In 2011, a Canadian police officer giving routine advice to Toronto students about personal safety said: "I've been told I'm not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised."
While he clearly expected his rape-culture indiscretion to be acceptable, Michael Sanguinetti instead ignited a sea of protests across the world with thousands of people, fed up with victim blaming, taking to the streets.
Today, SlutWalks happen each year in more than 100 cities in 20 countries.
Read more: Why you should Slutwalk
Driven by local actress Sass Shultz, the SlutWalk movement came to Johannesburg a few months after the police officer’s comment. For rape survivor, Karmilla Pillay Siokos – who is speaking at the upcoming SACAP Festival of Learning - the event turned out to be a particular milestone on her personal healing journey and the inspiration to turn activist.
She recalls: “One of the speakers got up on stage in boys’ flannel pyjamas. She talked about how relieved she was that she was wearing those shapeless, flannel pyjamas, in her own bed, when strangers broke into her house and raped her.
That way nobody could blame her.
Then she started unbuttoning her shirt and said, “But what if…?” As she flung off the shirt, revealing a sexy little top underneath, she asked, “…I had been wearing this instead, would it give anyone the right to violate me?” In that moment, for the first time I fully understood that I was not to blame for being raped.
It didn’t matter that he was not a stranger in the bushes. It didn’t matter that I had been drinking. It didn’t matter that I didn’t fight hard enough. All that mattered was that I said, “No”. I said “No”, and he didn’t listen. That is rape.
The weight of shame and guilt that I had been holding onto for nearly 20 years melted away. I knew that my life’s purpose had to be to bring this understanding and healing to as many survivors as possible.”
Rape culture in South Africa is a chronic condition across every aspect of our society. We may shake our heads in despair at our horrifying statistics, and we may wring our hands at every nightmarish high profile rape story. We surely demand that ‘somebody does something’ to stop it.
But we don’t take accountability for our part in the rape culture, and very few do anything meaningful to contribute to our transformation to a culture of consent.
It turns out that SlutWalking is pretty uncomfortable for us, South Africans. We’ve mostly got a knee-jerk reaction to the word ‘slut’ that shows we’re still deeply mired in the paternalistic ‘good girl-bad girl’ mythology that, instead of telling our boys and men NOT to rape - aka a culture of consent, points out to them WHO to rape.
As the baggy pyjama-wearing gang-rape survivor cuttingly attested to at South Africa’s inaugural SlutWalk, the reality is that the licence to rape in our South African culture far from results in the neat punishment of the ‘sluts’.
We have a long way to go for the legal and moral concept that NO ONE deserves to be raped to sink into our society. It is the concept that underpins a culture of consent.
“In 2011, SlutWalk was extremely radical for South Africans,” says Karmilla, “It created much controversy that continues today. While countries like Iceland get thousands of participants who are talking about reclaiming the word ‘slut’ in an attempt to challenge societal perceptions of women’s sexuality, activists in South Africa are still trying to get people to understand the basic concept of victim blaming.”
That said, participation in the Johannesburg SlutWalk doubled between 2015 and 2016, and supporters crossed all of the dividing lines of race, gender, age and sexual orientation.
Karmilla notes that: “I find that many South Africans are willing to enter into conversation on the subject of female sexuality. In every public speaking engagement I have had since I started doing this work, whether it is in a room full of activists or a corporate auditorium, there has always been a percentage of people who are willing to rethink their positions after actually listening to a different perspective."
In this sense, I think the use of the word ‘slut’ is effective. It shocks people into listening to what comes after. This opens the door to a conversation about our prejudices.
Some people cling desperately to their beliefs, while others are open to change. For me the option of being able to challenge and confront the stereotypes is what makes the difference.
Even if people are not ready yet to confront the idea that we teach our sons who to rape instead of not to rape; every time the message goes out, it gets heard and that is one step closer to being understood.”
Karmilla will be talking about her personal journey from victim to activist at the SACAP Festival of Learning in Johannesburg from 1:20 to 2:20pm on 19th May 2017.
Venue: SACAP Campus, SACAP, 1st Floor 160 Jan Smuts Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg
Short Talk Programme (evening): R200
Full Day Programme: R200
Student tickets for each event: R80
For more information on the event or ticket queries, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org