As universities gear up to welcome a new undergraduate cohort, it’s probably a good moment to repeat some words of advice for freshers cited by author Rachel Vail, who came across them in her son’s university orientation handbook: “Consent is really too low a bar. Hold out for enthusiasm.” On the wider issues of sexual harassment and rape culture, Kaitlynn Mendes’ SlutWalk is a timely reminder of the unhealthy state of affairs on so many campuses.
Just last year, a National Union of Students survey found that 37 per cent of female students, and 12 per cent of their male peers, had experienced sexual assault. Rape culture and its repellent sidekick, laddism, clearly persist beyond the excesses of freshers’ week, a time that can be genuinely distressing for many new students, just when everyone’s telling them that they ought to be having the time of their life.
As Mendes makes very clear, the fact is that rape culture is amplified in the microcosms of our campuses because it is so widespread in the macrocosm. Its pervasiveness plays a key part in the reality that an estimated 80 per cent of rapes in Britain and the US are never reported. Rape culture, Mendes writes, “serves as a reminder for women to remain in their ‘proper’ place”; if they do not, “rape, battery or murder” can be the consequences.
Too often rape culture means that women are judged on their behaviour, clothes or attitudes, and, worse still, because of what some men do, or threaten to do, to them. It is a deeply ingrained cultural model. When she considers the infamous 2012 Steubenville case in the US, in which images of an unconscious high school student being raped and assaulted by a group of her male peers were widely circulated on social media, including by the culprits themselves, Mendes gets it spot on: “Not only is men’s entitlement to a woman’s body symptomatic of rape culture, but so too is the lack of knowledge of what rape is.”
The title of Mendes’ book refers to a series of events that were sparked by a 2011 talk given by Michael Sanguinetti, a Toronto police officer, to a group of female students at the city’s Osgoode Hall Law School about how to stay safe on campus. When he said they could start by not dressing like “sluts”, some of those in attendance decided that his victim-blaming must not go unopposed. Heather Jarvis and Sonya Barnett used Facebook to organise a protest march to Toronto’s police headquarters that would attract thousands of participants. The first SlutWalk was followed by similar events around the world.
It would become the very model of a modern political protest movement, mobilised via social networking platforms (Mendes does trace a continuity with pre-Facebook days, too, briefly positioning the Reclaim the Night marches of the 1970s as SlutWalk’s antecedents). What united the participants were shared beliefs about the perniciousness of rape culture; concerns about how the notion of “consent” is seen; calls for freedom of choice for women with respect to clothing and behaviour; and finally, and in some ways most problematically, the determination to reappropriate the word “slut”.
Mendes does a good job of demonstrating how social networking sites can be valuable and democratic platforms for communication and activist mobilisation. She argues that the media focus on SlutWalk has to some extent revivified feminism, and she focuses on Facebook’s role, not least because of its private, invitation-only groups, in forging connections in SlutWalk’s early days, and helping to make it “a transnational feminist movement”. These social networking sites provided space not only for the organisation or mobilisation of protests, but also for debate, education and consciousness-raising. Mendes is aware, too, of the powerful irony that women who use social media can be bullied and harassed on those very platforms, and that such channels can be used to disseminate images of abuse and assault very widely and very quickly, as happened in the Steubenville case.
How the media represented SlutWalk is central to Mendes’ study. She emphasises that her book is not a straightforward history, and positions it instead as a contribution to a wider political project of “storying” feminism. She compares SlutWalks in eight countries (the UK, US, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and Singapore), showing how different cultures protested in different ways. However, the choice of countries is odd, and Mendes seeks to justify it, somewhat unconvincingly, by calling them all “English-speaking”. France, then, is not considered, while Singapore and India, where marital rape is not yet a crime, are.
Moreover, Mendes could have been more alert to current debates around intersectionality. It is only in the book’s third chapter that she really tackles the problematic meaning of “slut” for some women of colour, for example. Here, she looks at how mainstream media outlets “ignore the reality that some women, particularly those who are members of socially marginalized groups, are not only more likely to experience sexual assault over others, but are also more likely to be seen as culpable for their assault”. She also offers an intelligent analysis of this debate, acknowledging “white women’s privilege in taking for granted the fact that they can turn to the police for protection” and highlighting the danger that SlutWalk organisers might gloss over “issues of power and subordination which fuel sexual assault and rape myths”.
Occasionally, her prose veers towards hyperbole and cliché: “SlutWalk not only emerged, but exploded as a global grassroots movement” she observes at one point, and the book contains a number of phrases that should certainly have been edited or even edited out, such as, “According to scholars, feminists never have, and likely never will agree on everything.” Mendes’ hope that SlutWalk might have a “patriarchy-shattering potential” is laudable, but she spreads her net too widely always to do justice to her ideas. This, for example, is promised in chapter 2: “A scholarly review of modern feminism, violence against women, the anti-rape movement and post and Third Wave feminism.” That’s a lot of ground for one chapter of one book to cover.
SlutWalk does a really good job of capturing and recording the genesis and development of a significant early 21st-century feminist movement. Mendes astutely situates the SlutWalk phenomenon in a wider matrix of activism that feeds into and out of it; anyone reading her book will be left in no doubt of its important and well-timed contribution to a bigger project of recording the place of women in the history of social activism.
