Slut-Shaming Enables Rape

As you may have heard, SlutWalk started in response to a Toronto police officer saying that women should avoid dressing like sluts in order to avoid harassment or rape. And what was originally intended to be a local rally has inspired dozens of similar marches around the world.


The word “slut” has a rather difficult and complex history. Some folks embrace it and reclaim it, while others argue that there isn’t any way for women to reclaim a word that has been so loaded with sexist messages. There has also been some really great discussion about the different impact the word has on women of color and the different relationships they may have with both the term and the notion of reclaiming it.

I’ve been sitting with how I feel about that police officer’s statement. In particular, I’ve been wondering why it’s such a prevalent and resilient idea. And I think that, in addition to the overwhelming pattern of blaming people who have been sexually assaulted, there’s a very small grain of truth hidden in there. I feel a need to acknowledge it because I think its existence needs to be integrated into strategies for working to end rape.

One way that many perpetrators choose who to assault is by picking victims who won’t be believed or supported. Not that they have a shortage of options, given our cultural attitudes towards women, female sexual empowerment, and violence. And when a woman is wearing clothes that other folks will describe as slutty or sexual, there is the possibility that a perpetrator might choose to assault her because it’s likely that she’ll be blamed or ignored. Perpetrators and predators go after targets they think they can get away with, and women who are perceived as sluts make easier targets. Slut-shaming makes victim blaming easier. (That’s not the only way that perpetrators choose who to attack- dynamics of sexism, racism, economic inequality, sexual orientation, migrant status, physical or mental disability, and other factors can also play into that.)


I think this one grain of truth makes this idea so hard to shake. The difficulty is that it’s rarely framed carefully enough to be clear that it isn’t the whole story. Someone’s choice of clothing doesn’t cause rape. Slut-shaming creates vulnerability that perpetrators take advantage of. Unless we can hold onto the whole picture, it’s easy for someone with the best of intentions to reinforce slut-shaming and victim-blaming instead of placing the responsibility for sexual assault where it belongs- with the perpetrators. And at the same time, when anti-rape activists focus on the choices that perpetrators make without acknowledging that how a woman looks is one factor that can influence those decisions, each side ends up talking past the other. Until we can hold onto both pieces at the same time, we’ll keep going around in circles.

Of course, there are also plenty of people who want to blame the victim, whether that’s because they want to enable rape, or because it’s easier or feels safer than looking at the root causes of sexual assault, or from any other motivation. And slut-shaming can happen for plenty of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with someone’s sexual experiences or presentation. Each of these pieces is incredibly complex, which makes it even harder to get a handle on how slut-shaming and sexual assault connect.

When someone says “if women didn’t dress like that, they wouldn’t get raped,” there’s no way to know whether they’re saying that because they want to blame the victim rather than placing the responsibility on the perpetrator, or because they’re pointing out that this vulnerability exists, some combination of the two, or something else entirely. Given that the excusing rape is so common and the discussing vulnerability to it is rarely done with clarity, it’s easy to see why they sound alike, regardless of the intentions of the speaker. The fact is, people are assaulted while wearing business wear, jeans & t-shirts, floor-length dresses, yoga clothes, and yes, tight clothing that shows a lot of skin. Clothing doesn’t make anyone safe from assault, and reinforcing the idea that it does only provides a false sense of security in exchange for blaming the wrong people for rape.


The very first therapist I ever had told me something once that has stuck with me for years. People tend to get stuck in patterns, and for some reason, we have a remarkable tendency to try to break the pattern by attacking it at the strongest point, which rarely works. If we can identify what’s going on and break it anywhere else, the entire cycle falls apart. So it’s a lot more effective to look for the weakest link, or at least, a link that is most susceptible to our influence.

With that in mind, here’s the dynamic that I see around this particular facet of sexual assault. Slut-shaming is based on judging women for their perceived sexuality, including personal presentation. Judging people negatively creates vulnerability because we tend to discount their experiences and see them as less worthy. Many perpetrators look for potential victims who are vulnerable because they know they’re more likely to be able to get away with assault. This is one way that slut-shaming enables sexual assault.

