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SaraKay Smullens

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SlutWalk in Philly and WorldWide: Long Overdue Focus on the Blame and Shame of Women

Posted: 08/11/11 05:18 PM ET

"YOU are going to Walk with the Philly SlutWalkers on August 6th , AND dress in a slutty way?" a very good and savvy friend asked me for the second time --- her voice incredulous.

"Yes, I am -- in an age appropriate slutty way," I responded.

"What's that?" she continued, still incredulous.

"A slinky little black dress, purple boa and long purple gloves." (I had also bought purple sneakers that I did not mention.)

"Oh, and what does Stan (my husband of 31 years) think about all of this?"

"He thinks it's great. We are walking together."

There was dead silence.

For those who do may not know, SlutWalk is a global movement that was born in April when thousands of women (and some men) took to the Toronto streets in fishnet, bra, bustier, very short shorts and truly micro-minis after a police officer there (who has since apologized) suggested that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be sexually victimized."

Although some women have objected to the word "slut" to express their outrage, this episode touched a far-reaching nerve with a determination to at long last place the "blame spotlight" on perpetrator rather than victim. Similar marches have occurred in cities throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. "We are tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming," SlutWalk organizers have declared, "of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe."

All of my professional life, I have spoken out against the shame and blame women have endured for centuries. As incredible as it will seem today, in my early years of professional training, all theories I studied blamed women for just about everything that could go wrong in a life or a family. "Unloving and rejecting" moms were even blamed for both autism and schizophrenia. A wife who disagreed with her husband angrily, was either "castrating" or "mildly castrating," depending on her degree of anger. (Things that men may do or say to provoke anger was never a part of our theoretical discussions.)

Sit down and breath deeply before you read the next sentence! I also was taught that when a woman was raped, she wanted it, and even enjoyed it. These were the years that following a rape, many police officers asked the violated woman if she had reached orgasm.

And so in 1968, pregnant with my older daughter, I was unable to keep quiet any longer. After witnessing a horrific episode of shame and blame, I stormed into the office of the medical director of the large teaching hospital where I worked. I reported the incident (not my first of such reports) and asked how he could continue to stand by and allow women to be repeatedly blamed for just about everything, including the pathology of the men in their lives. And I was fired.

Although the theories I learned as a young clinician have been modified, humanized, and are now far more scientifically based, sexual violations toward women are as prevalent as they have ever been. Further, the pervading culture causes the majority of women to believe that they are the cause of their sexual abuse, including incest.

As one who has worked for over thirty years with those who have been sexually and physically abused, I can testify first hand that the sexual predations of Arnold Schwarzenegger and those alleged by Dominique Strauss-Kahn are merely the visible tip of the iceberg. Myriad forms of sexual abuse are prevalent in all cultures, the privileged as well as the poor. Yet women all over the world know the risks of daring to speak out -- risks which range from being ostracized and rejected by family and colleagues, to death.

Recently, CBS reporter Lara Logan bravely defied this code of fear induced silence shared by women worldwide by describing her February ordeal in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Similarly, the Peace Corps has finally been pressured into releasing a report of sexual assaults over the past decade, including 221 rapes or attempted rapes and murder. Experts say such numbers are conservative, as most sexual assaults are never reported (in any setting). Peace Corps members say that more traumatic than the violence itself as been the reaction of officials, who respond by blaming the women, saying in effect: "It's your word against his. He said you asked for sex by the way you looked and acted, and we believe him."

By and large, SlutWalk has been a movement of young, educated, middle class women determined at long last to eradicate this pervasive shame and blame mentality. However, describing sex as "a force of nature," social critic Camile Paglia and others believe that "too many overprotected middle-class girls have a dangerously naïve view of the world." Paglia warns that "protests and parades cannot create honor." (The Philadelphia Daily News, August 6, p. 9, article by Morgan Zalot).

Yet, it is the young who have the faith and energy to change the world. Without risk, there cannot be life: the risk to try, to work hard, to love, to begin a family. And without risk there cannot be the dramatic shifts in attitude and perception necessary for a complex society to grow and survive.

After reading my published article, "Male Sex Abuse and the Silence of Women", Philadelphia Daily News writer Morgan Zalot told me that the messages of SlutWalk were "strikingly similar" to points I have raised. Yes, they are. But these young people have found a way to join together and force a new generation to begin to listen in necessary new ways.