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Thoughts on SlutWalk Singapore 2011

December 29, 2011

by Crystal Nanavati

Rounding out our very busy weekend after Toys for Tots and the Flyer, was SlutWalk Singapore.

SlutWalk began early in the year when a police offer in Toronto essentially told college students the way not to get raped was to not dress provocatively.  Slutwalk began as a response to that – that there is something wrong with a culture that teaches “don’t get raped” instead of “don’t rape”… where the blame and the responsibility are put on the victim, rather than the perpetrator.  But it has grown into a larger movement, where we also talk about slut-shaming (girls who like sex get what’s coming to them) and the way that women (particularly girls) use “slut/slutty” to demean each other whether they have had sex or not.  It is frustrating to live in a time of so much advancement and change and to know that there is still a dominant cultural narrative that says a man’s libido is such a dangerous thing that it can be triggered by my clothes, the way I move my body, or my very existence as a woman such that he can not/should not be held responsible for any of his action… that if I get raped,  touched innapropriately, groped, shamed, taunted, or otherwise attacked that it is MY fault.

art by Eric Reynolds

I have been objectified, slut-shamed, and made to feel bad about myself sexually speaking (and sadly these are just 5 examples, I could keep going for hours)…

  • – When I was 10/11, my baby sitter’s husband touched me inappropriately.  There was an investigation (complete with the “show me on the doll”) and my babysitter lost her license.  Her husband was not fined, arrested, or punished in any way.  I questioned for years if I had done something to make him think I’d ‘wanted’ it or did something deserve it.  To this day, I can not watch the movie that was on the TV when it happened.
  • – In high school, during my freshman year (I was 14 years old), I had my first kiss.  He and I made the mistake of telling someone who then told enough people that gossip began.  The story changed from C and X kissed to C and X had sex.  I was so embarrassed and shamed that I avoided that friend (who until then had been my closest friend) for the better part of a year.  I feel very lucky that we’ve rebuilt our friendship, but we were never again as close as we were before that kiss.
  • – In college I would occasionally go out to dance clubs.  Initially I just went to the dance clubs up the street from my university.  However, no matter what I wore – jeans, short skirts, you name it, the night always involved at least several instances of men touching me in a way that was not okay (groping my breasts, and in one lovely instance, trying to put his hand up my skirt multiple times after I had told him no and moved to a different part of the club, among others).  In large part, this was why I started going to gay clubs.  Any time I went to a straight club, I accepted that I was ‘inviting’ a specific type of attention.
  • – I lost my virginity at 18.  From then until now I’ve had a number of sexual partners.  But until my husband, I often felt like I should reduce my ‘number’ in order to not seem like a slut.  Because a slut was the kind of girl you had sex with, not the girl you considered having a serious relationship with.  In my early 20s, I would ask the guy his number first and then adjust mine accordingly.
  • – Let’s face it, although I write erotica, I don’t do it under my actual name.  I care significantly less than I used to when I was a teacher and it carried the very real possible consequence of my losing my job, but I still choose to write under a pen name for my own comfort.

I am the mother of two daughters.  I want them to grow up with a healthy relationship with their bodies and their sexuality.  But we live in a world where at some point I will need to have a discussion with them about how the image they project with their clothes and their actions will affect how people perceive their character.  How sexuality can bring you power, but will be the first tool used in your downfall (let’s talk about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky – he’ll always be the former president and she’ll always be the slut who gave him a blow job).  That using sex is like playing on a knife’s edge.

With all of this in mind, the moment I heard about the SlutWalk movement, I was interested.  However, I was never home when I could have attended one near home.  I was frustrated because I was certain that Singapore’s repressive sexual culture would never allow for a SlutWalk here.

I was happy to be wrong.

One of the musical acts (Seyra). Beautiful voice.

Sunday was, again, a rainy drizzly day.  Ravi (my husband) was ill, so if I wanted to go to SlutWalk with the girls (and bringing the girls was non-negotiable in my eyes), then I was going to do it on my own.  So I packed up the girls, and we headed out to Hong Lim Park.

SlutWalk Singapore was in many ways an experience that brought back a lot of nostalgia for me.  When I was in college I was far more idealistic than I am now.  I was more likely to go march in a rally or passionately argue for hours.  To focus on very large goals like “let’s change the rape culture.”

