Women's dress keeps hitting the headlines and not because of fashion shows either.
At the beginning of April, the French government decreed that all women had to expose their bodies more as the new law against wearing the veil came into effect. Then a few weeks later, a Toronto policeman was telling students to avoid dressing like a "slut" if they wanted to avoid getting raped. In other words, they should cover up more. And thus the "slut walk" protests were born. In the same week Kenneth Clarke pitched in with the view that some rapes are less serious than others and that men who admit to rape should get reduced sentences.
Attitudes to how women dress are often connected to views about women's sexuality and are also a battleground for women trying to establish their own identity and a right to control their bodies.
The attitude that young women were "sluts" if they were seen as sexually adventurous (a double standard that didn't apply to men, of course) came under sustained attack from the women's movement in the 1970s and 1980s, which fought for a woman's right to control her own body and sexuality and for sexual harassment, violence against women and rape to be taken seriously by society. Rape crisis centres were born and policies against sexual harassment were developed and taken up in work places. Gradually a climate was created which led to a shift in the attitude towards women. Increasingly, young women came to behave like young men and experiment sexually with different partners, a process deepened both by the success of the Gay and Lesbian movements and underpinned by rising levels of women's employment.
But the gains of the women's movement came under sustained ideological assault in the 1990s with the rise of "lad" culture and the co-opting of women's sexuality as women's bodies became yet another commodity with the emergence of "raunch culture". All this was often reinforced by pseudo science was used to promote the view that genes dictate differences between boys and girls from mathematics to sexuality.
Blaming women for rape is part of this backlash. By transferring guilt to the victim, it undermines women's aspirations for equality and their assertion to sexual fulfilment on their own terms. It makes it harder for women to insist on equal pay, to an end to discrimination in jobs and career progression. It pushes women back into the role of being an object, subject to male desire. Just like the argument that "feminism" was "emasculating" men, it makes women feel guilty about demanding equality.
Rape is about the existence of the family and the institutionalisation of the oppression of women. It reflects the fact that for about five thousand years, women's bodies have been considered to be the property of men, particularly the rich and powerful. This is still seen graphically in war time when soldiers are allowed to "rape and pillage" as a reward for being used as killing machines.
However, in advanced capitalist society, outside wartime, the overwhelming majority of rapists are known to the victim, showing that rape has nothing to do with what a woman is wearing. It has everything to do with a continuing underlying assumption promoted by the ruling class, that a man has the right to take a woman's body for his sexual satisfaction regardless of her will, a view reinforced by the commercialisation of women's bodies. In reality, rape is rooted in the unequal relationships between men and women shaped by the family, the institution the ruling class cling to as the means of reproducing the working class.
So the reaction by thousands of women to take to the streets and assert their right to wear what they like is wonderful. It shows that today's young women don't like the dominance of raunch culture. And while many women appear to have bought into the overt commodification of women's sexuality, the angry reactions to that policeman's remarks, show that today's young women believe in the right of a woman to control her own body. It is a good time to reassert that basic notion that "Whatever we wear and wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no".
These protests are about women asserting their right to define their own identities, to dress how they want and to walk the world without being told they are inviting rape or violence. It is also about fighting for a world where no one uses the word slut or whore or ho or bitch about women.
We want a world based on equality and respect. The media isn't going to win that. Women and men marching together will.