I don’t know if there’s any way to change the fact that predators and perpetrators select victims who they think they can get away with attacking. What we can help create, though, is a world in which how someone dresses, or who she has sex with, or what kinds of sex she has, or how many partners she has had, or whether she enjoys sex, or any other aspect of her sexuality or her body isn’t used to shame her. I can imagine that world. I can imagine a world in which we no longer use slut-shaming to police gender roles. I can imagine a world in which we don’t make women vulnerable by judging or shaming them for being sexual, in whatever way they choose and for whatever reasons they choose, including not being sexual at all.

One way to help create that world is to stop slut-shaming and move towards sex-positivity, which focuses on the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the participants rather than the types of sex someone does or doesn’t have. We can change our language when we talk about sex. We can learn to let go of judging people for their sexualities. We can teach our children to not slut-shame. We can stop reinforcing the virgin/whore dichotomy.  We can stop worrying about  how many partners someone has had and focus on how they feel about themselves. We can place the responsibility for sexual assault where it belongs. These are some of the things that we each can do to end the vulnerability that slut-shaming creates.

Ending slut-shaming isn’t the only thing that need to happen to end sexual assault. There are lots of other factors that need to be addressed, too. We need to honor and respect everyone’s integrity, their consent, and their autonomy. Combating slut-shaming is only one piece of that, especially since (as others have pointed out), different communities have different experiences around it. And ending slut-shaming doesn’t affect the ways that racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, disability, economic inequity, or any other forms of social injustice and oppression create vulnerability to assaults of all kinds, including sexual assault. As my math professor used to say, it’s necessary and insufficient.


So that’s why I’ll be at SlutWalk SF Bay Area. Even with all of its flaws and limitations, it is an important piece of the puzzle and I support it. SlutWalk isn’t about promoting sexual promiscuity. It isn’t about women marching in skimpy clothing (although you wouldn’t know it from much of the media coverage). It’s about stopping slut-shaming and not letting people use it to excuse sexual assault. If you’re looking for a local SlutWalk event, check this page.

SlutWalks aren’t the only ways to work towards ending rape, and while I’m glad to see the passion that they have inspired, I also want to see some of that directed towards other efforts. I want to see less generalizing about “women’s experiences” and more integration of the different mechanisms that affect various communities and cultures. I want to see more people calling out the newspapers and websites that focus on the “skimpy clothing” of some SlutWalk participants instead of talking about the real reasons behind the marches. I want to see more people volunteering at rape crisis hotline (here’s a list of some of them, but it doesn’t show every agency). I want lawyers and judges and the police to stop excusing rape and blaming the survivors. And I want the perpetrators to be held accountable for sexual assault, every time.

On an individual level, I want more people to donate their time and money to rape crisis hotlines and agencies. Put your local rape crisis hotline in your phone, in case you or a friend needs it. Advocate for sexual equality. Push for better treatment from the police and legal systems. Speak up when people joke about rape. Learn how to set boundaries and hear boundaries. Help your friends, lovers, families, and children to do the same. Learn and help others learn how to say “no”, how to say “yes”, and model it for the people in your life. Learn how to not judge women for being sexual. Learn to stop making excuses for perpetrators of any gender. Promote sex-positivity, honor sexual diversity, and celebrate love, passion, and joy in all their forms. Learn how to stop slut-shaming.


There are lots of ways that we can each contribute to this work because there are many different strands that have come together to create a culture that enables rape. SlutWalks are just one part of the work to change that. What are you doing about it?
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2 Responses so far.

  1. Airial says:

    Great post, Charlie!!

  2. daveb says:

    Enclosed is a column by Mark Morford about sluts from 18 June 2004-way before the current controversy flare-up.

    As far as I remember, the term ‘slut’ applied to any girl or woman who acted ‘different’ from the so-called normal sexual practices of the times. This relegated them to side of society and provided the contrast of the ‘bad example’ to the ‘good girl’pf the times.

    Also, what has always amazed me in the definition of ‘sluts’is the generalization that men have such little self-control when in the presence of women who are dressed inappropriately’. It seems that the strength of men’s will/moral education disappears when in confronted by such women.

    I can turn into a gibbering idiot when I first meet a woman for the first time and the mental fantasies run fast & loose but to act out a physical rape of that woman based upon her attitude & dress negates my self-consciousness and morals.

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