On sexism, rape apologists and slut dropping

A couple of weeks ago I saw this article in the Independent. It’s received a certain amount of internet notoriety in the right circles – it describes the inherent sexism in behaviour during fresher’s week at UK universities – ranging from Tarts and Vicars themed fancy dress, to a practice they identified as ‘slut-dropping’. It is something of a truism that most shop-bought women’s fancy dress will be of a revealing or sexual nature. I don’t see this as a big deal in relation to other issues of institutionalised sexism – equal pay, employment and education opportunities are moe of a hot topic to me than what I see as ‘low-level’ sexism. I get more enraged by letters addressed to Mrs C. Brunton than I do by women who choose to wear tart-tastic fancy dress (although my husband’s name may be Chris, and I have opted to take his surname as a symbol of respect and mutual partnership, I do not accept that with marriage I relinquish my right to have a first name, and will almost always return such correspondence with ‘not known at this address’). Yes, slutty fancy dress is indicative of a culture that values women by physical appearance rather than intrinsic merit, but the wheels of change are slow. The better respected and more well-educated women are, the less I see slutty fancy dress as an issue – if you don’t want to dress as a tart, well, don’t. If you do want to indulge in some slutty fancy dress – well that’s your call. No one is forcing you to do so, and heck, you may even want to dress up as a tart.  No, the real issue here was that of ‘slut-dropping’.

Now I’ll preface this with my personal opinion, which is that this has all the hallmarks of an urban myth. The practice described involved some juvenile men driving into town to pick up clearly drunk girls. They ask for her address, offering to take her home. Once she accepts, they drive in the opposite direction, and dump the girl on the wrong side of town, videoing her as they leave. Although this one incident may have taken place, no other reports or evidence of this practice have surfaced. In fact in this case, the young man interviewed knew that it had taken the girl eight hours to get home, as ‘they were ‘friends’ on Facebook’. Nobody questions that this is poor behaviour, but even under some fairly close scrutiny, this hasn’t emerged as a trend elsewhere, and doesn’t appear to be as random behaviour as the Telegraph suggests, as the lads knew this girl – the Telegraph article makes it out to be endemic, where I think it is actually more a hyped up, exaggerated story told in fresher’s week about an isolated event. The extent to which I find it troubling that young men wish to crow about abusing vulnerable women, and the social reasoning behind this is something that I will not be discussing in this post, but suffice to say that I do not underestimate the damage of these attitudes.

What actually surprised me more was the diversity of opinion about the behaviour exhibited by the young woman in this story amongst other women that I discussed it with. I would like to clarify that none of us were so crass as to suggest that the girl concerned ‘had it coming to her’ for choosing to be drunk, provocatively dressed, or perhaps overly trusting – but our ideas about acceptable risk, responsibility, and in fact the very idea of trusting men were remarkably different. A short discussion also quickly leads (whether you meant it or not) into a discussion about victim-blaming, and to what extent the victim can/should be responsible for what has happened to them. It’s an understandably prickly issue with a great deal of potential for offence to be caused – but they are questions worth asking, which substantially inform the way society both teaches (and then later expects) people to treat one another.

Let me start by saying that we all felt the same way about the article’s description of slut-dropping – it appears to have been an unpleasant, but ultimately quite isolated incident. Due to the manner in which the story was told, even this recounting of the incident is likely to be exaggerated, and potentially quite removed from the reality of what took place. What we discussed more closely was whether or not it was acceptable to:

– dress provocatively

– be drunk and separated from a group

– get into a car with strangers, or at least a group of young men who you are unlikely to have known for long (as this took place in Fresher’s week)

– any combination of the above

I re-iterate that questioning these things may feel like something of a backwards step toward victim blaming when awesome feminist groups like this one on Facebook regularly (and quite rightly) vocally defend women’s right to dress and act as they please without expecting to be abused because of their gender. Too right. However, we do not live in a perfect world, and just because we realise that being in possession of breasts does not give men the god given right to abuse, doesn’t mean that everyone else thinks that way. In fact, women are regularly abused simply by virtue of being women, in a multitude of ways. To what extent is it a woman’s ‘responsibility’ to safeguard against this?

In some respects, the most extreme response I heard was the most ‘feminist’ if you will. It came from a young woman in her twenties who simply put it that she didn’t choose to live her life expecting everyone to be abusive, or a danger. She had hitch-hiked before, and may have got into that car if offered a lift home late at night. Although she may not personally choose to, there is no reason for a woman not to dress provocatively or be drunk. When we countered that these behaviours came with strong associated risks, if not of rape then certainly of sexual harassment, also potentially of mugging, she responded that actually in most rape cases the rapist is known, and known well to the victim. They are a relative, or a current (or previous) sexual partner rather than an opportunist stranger. They exist, but aren’t perhaps as common as we have been made to think. That aside, she pointed out that none of the behaviours we discussed were a crime. Nor do any of them directly incite another individual to commit a crime towards you – so why in heaven’s name should you live like you expect someone to rape or abuse you? The victim has done nothing which is by any standard ‘wrong’. They have worn the clothes they wanted to wear, and they have been trusting of another human being offering help – how would they be in any way to blame if those young men abused her in any way?

My view is actually the one that could most easily be viewed as rape apologism. Although I will defend any woman’s right to wear what she pleases and go where she pleases, I don’t necessarily believe that these will always represent sensible, or well-reasoned decisions. Just as I wouldn’t recommend a young man to drunkenly walk home and get the attention of other young men worse the wear for drink, I don’t recommend it to a woman either. The young man risks a fight or a mugging. He probably stands a better (even if not a good) chance of defending himself, but nonetheless, I would still say he had put himself into a vulnerable position. A young woman who gets into a car with a near-stranger similarly risks mugging, but is also at a higher risk of sexual assault. She is more likely to be harassed, and even if she avoids the worst of risks, is more likely to have a rough night, feeling scared and vulnerable. The victim never deserves blame – but the victim could possibly have been better educated about risk assessment. They could have been better served by a system which is about fear-mongering rather than teaching girls and women how to take care of themselves in a situation which may be dangerous.
So no, I don’t think it is a good idea to accept a lift home. I personally keep an emergency five pound note for a cab home, and book a cab rather than get into a random one if possible. I check the cab driver’s (now compulsory) licence is displayed correctly which is the best assurance I can have that the car I am getting into is safe. And if I’m really worried, I text a friend to say I’m coming home by cab. Nonetheless I am the other product of an education system which teaches fear rather than rationale – rather than believing it will never happen to me, I believe I am always at risk.

I don’t blame the victim but I do believe that the first step towards minimising crimes against women is realistic teaching of risk and how to handle threatening situations. If we want to stop a culture which blames women for being abused or raped, and we want to stop these crimes happening, we have to teach that rape isn’t always from an opportunistic attacker. We need to teach sensible life choices and sensible day to day precautions. We need to teach young men respect and we need to teach them when their jackass behaviour is going to put someone vulnerable at risk, be it a man or a woman. And above all, we need to keep on making sure that men like this and this continue to be a laughing stock and stay out of power.

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One thought on “On sexism, rape apologists and slut dropping

  1. I think that all boils down to be responsible and fully aware of our surroundings. There are things that we cannot avoid, but when we unconsciously ask for things to happen to us, it’s like going for a midnight jog at the park, you are asking to be mugged, same rule applies to all.
    Of course rape is a very delicate subject and one cannot generalize or be frivolous about it.
    Nice post.

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