Mendes’ central objective is to situate SlutWalk as both a specific phenomenon and part of the broader response to an ongoing malaise. At times the analysis lacks detail and feels rushed, and I wonder whether this is a book that is going to date fairly quickly. But the huge amount of primary material she has assembled will be valuable for future scholars, including her focus on Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz’s “mattress protest” in 2014-15; on the events in Steubenville and their media and legal repercussions; and on recent rapes and murders of women and girls in India. It is refreshing to have such articulate scrutiny of events so soon after the fact in this earnest, intelligent and angry book.
SlutWalk: Feminism, Activism and Media
By Kaitlynn Mendes
Palgrave Macmillan, 248pp, £60.00 and £18.99
ISBN 9781137378897, 78903 and 78910 (e-book)
Published 1 July 2015
Kaitlynn Mendes, author of Slutwalk: Feminism, Activism and Media, is lecturer in media and communication at the University of Leicester. She was born in Calgary, Canada and spent time in Texas and Indonesia as a child. For the past six years she has lived in Leicester with her partner Ben, their boys Brayden (3) and Adam (2), “and a very energetic and loving lab named Layla”. She and Ben “met playing rugby at Carleton University in Ottawa, and we emigrated to the UK together when I started my PhD”.
Mendes recalls that she “always loved and excelled in school. Until high school I favoured the sciences and thought I would be a veterinarian, but then I discovered an interest in social studies, and writing essays. I grew up with parents who highly valued education, and they were thrilled when they found out I wanted to pursue academia.
“My dad partially completed an MA and I think he was particularly keen to have his children go further with their education than he did. I also had some wonderful and amazing teachers along the way. In university I bonded with a number of my professors, many of whom I am still in touch with today. They encouraged me to go to graduate school and nurtured my interest in a range of topics such as media and communication, women’s rights and history.”
As an undergraduate, Mendes says, she was “definitely determined and ambitious. I threw myself into everything, including extracurricular activities. I played intramural and competitive sports, and I was heavily involved in our university’s outdoors club. One of the best pieces of advice I was given before I left for university was to get as involved as I could. I still have this mentality today. I have been and continue to be heavily involved in a number of subject associations, and I join in with extracurricular activities – from organising conferences to joining reading groups – whenever I can.”
What about protest marches? Was she politically active as an undergraduate? “Interestingly, not so much, although I volunteered at the Womyn’s Centre, particularly in my last year when I was taking a lot of women’s studies courses. But I have always been interested in politics, and come from a family where we regularly talked about political and social issues.
“My undergraduate degree was also in journalism, so I often wrote about political or social issues. Even though I didn’t necessarily attend political demonstrations, I have always been interested in equality. Living in Jakarta and Houston also opened up my eyes to poverty, racism, homophobia and sexism.”
Moving to the UK was “definitely a culture shock”, Mendes recalls. “Mostly, I was surprised at how casual and approachable academics were. Whereas in Canada I addressed everyone as ‘Professor’, in Britain everyone was on a first-name basis. I liked the way UK academics broke down the hierarchical barriers between themselves and students.”
Mendes has recently participated, first as research assistant and later as co-investigator, on research projects looking at young people’s view of the BBC. Did she find affection among that age cohort for publicly funded broadcasting and “old” media (television, radio) generally?
“There was a definite sense among many of the children and young people we spoke to on this project that the BBC was important. Sine this project was about news, most also recognised the importance of news in their everyday lives and really wanted news provision that reflected them, their interests, concerns and lives. Unfortunately, many felt that young people were either ignored or demonised, which is a surefire way of alienating them.”
She adds: “As for the types of media they consume, particularly for younger children, TV still plays a central role. While this research was done a few years ago, we found that many (particularly the younger ones) simply lacked either the technical know-how to use, or access to, new technologies. For example, many young people had their online media time monitored or restricted by parents. I think parents feel more comfortable letting their kids watch TV alone than, say, browse the internet alone. In Northern Ireland, radio was also mentioned as being important, although it was generally a really overlooked medium. However, I do wonder how much these views would be seen to have changed if we did the study today, particularly among older children and their views about online news provision.”
What gives Mendes hope? “Lots of things. I was astounded by the ways that the SlutWalk movement was made up not only of seasoned activists and feminists, but also of ordinary people who were just sick of the sexism and slut-shaming they saw in their everyday lives and decided to do something about it.
“It also gives me hope to see feminism becoming more mainstream. I am PI on a project looking at the ways feminists are using social media to challenge misogyny, sexism and rape culture, and one of our case studies is a high school feminist society. I am amazed that teenage girls not only know what feminism is and embrace it, but are willing to come together in solidarity to support one another and to stand up against sexism when they see it.
“I also have hope when I see my two young sons and hear them repeat things I say about how girls and boys are both fill in the blank (strong, smart, funny, good at sports). I am hopeful when I see I’m not the only one raising my boys not to see the world in pink and blue. We are at this really crucial point…where feminist ideas aren’t foreign concepts, but seem to just ‘make sense’.”
Also offering grounds for hope, Mendes suggests, is the “marked shift this past year alone in terms of social awareness, particularly around sexism” among the undergraduates she teaches at Leicester.
“Whereas in the past few of my students would identify as feminists at the start of term, now the majority do. Whereas in the past most believed women had achieved equality, now most recognise that sexism still exists and are keen on challenging those views. Some of those students have attended protests and demonstrations, but many more are participating in online activism, or are part of the feminist blogosphere, even if just as a reader.”