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Last Saturday, (11 June 2011) during a conference on the future direction of the Labour Party, I was engaged in a tea-break conversation with a town councillor. He had some innovative ideas as to how local authorities could reduce costs by co-operative action and the collective purchase of goods and services. So far, so interesting. Then, without any reason apparent to me, he suddenly introduced a coarse reference to male solo sexual activity.
I am a little past the age for blushing so I gave him to understand that this was not a line of conversation I wished to pursue and moved away.
Context is all. Had the 'joke' been made between a group of male friends sharing an evening in the pub, it would, despite its lack of wit or grace, been unremarkable. But its gratuitous introduction into a serious conversation with a woman whom the speaker had met only five minutes earlier was inappropriate, to put it no more strongly.
On the same day, the latest 'slutwalk' took place in central London. This fast-growing protest movement has its origins in the remark made by a Canadian policeman last month, advising students to "avoid dressing like sluts" in order to protect themselves from sexual assaults.
Since then, thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest at the implication that the victim of such an assault, rather than the attacker, may be to blame.
It would be difficult to disagree with a placard displayed on Saturday which said “my clothes are not my consent”. I believe that either participant in a sexual encounter is entitled to change their mind and that the frustration and annoyance consequent on this should be addressed in mutual respect when both parties are calm.
But it is neither sexist not illiberal to enquire as to what might have contributed to the misunderstanding which gave rise to such a disagreeable situation.
Walk the streets in a police uniform and people will take you for a constable. Go on the town on a Saturday night dressed provocatively and someone will be provoked. Given that men respond far more readily to visual stimuli than do women, it is likely to be a woman dressed in this manner who will be subject to the kind of attention which may later prove to have been unwanted.
There is a middle way between dressing like a 'slut' and being enveloped in a burqua. Modesty is the guide to that choice. Most women want to 'look nice' and to attract the admiration of a possible partner and there is nothing to object to in that. But the very concept of 'sluttishness' is an indication of how far off beam this argument has gone.
The reclaiming of a pejorative term in order to defuse its power to demean has proved an effective tactic in countering racism and homophobia. But there is a significant difference: no one has any control over the colour of their skin or their sexual orientation. Freely chosen behaviour is an entirely different matter and it is open to question as to whether the burlesque style on show in the 'slutwalks' is liberating or just exhibitionist.
It is quite likely that the man whose ill-chosen and ill-placed comment disappointed me last week has marked me down as a prude. But I would wish to differentiate between prudishness and modesty.
The latter quality, by indicating respect for an incremental approach to intimacy, is in my view a far more authentic enabler of passion than the blatancy and self-indulgence which takes no heed of context.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet