The spring sunshine burns down on the gathering crowd at the Melbourne State Library. Women both young and old stand on the steps holding signs. A girl in a bra, stockings and garters hangs off a nearby lamppost trying to capture the perfect shot of the crowd. There is an aura of peace and solidarity amoung the group – every moment of eye contact is met with a smile. I feel comfortable and welcome.
Co-founder and organiser Karen Pickering steps up to the microphone at the front of the crowd and welcomes everyone to SlutWalk 2014.
“Why do we march at SlutWalk? We’re here because we want to say to survivors of sexual assault and rape that it was not your fault”
The crowd erupts with cheers and applause.
Karen goes on to talk about how research shows that between the ages of 10 and 19 women are most vulnerable to acts of sexual assault. I’m sure most of the feminist community can agree that street violence, like rape, slut shaming, domestic violence and victim blaming are symptoms of a deeply patriarchal society. As research also shows , sexual violence is often about power and dominance. In most cases, whether or not someone was provocatively dressed or drunk has nothing to do with why they were harassed.
“The only thing that leads to a rape is a rapist” Kat yells at the crowd.
The group begins to shuffle down Swanston Street towards Federation Square. Girls on either side of me walk with their heads held high, displaying their breasts and messages written in lipstick on their bodies proudly. As the march moves on others begin to feel more comfortable in the space and strip off layers of clothing.
Another organiser with a megaphone at the front of the crowd begins a chant: “No more victim blaming! No more slut shaming!”.
The police stop the march at some lights so that traffic can pass through. It’s then I start to look around and notice the masses of people on the street that have stopped to watch us. Out of the corner of my eye I see a man leaning on a power box shout something at the girl next to me. She lowers her sign and turns to him. Exactly what he’s saying is inaudible but the rage is clearly evident on his face. He snarls and shouts at her before two other girls grab her by the shoulder and they move on.
It was in that moment I realised how unprepared I was for the public’s reaction to SlutWalk. As the group moved on I could see gaggles of men exchange quiet looks and shoot us unnerving smiles. Three cheering men lean out of the window of a tram and holler at the topless women to walk faster.
What may have been worse though were the blank and confused expressions of the female onlookers.
The march chanted as loud as ever as we passed Flinders Street Station.
It was tempting to let the mixed reactions of the public dampen my enthusiasm for the day’s events. Just like with many other feminism campaigns, SlutWalk is met with some a defensive opposition. It can feel like all the hard work of the organisers and participants is fruitless.
SlutWalk originated in Toronto in 2011 in response to a police officer’s outrageous comments about how women should change what they wear in order to prevent being sexually assaulted. Since then SlutWalk has become a global movement, with marches being held annually, inspiring young women and spreading the message about putting an end to victim blaming and slut shaming.
It is unfortunate however that in 2014 there is still a need to protest about these issues. The response of some of the onlookers reminded me that some people are not only unaware of victim blaming but also don’t respond well to the presence of feminists. What’s more saddening is a recent VicHealth survey found that one in five Australians believe that a woman is partially to blame if she is sexually assaulted whilst under the influence of alcohol. Chief executive officer Jerril Rechter said that attitudes towards violence against women “haven’t improved much since the first survey was completed (1995)”.
So we are reminded now more than ever of the importance of holding events like SlutWalk. Although there is clearly more work to be done, it’s essential that we challenge the public to think about how they view women’s bodies. It’s still important to get the message out there. To show people that we are not inherently sexual beings that need to cover up least we attract unsavoury attention or even violence. We can express our sexuality without fear of being shamed for it the same way that men are not shamed for it.