These days I’m a more cynical woman.  I have limited time and funds, and I tend to focus on things like harassing my elected officials for smaller, more measurable goals (publicly breastfeeding without harassment, for example. In Massachussetts you could in theory ask me to leave, but you’ll be hit with a 500 dollar fine for doing so).  I tend to believe in things like going after Sarah Palin and her state congress for charging rape victims for the rape kits used at the hospital to prove if they were raped or not, and criticizing Apple’s Siri program for it’s incredibly anti-female bias when it comes to abortion and rape.

But attending an event like this, one where the organizers had hoped for a 300 person turnout and got a 600+ person turnout reminds me of the girl I was and how good it can feel to join together and fight for a cause, no matter how large and improbable it might be in the short run.

Ellie, my daughter, at SlutWalk (Photo by Emilie Oehlers)

That SlutWalk got 600+ attendees in the rain in Singapore is an achievement worth applauding  (Hong Lim Park turned to a muddy morass – Ellie wore her wellies, but my flip-flops and feet were covered in mud.  I was lucky that Ms Demeanour let me park my stroller under the tent she was manning to keep it dry.  Thanks to Martha for introducing us.  Rhi ended up in the sling.)

I also applaud the organizers for persevering in the face of truly disgusting public reaction (read the comments on any article about SlutWalk in Singapore) and having the courage to create one here.  To keep perspective, while Singapore Slutwalk happened, the organizers of SlutWalk Bangalore were arrested when trying to tell potential attendees that the event had been cancelled (due to pressure from right-wing groups).

I’m not informed enough about Singaporean politics to understand how one advocates for change.  As this Wall Street Journal piece notes:

Much of Singapore’s society remains male-dominated, with few women holding top business and government roles, and some laws biased against female sexual-assault victims, activists say. Marital rape isn’t illegal here, while legislation currently allows sexual-assault victims to be discredited as witnesses if shown to have a “generally immoral character.”

Obviously, there is a lot of work to be done here to advocate for women’s rights.

As a foreigner, how much I can speak out about politics is strictly limited by the government.  How much I should is a much murkier question, as I strongly oppose forcing my cultural values on women who may not want them (example: the whole forcing Muslim girls to abandon the hijab in France thing – good intentions, horrible idea in forcing Western feminism on other women without trying to understand that feminism looks different in every culture).  Let’s not for an instant forget my own culture isn’t exactly a shining example to the world in how to fix all of the issues swirling around female sexuality and the rape culture.  This Pennyslvania Liquor Control Commission Ad wants me to know that if I drink too much, it’s my fault that my friend is getting raped in the bathroom – I don’t even begin to know how to address all of the WRONG in that ad or which officials to complain to.

I’ve read some of the coverage on SlutWalk Singapore and am a bit frustrated that the articles tended to focus on the whole “hey, there’s a rare protest in Singapore” rather than the content of the protest.  But that there was attention paid at all is a good thing.  Maybe next year we can focus on why we were protesting, not that we were protesting in the first place.

Yes, that’s me (and Rhi, my other daughter, in the sling) in the AP picture.  Photo credit: Bryan van der Beek

The first step in getting something changed is to get people to talk about it and to acknowledge that there is an issue.  Then you can begin to change it.  So any time there is a chance for me to speak out and say that rape culture and slut-shaming are wrong, I will be there.  My daughters deserve to grow up in a culture that teaches “don’t rape” instead of “don’t get raped.”  My daughters deserve to grow up in a world where their sexuality is seen as a good thing, not a destructive thing.  I want to know that I wasn’t quiet; that I spoke out, showed up, educated, and harassed my elected officials into trying to change something that was wrong.

We didn’t stay as long as I would have wanted, had the weather been more cooperative, but we showed up.

We’ll see you at SlutWalk 2012.

Crystal Nanavati moved to Singapore from the US in early 2010.  She writes the blog Expat Bostonians about her experiences in Singapore, as well as fiction. When not writing training as a sex coach specializing in pregnancy and post-partum sexuality, and is raising two very young feminists; Elanor (age 3) and Rhiannon (born October 2011). She is passionate about reproductive freedom.

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