Three thousand women turned out in London this weekend for a ‘Slutwalk’. This movement to assign responsibility for rape to its perpetrators, not to its victims, was triggered originally by a Canadian policeman, whose primary advice to women on how to avoid being raped was, ‘Don’t dress like sluts’. As one of the signs so pithily pointed out on Saturday, ‘A Dress is Not a Yes.’
But the policeman was only one in a long line who blamed women and how they appeared, how they presented themselves, for the violence and ‘unwanted attentions’, as it used to be called, inflicted on them, simply for being in a public place.
I have been reading 19th-century books on prostitution in London (well, a job’s a job), and one of the sanest (which isn’t saying much) authors says that he and a friend had ‘counted 185 [prostitutes] in the course of a walk home from the Opera to Portland-place’. Short of accosting each one, it is hard to know how he knew the 185 he counted were in fact sex-workers. Some, perhaps many, of the women may have spoken to him, offering their services. It is just as likely, though, that he was making his judgments based on the women’s dress, manner, whether or not they met his eye: in other words, the woman who dressed or behaved in a way he and other men considered inappropriate were by definition whores. The men got to judge.
Even more closely resembling the ‘slutwalk’ campaigners’ complaints was the story that played out in the pages of the Times in the 1860s. ‘Paterfamilias’ wrote to the editor (letters from members of the public were often signed with only a sobriquet, frequently in Latin, such as ‘Pro Bono Publico’) to complain that on a trip to London his daughters had been followed down Oxford Street by ‘scoundrels’ who stared at them and passed comments. ‘Puella’ replied that she frequently walked down the same street and was never accosted; perhaps, she said, the girls’ country dress or outgoing rural manners had encouraged these men? ‘Paterfamilias’, by return, was indignant: his daughters were not in bright clothing, still being in mourning for Prince Albert. He was backed up by ‘M’, a day-governess (one who went from pupil’s house to pupil’s house). She too was frequently accosted by ‘middle-aged and older men’.
Others joined in, on both sides of the question. So much interest was aroused by this correspondence that the following month the Saturday Review carried an article: because prostitutes frequented fashionable shopping-streets, if women dress nicely, they must expect to be looked at, but nonetheless, ‘the remedy is in their own hands…If they will be seen in the well-preserved coverts, it is for them to be careful that they do not look like game…Let them dress thoroughly unbecomingly. Let them procure poke bonnets, stint their skirts to a moderate circumference, and cultivate sad-looking underclothing. Any woman thus armed, and walking on without sauntering or looking about her, is perfectly safe even from amorous glances.’ (Note that even badly dressed women still needed to keep their eyes down and walk briskly.)
So then as now, unwanted attention is all our fault, ladies — we just need to put on our poke bonnets, take up as little space in the world as possible, keep our mouths shut, our eyes on the ground, and if we’re very lucky, we can go about our daily business. Oh brave new world!