After a wave of crime on campus, a forum was held at York University in Toronto in January of 2011 to address prevention methods. While speaking about campus rape, Officer Michael Sanguinetti said, “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this — however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”
Sanguinetti’s Todd Akin-esque comments reflected more than just insensitivity to rape victims. The blame-the-victim mentality had infected Canada’s criminal justice system.
In February 2011, while presiding over a rape case in Manitoba, Justice Robert Dewar cited the 26-year-old victim’s provocative clothing, which included a tube top with no bra, stiletto heels, and a lot of makeup, as what essentially amounted to justification for the crime that was committed. He said the victim and her friend had "made it publicly known that they wanted to party" and said that "sex was in the air." Dewar concluded that the defendant was just "insensitive to the fact she (the victim) was not a willing participant" and sentenced him no jail time for a crime the prosecution thought warranted three years.
This miscarriage of justice resulted in a massive public outcry, including an appeal of the sentence and a review of the judge’s conduct by the Canadian Judicial Council.
On April 3, 2011, over 3,000 people gathered at Queen’s Park in Toronto and marched to the Toronto Police Headquarters in protest not only over Sanguinetti’s insensitive comments and Dewar’s rapist-friendly ruling, but the overall culture of stigmatizing sexual assault victims. Many protesters dressed in "slutty" clothes to make a point that no matter how one dresses, it is not an invitation to be assaulted. This movement became known as SlutWalk, and it spread first all over North America and then the world. It's name originated in reference to Officer Sanguinetti's comments and its intent is to take back and redefine a misogynistic word.
As Pope Francis visits Brazil this week for World Youth Day, a Brazilian version of SlutWalk has held a demonstration on the beaches of Copacabana, wearing, among other things, suggestive nun outfits. The idea behind the demonstrations is to establish a political counterpoint on sexuality.
It is well known that in many places around the world, there is an intense stigmatization of sexual assault victims in cultures with strong customs and taboos regarding sex and sexuality. Some cultures may view a rape victim, especially one who was previously a virgin, as "damaged goods," which leads to the victim being ostracized, disowned by friends and family, perhaps prohibited from marrying or divorced if already married, and sometimes even killed.
The Catholic Church has a well-documented taboo on sexuality in general. While not widely followed, the church's doctrine forbids premarital sex and the use of contraception. Sex is seen as primarily a mode of procreation, and engaging in sex as an act of intimacy is reserved solely for those who have made lifelong commitments to stay together.
To have that as a doctrine is very damaging. It reinforces the idea that those who engage in sex prior to marriage are "damaged goods," which not only makes a personal choice a public issue, but further ostracizes rape victims who had no say in the decision. Telling people in AIDS-ravaged countries that using condoms is a sin, or people living in poverty who cannot afford to raise a child that using birth control is a sin, is incredibly damaging to the well being of those societies.
Far too many lives have been ruined because of rape. Far too many rape victims have committed suicide because of the social stigmatization of being a victim of sexual assault. We need to change the blame-the-victim mentality associated with sexual assault, and instead reinforce the notion that there is never a justification for violating another's dignity.