Hundreds of people marched down Somerset Road in Green Point as part of the Cape Town leg of the now international Slut Walk event on August 20. The event started after a Canadian policeman made comments about the way women dressed and rape. The march started at Prestwich Memorial and continued to the Cape Town Stadium.

Joanne Hichens

A group of Toronto protesters took to the streets earlier this year in response to controversial comments made by police constable Michael Sanguinetti on a routine visit to advise students at Osgoode Hall Law School on personal safety.

“Women,” he said, “should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.”

His comments, exposing yet again the archaic view that women will undoubtedly invite sexual abuse if they dress in provocative clothing, is all to the good in encouraging debate.

The sensationalism around the worldwide SlutWalks organised from a position of outrage at Sanguinetti’s words, with a SlutWalk held in Cape Town, brings the matter of sexual violation and rape squarely back into the realm of public scrutiny as a burning social issue.

I commend the sentiment behind the walks, and if sensationalism exposes the continuing culture of blaming the victim and works towards challenging bigotry and prejudice, yes, it has a place.

I am, however, concerned that women seem eager to march under the banner of “slut”, a word I consider to have deeply negative connotations, and which prevents me from being wholly supportive of the mobilisation of women to SlutWalk.

Although the Canadian SlutWalk organisers have called for the word to be appropriated by the movement, when considering academic definitions or an urban understanding, the term is derogatory. A “slut”, by definition, is a woman with loose sexual morals, a promiscuous “slattern”; slovenly, a woman who takes many sexual partners; a degenerate Jerry Springer-type.

I would never want my teenage daughters to be described as such, or subscribe to “slutty” behaviour, and therein, getting back to that single word, sits my reservation.

The term diminishes women, and controversially, marching as “sluts” may well reinforce some men’s erroneous views that women are to blame.

I want my daughters to be self-assured, confident, and, yes, to be sensual and sexy. I want them to like their bodies, to appreciate and celebrate their sexuality. I want them to understand that along with a developing sexuality comes responsibility, and part and parcel of that is that they dress appropriately.

How short is too short, some might ask, or how much skin can one show? In a society that provides for all sorts, from burka to bikini, what exactly is appropriate?

Not for one second do I excuse acts of sexual violation, under any circumstances whatsoever, nor am I confusing the issue. Sexual violence against women, against anyone, is abhorrent and cannot be justified.

Rape is about power, it is not dependent on the clothes a woman wears, nor on any of her actions. Is it offensive to suggest that a “sexy” feminine dress code is an invitation for men to perpetrate rape? No.

What I am suggesting, however, is that girls and young women, especially as they come to terms with their burgeoning sexuality during puberty, and beyond, in their dress as well as their actions, ensure that their choices are in line with, and promote, self-respect and self-care.

Looking at dress in particular, to dismiss the notion that overtly sexual dress – or falling in as a “slut”, accepting the underlying implication – plays no role in sexual abuse, is too simplistic.

Dressing in sexy clothes may well enhance the wearer’s sense of “sexiness”, of arousal, and girls and women, if acting impulsively, even if engaging consensually with men, may be at risk.

In an increasingly sexualised society where explicit sexuality has almost become the norm in the public domain – even in the face of the crises of rape and HIV, in a society where females are regarded as fair game by sexual predators and perpetrators of crime, and shockingly large numbers of girls and women are victimised, the priority is to teach that sexual exploitation of any kind is wrong.

The SlutWalks concept, in my opinion, is too confrontational, perhaps rightly and deservedly so against the monsters who rape, but now that the Cape Town SlutWalk is over, the time is ripe to find more meaningful ways to engage around the issues at hand, challenging the attitudes men have towards women, but also discussing attitudes women have towards themselves and their sexuality.

In a Facebook post asking “Are you for or against the SlutWalk Movement”, Sithembiso Mkhize commented: “There’s a growing trend to spread the word using shock statements and acts ... but to some, it devalues the quality of the message.”

The message taught from boyhood must be “No means no”. But girls too must behave with a modicum of decorum, appropriately, to protect what is most precious.

The ultimate aim then, for all, is the recognition of equality, an acceptance of difference, and the fostering of mutual respect between the sexes.

* Hichens is an author and editor. Her crime novel, Divine Justice, will be published in October.