and I am not defending any men who rape women.
But I am am someone who claims that men also rape men, being a victim of that myself. But considering myself one of the "good men" I find it pointless telling men not to rape, because once again I disagree with your original assertion that (all) "men rape". There's no point telling good men not to rape, and I'm not wasting my time trying to educate criminals and rapists because they already know their actions are evil.

AURELIUS | 06 September 2012  

Well Aurelius first of all I'm sincerely sorry to hear that you have been on the receiving end of this crime. But I still have to disagree with your argument that it's useless to tell criminals to behave. If that were true Amnesty International wouldn't have any success at all. It confronts criminals with their bad behaviour and many of them back down. If the majority of men were very vocal in their condemnation of this crime, I'm sure we'd see a great reduction of it.

Bernadette | 08 September 2012  

Bernadette, I agree with you in sentiment, but as far as practicalities go, I honestly can't think of any context where I could be vocal to men about his issue. You mentioned Amnesty's work in this area, but they are a specialised advocacy agency - but the point I was trying to make is not that confronting criminals is a waste of time (even though that's what I wrote) my issue was that that I don't mingle with rapists in my social circle, or even work circle. So telling my respectful colleagues would seem pointless, and in order to target the message in the right place, I suspect I'd need to be a psychologist, criminologist or social worker. To me, it seems a bit like campaigning against murder - it's a clear-cut violation - or maybe I'm just lucky that I live in a section of society not affected by this violence against women and being a peace loving empathetic man, the thought of violating another human being in any way, whether physically or sexually, is totally foreign to me and I would have thought whether men speak up and condemn a crime or not, in the end it's still a criminal matter for the police to deal with. And in order for the police to be able to deal with this crime, rape victims need to play their part. I'm no expert in this area at all, but is it possible women need more encouragement in reporting rape.

AURELIUS | 09 September 2012  

Women have taken rape to be a gendered issue of men as perpetrators and women as victims. It would be a helpful corrective to see how often men are raped by other men and sometimes by women in the third world, prisons, aboriginal communities and places where middle class people never go.

Sexual violence is simply another form of violence usually perpetrated to humiliate. Men need to humiliate other men as readily as they need to humiliate women.

graham patison | 11 September 2012  

Men could be vocal in naming this as a crime and an unmanly way to behave by holding their own regular - eg yearly - marches with placards ( Real men don't resort to rape! Rape is the action of a coward and a bully. There's never a reason to rape! etc ) and gradually growing in numbers till they have huge attendances shaming rapists and showing solidarity with victims both male and female. Asking women to report rape more is a bit of a dead lost. The law allows any infomation about the women to be brought up - Is she living with her boyfriend? How many boyfriends has she had? Has she had any children out of wedlock? Has she had any abortions? Does she drink? What clothes does she wear? Any information about the man accused is inadmissable even if he is a convicted rapist or has been accused of rape multiple times. Women are dragged through the mud. The man or men involved are kept in pristine condition. Many rape cases go against the woman. Many women know this and decide not to bother trying for justice. The law needs to be changed so that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander also.

Bernadette Duffy | 17 September 2012  

The blogger Dalrock was mentioned by Betina Arndt in a Sydney Morning Herald article about women, career, sex and marriage. Searching his site for 'slut' walk or something similar might help.

Martin Snigg | 21 September 2012  

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