Catherine Marcus is a civil servant and writer
“Reclaim your inner slut”, say the organisers of Slutwalk – a movement which originated in Toronto in protest at a comment by Mark Sanguinelli, a police officer, to a group of students that they should avoid dressing like sluts, in order to help prevent sexual attacks. Here in Britain, who knew our inner slut had been lost? The acreage of goose-pimply flesh on display, covered by the briefest of belts – oh sorry, that’s a skirt – on most local high streets on a Saturday night would suggest that the nation’s inner slut hasn’t gone anywhere.
I think Sanguninelli’s words were bracingly honest – a reflection of the world as it is, with all the attending risks, as opposed to the utopic sentiment of "this is how the things should be". It shows more respect to women to ask them to take responsibility for themselves than it does to pretend that certain dangers do not exist in order to preserve their idealistic view of the world. It is infantile to dictate how people are meant to interpret provocative dress, and it is dangerous to pretend that deliberately setting out to excite sexual interest carries no risks whatsoever. It is the mark of a sophisticated, civilised society that it extends equal freedoms to all its citizens, and recognises women’s greater vulnerability to the threat of sexual violence that has given rise to the protection of the law.
We are lucky to live in a country where rape is taken seriously, as the row over Ken Clarke's remarks shows, an d an accusation will be investigated and dealt with as the serious violation that it is. But we make a mockery of the freedoms our society affords us if we pretend that we are "fighting" for the right to dress in a sexually provocative manner, as though we are making some grand post-feminist political statement. Dressing like a slut is an act of insecurity, a lack of confidence in one’s allure, a reversal of the traditional order in which men enjoyed the thrill of the chase. Dressing like a slut reduces men to jaded voyeurs, observing the parade of flesh on display before making their pick with a minimum of effort involved. Behaving like a slut reduces sex to the sum of its parts, a perfunctory meeting of skin and fluids, transient pleasure offset by the embarrassment of too much intimacy shared with a stranger. The age old ritual of impressing, cajoling, courting and seducing a woman is reversed, as unimpressive men take their pick from the drunken girls willing to leave their dignity on the dance floor.
Dressing like a slut sends out a message, regardless of intention: if this much flesh is on display for free, what little that remains uncovered is going for a song. And, sadly, the maxim holds true that people do not value what they obtain too easily. It is perverse to suggest that dressing like a slut is somehow a political gestur - two fingers up to the repressive male patriarchy or whatever it is being dressed up as by the proponents of Slutwalk. Being sexy, or dressing in a manner that is attractive to men, is distinct from dressing like a slut. Being sexy is an assertion of women’s ancient power over men. Dressing solely for the purpose of signalling availability shows a lack of confidence, as though a woman cannot trust that a man will be intrigued or interested in her unless she advertises her willingness to have sex in flashing lights.
Women increasingly lack confidence in their allure and therefore feel the need to wander around half-naked in order to attract the attention of men. It is not patriarchal repression that erodes women’s self-esteem, but the lack of a patriarchal system that allows women to debase themselves in a way that they (usually) come to regret. There is nothing empowering about sleeping with someone who may be happy to exchange bodily fluids, but balks at the exchange of surnames and phone numbers. It is thrilling and exciting to enter into the night, unsure of what the next few hours will bring, transported by cheap booze and throbbing dance music. Pleasure and fun should not be denied to women "for their own safety" or for any preventative reason, but it must be acknowledged that the adjuncts of these nights – the drunkenness, the drugs and the casual sex – carry a price tag of their own.
In the case of one night stands, I have yet to meet any woman who rates sex with a stranger as being superior to that which is enjoyed with a long-term l over. It can be hot, as the thrill of a new body carries an excitement all its own, but men have the advantage here, as they almost invariably emerge satisfied, no matter how transient and emotionally disengaged the sexual exchange. As a rule, it’s the lovers more familiar with our particular topographies who successfully navigate the more complex terrain of female sexuality. It is wrong to pretend that women are like men, with exactly the same desires and impulses. Our psychology is as different as our physiology, and it is tragic to think of young women entering adolescence and adulthood in this hyper-sexualised age, who feel compelled to behave in a certain way out of a misguided sense of bravado, with no real sense of their own worth.
Many of this generation of women can boast a sexual past that would make the Marquis de Sade blush: this is not a society which bears the brunt of a repressive patriarchy, but one that has shrugged off that patriarchy and now must take responsibility for the consequences.