The un-funny, unfair and un-feminist thing about victim-blaming

“I’ve never really understood feminism,” begins Chelsea Fagan’s Thought Catalog essay about the recent ‘Slutwalk’ protest in Toronto. “No shit you don’t,” I found myself thinking when I was done reading it.

In her essay, Fagan explains why she disapproves of the Slutwalk, a protest against comments made by a Toronto law enforcement officer who said that women who don’t want to be assaulted, raped or otherwise “victimized” should avoid dressing “like sluts.” She also completely misses the point of the protest, engages in some spectacular victim-blaming and demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that no, she does not understand feminism.

The basic argument of “The Funny Thing About the ‘Slutwalk,’” is that if a woman is raped while wearing something “slutty,” she should take some responsibility for what happened to her, because she ought to have known better than to dress that way. “Women know the kind of attention they attract when they dress like that,” Fagan writes, repeating the oldest argument in the history of gender relations. Seriously, this story was sexist and wrong in 1697, when Charles Perrault wrote it about a young woman in a red cloak, and it’s sexist and wrong now.

Firstly, while the Toronto protest might have featured some women dressed in a way that they, and Fagan, would deem “slutty,” the point of the protest was that rape happens to women wearing all kinds of clothes. Women showed up wearing skimpy and revealing clothing, sure, but they also showed up wearing jeans, and pajamas, and lots of other clothes. Men showed up wearing plaid shirts and cargo pants. The point of the protest, as Fagan would have realized if she understood feminism, is that rape doesn’t follow a dress code. Rape happens to women in pajama pants and men in plaid shirts, not just to “sluts” in miniskirts. That’s why the comments made by that law enforcement officer were so very, very misguided.

They were also misguided because they blamed women for the actions of the men who victimize them, something that Fagan does repeatedly. She writes that she has learned how to live safely in a big city – how to walk, how to avoid eye contact, and of course, how to dress. Here are her guidelines:

if you want to further increase your chances of remaining safe and flying under the radar, you do not dress like a prostitute. You do not dress like someone who is out tonight to find sex by any means necessary. You can look pretty, feminine, elegant, attractive – without stripping your appeal down to its basest, most physical level. Women know the kind of attention they attract when they dress like that. And just like the Supreme Court can’t define porn but knows it when it sees it, we know when we look into the mirror before we go out if we look like we’re trying to lay down for the first man that looks at us. Even if we don’t want to admit it.

Try and swallow the vomit that rises in your throat when you read those words, which fairly drip with contempt and disregard for sex workers and anyone else who falls outside of Fagan’s definition of acceptably demure-looking, because I want to break this down a little. You ready? OK.

The above paragraph is the one that left me shaking my head at the glaring truth of Fagan’s statement that she doesn’t understand feminism. If she did, she would realize that world in which women are under these kinds of restrictions while men are not is one in which women and men are not equal. In this world, a woman who wants to be safe on the street, or in a night club, or on a college campus, has to ask herself when she stands in front of her wardrobe mirror: “If I am raped in this outfit, will I be blamed for it?” She has to ask herself when she walks down a street or across a darkened campus: “If an autonomous, free-willed adult man accosts me on this street, will I be held partially responsible for his autonomous, free-willed adult actions?” These are questions that men almost never have to ask themselves. Because in this world, with which Fagan is apparently quite content, women and men are not equal.

Feminists, who believe that men and women deserve the same rights and opportunities, recognize this inequality, and seek to correct it.

If Fagan understood feminism, she would also probably realize that her statement about the universality of sluttiness – “we know when we look into the mirror before we go out if we look like we’re trying to lay down for the first man that looks at us” – is horribly, dreadfully misguided. “Slut” is not an absolute term. “Slut” is a nebulous, relative term that is used to condemn any woman who steps out of line, whether it’s by dressing in skimpy clothing, or by having casual sex, or by violating in any way the rules that a culture has set down for women to follow. What might appear slutty to one person might appear totally unremarkable to another. In other words, Fagan doesn’t get to define “slutty.” No one gets to define “slutty,” because “slutty” is entirely relative. Which is especially handy for people who want to blame a woman for her own rape, since the “slut” label can be slapped on pretty much any woman, anywhere, at any time!

But what about when alcohol is involved, Fagan asks? Surely we can’t expect men to act like moral, ethical, adults after they’ve had a few beers, right?

Women are pressured, followed, and hounded by men who, when sober and in the light of day, often would never do such a thing. And for a man, a sexually and visually driven man not in full command of his wits, having a woman tell him “no” while wearing the most provocative, arousing, blatantly sexual outfit possible is, to say the least, confusing. And while that does not give him the right to violate her, it also cannot be claimed that women are entirely innocent in this situation.

Actually, it can. And when it is, it’s correct. Being drunk isn’t a get-out-of-rape-free card, just like being drunk isn’t a get-out-of-committing-any-other-criminal-act card, and raping a woman who’s dressed like Fagan’s idea of a slut is just as bad as raping a person wearing any other outfit. Yes, feminists believe that women are adults who can make their own decisions, but they don’t believe in holding women responsible for men’s decisions. Especially when men decide to ignore a woman’s desire not to engage in sex. The only person responsible for a rape is the person who commits it, and it doesn’t matter if the rapist is drunk or if the woman he rapes is wearing a short skirt. Rape is rape, and no amount of alcohol or tight clothing can change that. If you’re a “sexually and visually driven man” who finds it hard, when you are not” fully in command of your wits,” to keep yourself from raping someone, then I suggest that you stop drinking alcohol and seek psychological treatment.

And if you are a young woman writer and finds yourself penning depressingly misguided essays in which you hold women partially responsible for their own rapes, I suggest you stop drinking the rape culture Kool-aid and seek some Feminism 101 resources to set you straight.

UPDATE: Ryan O’Connell, an editor at Thought Catalog, has issued an apology for publishing Fagan’s essay, and it’s worth a read.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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