I think the world is going through a shift in paradigms. With pop-feminism on the rise, terms like 'rape culture' and 'slut-shaming', which used to be restricted to exclusively feminist spaces are making their way into our mainstream media and everyday conversations. In many places, we are learning not to shame survivors of sexual violence, and most gratifyingly, these progressive steps are being taken in communities and amongst individuals who may not even necessarily align themselves with the feminist movement. In fact, in some ways, one could argue we are on the verge of a cultural shift in terms of how instances of sexual violence are treated; in a way that honours survivors instead of shaming them.
As much as I recognize that we do have a long way to go, I can't begin to describe how happy the direction we seem to be moving in makes me.
However, I have been noticing a trend that worries me. Among the huge community of well-meaning people who aim to be part of ending sexual violence, many are going about it in a way that continues to place responsibility in the hands of those who experience it. I myself have recently heard a number of versions of this sentiment: "Of course I don't think anybody deserves to be assaulted, but women should know that there are bad people out there- shouldn't they dress more modestly to protect themselves from them? I mean why do they even want to dress that way anyway if they know how people will react?" Although this sentiment doesn't explicitly blame victims, it continues to place responsibility for sexual violence on their shoulders- and it does so by policing their choice of dress. The reason I choose to address it in this post is because I believe that a lot of the people who hold this view or views similar to it mean to empower- and not to shame- and I think if I could perhaps demonstrate the ways in which this attitude is one of slut-shaming, some may reconsider their stance. Because slut-shaming is not only ineffective in an effort to reduce/end sexual violence, it is actively harmful.
To slut-shame is to misunderstand the nature of sexual violence. Sexual violence, whether it expresses itself in the form of harassment, assault, rape, or anything else, is not about attraction. It is about power, control, and domination. The myth that certain forms of dress or behaviour can instigate sexual violence is perpetuated despite repeated examples against the claim.
Here's why it's harmful: much of it comes down to space, and how it is occupied. The narrative that is built by asking women to dress conservatively for safety is one that dictates that public spaces are owned by men, and that women are trespassers in them. Because if we believed that women had as much of a claim to public spaces as men do, we would not exclusively tell women* to compromise their freedom (read: the freedom to dress how they want to) in them. Not only does this reinforce the sexist and untrue dichotomy of men as predatory and women as weak, it turns women into second-class citizens in relation to men by placing limits on just them.
We need to recognize that restricting an individual's freedom does not keep them safe- in fact, it hurts far more than it could ever help. Furthermore, as people concerned with ending sexual violence, our focus should be on those who choose to be violent towards others- because they never share the blame or responsibility for that violence with those they take it out on. To end on a constructive note, here is a great article by Lauren Taylor on effective, supportive ways to participate in actually ending sexual violence!
*Another problem with exclusively giving cis-women "advice" on how to avoid/prevent sexual violence is that it ignores that fact that the group is not the only one that experiences it. But the sexism, transmisgyny, and other aspects of oppressive culture underlying that is something better discussed by people who experience it.