I want to focus this post on the topic of blame-the-victim mentality when it comes to sexual violence perpetrated on women. When I was at Lehigh, I took a class on women’s health. I remember when the crisis of domestic abuse came up: talking about battered wife syndrome, the professor asked succinctly, “Why isn’t it called ‘asshole husband’ syndrome?” Underlying her question was the tendency in our culture to excuse linguistically male violence towards women. (Consider that the name battered wife syndrome implies the victim’s pathology for the domestic abuse that a woman suffers at the hands of her male partner – there is something “wrong” with her that caused this violence.)
To counter the way language excuses men and implicates women in their abuse, a new type of protest, known as Slut Walks, has emerged. As according to the official website for SlutWalk for Toronto, the target of the protest is the prevalent belief that women are in some way responsible, because of wearing certain styles of clothing, walking down a street alone, or drinking in mixed company, for being sexually assaulted.
The catalyst for the movement happened on January 24th, 2011, when a representative of the Toronto police department ignorantly remarked that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” What this remarks reveals is how the term “slut” is used to make women culpable for sexual violence. Here is how the website describes its campaign to “reappropriate” the label of “slut”:
We are tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result. Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless if we participate in sex for pleasure or work. No one should equate enjoying sex with attracting sexual assault.
So this past April, around 1500 women, men, and transgendered persons walked the streets of Toronto, some dressed as “sluts,” to counter the dominant attitude that allows men to feel justified in assaulting women due to their behavior.
SlutWalks have become a global phenomenon, with protests in London, Boston, Seoul, Edinburgh, and St. Louis. Also, the first Kansas City SlutWalk is scheduled for Sept. 17th, where protesters will walk from the J.C. Nichols Fountain to Theis Park. Here’s a link to the article about the KC SlutWalk in Ink. As an added bonus, the crazies of the Westboro Baptists Church are planning on counter protesting!
This misperception that women authorize male sexual violence is a predominant theme in Shakespeare’s long poem, The Rape of Lucrece.While most known for his 36 plays and 154 sonnets, Shakespeare also wrote four long poems, Venus and Adonis, The Rape, The Phoenix and Turtle, and The Lover’s Complaint.
The first two date from 1593 and 1594, the years when the plague closed down the London theater houses. It was during this time that Shakespeare found patronage in the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, and it is to Wriothesley that The Rape is dedicated.
The story begins with Lucius Tarquinius’s 535 B.C.E. overthrow of his father-in-law, Servius Tullius, and establishing his tyrannical rule of Rome.
During the Roman siege of its neighboring country, Ardea, Sextus Tarquinius, Lucius’s son, journeys back to Rome with the intent of raping Lucrece, the wife of Collatinus, his kinsman. After stealing into Lucrece’s bedchamber, Sextus threatens her not only with murder but claims that he will kill a household slave and proclaim that he found them in mid coitus. Sextus’s threat places Lurcece in an impossible situation: if she physically resists Sextus, not only does she jeopardize her own reputation but the paternity of her children. Though Lucrece pleads for Sextus to remember his own honor, he gags her with her nightgown. After being raped, Lurcece writes to her husband and father to come quickly home. When they meet, Lucrece recounts what atrocity Sextus committed and then stabs herself. Collatinus and Lucretius, Lucrece’s father, then declare to the Roman citizenry Lucrece’s tragedy, which in turn leads to the toppling of the Tarquin regime and the rise of the Roman Republic. (Shakespeare’s immediate source for the story would have been either that of Livy or Ovid.)
Modern feminist readers interpret the poem as critiquing the disempowerment of women within patriarchy. Coppélia Kahn notes how Sextus uses the shame that he will falsely besmirch Lucrece with to defuse her physical resistance to his sexual assault. As Kahn writes, “In the light of this threat, not to resists physically really means to defend Collatine’s hounor; apparently passivity, in this peculiar case, must be read as covert resistance” (40). For Kahn, then, Lucrece’s suicide is due to the lack of place left to her within the patriarchal culture of Rome as a raped woman. In a 2001 article for Shakespeare Quarterly, Catherine Belsey rereads Lurcece’s death as Lucrece’s final expression of autonomy: “Her final victim-ization, rendered by her own hand, is at the same time the ultimate act of self-determinization; the object of violence is the subject as agent of her own judicial execution” (331). That is, Lucrece takes command over the events of her tragedy by driving the knife into her breast.
The connection I want to point out here between the poem and the SlutWalks is the blame-the-victim mentality. To Lucrece’s question as to why he is going to rape her, Sextus employs the same thinking that turns victims into accomplices: “Thus he replies: ‘The color in thy face,/ That even for anger makes the lily pale,/ And the red rose blush at her own disgrace,/ Shall plead for me and tell my loving tale./ Under that color am I come to scale/ Thy never-conquered fort; the fault is thine,/ For those eyes betray thee unto mine” (lns. 476-482) In other words, Sextus ascribes the lust that drives him to rape as finding its source in the blush in Lurcece’s cheek and her very eyes. To drive the point home even more, Sextus actually states that Lucrece’s own “beauty” has brought her to the peril she now faces ( “Thy beauty has ensnared thee to this night” [ln.485]). Within Sextus’s perverse rhetoric, he himself becomes the victim of Lucrece’s sexuality. This is actually a common trope in love poetry, where the male speaker blames the object of his affections for provoking such feeling in him. What The Rape does is to expose the very dark implications to this notion of the male speaker’s self-proclaimed helplessness.
Even more disturbing is Lucrece’s actually seeing herself contaminated by her rape. After Sextus has stolen away, Lucrece constantly refers to her own “foul-defiled” or “stained” blood, that somehow her own body shares in the sin that Sextus has committed. Yet in recounting the rape to Collatinus and Lucretius, Lucrece ironically reiterates Sextus’s earlier claim that her “beauty has ensnared” her: “My bloody judge [Sextus] forbade my tongue to speak; / No rightful plea might plead for justice./ His scarlet lust came evidence to swear/ That my poor beauty had purloined his eyes;/ And when the judge is robbed the prisoner dies” (lns. 1648-1652). Here Lucrece presents herself as the defendant denied justice since the judge and plaintiff are one and the same.
I see modern feminist readings of Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece and the SlutWalks as accomplishing similar cultural work, to expose the impossible position that women are placed in by relocating the catalyst onto those who have been victimized.
Kahn, Coppélia. Roman Shakespeare. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Belsey, Catherine. “Tarquin Dispossessed: Expropriation and Consent in ‘The Rape of Lucrece’.” Shakespeare Quarterly 52.3 (Autumn, 2001): 315-335. Print.
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