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‘Slut’, the destructive force of a concept and a word

Women are labelled as good or bad according to how they exercise their sexual independence, which has reached absurd levels when deciding in incidents of rape who and who is not subject to rights and protection.

Text: Marjorie Andrea González Ramírez

Photos: Mauricio Albarracín Caballero

Recently, since early 2011, women have carried out protest marches in various locations around the world seeking, among other things, to reclaim the freedom to dress as women and not be branded ‘indecent’ or blame the victim of  the sexual violence for ‘provoking it’.

For some these marches are revolutionary and defiant, for others they are inappropriate and have a strong sexist element.

‘Slutwalk’, which originated in Canada, and was attended by about 3000 people bearing the slogan ‘No means no’, is a resounding rejection of the declaration made by  the police officer, Michael Sanguinetti, during a civil security conference at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto in January 2011, about how women bore responsibility for sexual attacks by men.

The officer said that women provoke men ‘by dressing like sluts’, words which disconcerted hundreds of people as well as Human Rights organisations.

The main aim of the protest was to demand the right to sexual safety, and that a woman’s clothing would no longer be cited as a pretext to justify violence towards women.

Women from countries including Australia, the UK, the USA, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, Nicaragua and Peru have joined the protest, which has given rise to a movement that challenges stereotypes and demands a life free from violence, consistent with many of the principles of feminist struggles throughout history.

However the name has sparked controversy in some sectors of public opinion. As such, due to a march recently carried out in Ecuador, a local columnist for the daily paper La República said he disagreed with the name, as the word ‘slut’ is a word created by popular speech and stigmatises women.

However, the organisers of the march which took place on the 10th of March 2012 in Ecuador responded vehemently that it was precisely what was needed, to reappropriate the concept and raise awareness for the need to change the perception we have of the word ‘slut’: ‘Not everyone born with a vagina is a woman, nor is every worker emancipated, nor every housewife oppressed – not all sluts are oppressed either.’

In the dictionary of the Real Academia de la Lengua Española (the Royal Spanish Language Academy), the meaning of the word ‘puta’ (the Spanish for ‘slut’ or ‘whore’) refers to a prostitute. However this word, with its negative history, and in the framework of a conservative, chauvinist society, has more than one use.

On one hand it is used as an insult, and on the other to violate the dignity of women who show themselves to be liberated in the face of traditional patriarchal codes of conduct, by deciding freely about their sexual, work and family life.

In this way, society stigmatises and somehow criminalises women who are deemed transgressors of ‘moral and good behaviour’, leaving them exposed to all kinds of humiliation, not entitled to protection  nor to claim their rights, the common argument being ‘she asked for it’.

‘The stigma of ‘slut’ is therefore an instrument of control, so that women comply with the limits that still restrict female sexuality. Sluts represent everything that a ‘decent’ woman should not do, and their criminalisation means that we all learn our lesson,’ explains the Spanish writer and psychologist Cristina Garaizabal.

For this reason not only have those who work in the sex industry joined the movement, but also all those who identify with the outrage that is generated by the abuse and violation of women. Those people who end up feeling justified in attributing these attacks to the way a woman is dressed or acting are unaware of the effect they have on a woman’s right to freely develop her personality, to her independence, to a life free from discrimination and violence, to a life of sexual safety.

A study by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights on the access to justice for female victims of sexual violence in Central America in 2011 states that in 2010 in Guatemala there was only one conviction of sexual violence compared with more than 200 complaints for this type of case, in a sample carried out in part of the country.

A similar situation occurred in El Salvador, where there were 1,305 reports of violation of sexual freedom between January and July 2010, and only 47 convictions.

In Colombia, according to a press release from the Ombudsman on March 8th 2012, 20,142 legal medical exams were performed as a result of alleged crimes of sexual violence, of which 84% were women and 16% were men. Incidents of sexual violence towards women in the area of armed conflict are used ‘with the objective of exercising territorial control, imposing standards of behaviour and ‘punishing’ female leadership.’

Beyond the debate over the use of language, these profoundly political movements have been full of dignity, joy and hope, and have motivated hundreds of people.

These protests of objection – more than 40 around the world – have been justified by the high levels of sexual violence towards women, which translates into a structural and systematic problem with a large element of impunity. It’s a situation that, because of the revolutionary movement of the protest marches, will continue to be a topical issue.

(Translated by Sarah Watson)

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