Rape is not art

January 30, 2010

Chain store Roger David has been selling offensive T-shirts with pictures of naked women bound or gagged with cloth over their mouths. Other shirts available for sale online have slogans on them such as "It's not rape, it's surprise sex", and "Your princess is my little slut".

A Facebook group petitioning the stores to stop selling them already has more than 10,500 members. The petition:

"We, the undersigned, believe the marketing of clothing that trivialises sexual violence contributes to a culture that turns a blind eye to sexual assault, abuse and rape, and contributes to the glamorising of human rights abuses."

Roger David has tried to dodge the public outrage by not commenting directly on the controversy. An excuse published on its Facebook page said: "Art is meant to inspire and educate, and the meaning and interpretation is left in the hands of the viewer — we are here to inspire ideas, not mediate or control them."

In online debates, some people have said these shirts are just a joke and there is no connection between them and actual rape. But, while someone who buys one of these shirts won't automatically commit a rape, having the shirts for sale contributes to a sexist culture, where violence against women is seen as a joke.

We shouldn't accept offensive slogans on T-shirts, whether they are racist or sexist or are targeting any other group of people. Those who would laugh it off and pretend it does no harm are mistaken.

Melinda Tankard Reist points out on her blog: "A sexual assault survivor told me that for her, the T-shirts are highly triggering of assault memories and she suspects that other survivors will find them so too."

T-shirts that demean women shouldn't be tolerated. Campaigners for an end to violence against women should campaign for Roger David to withdraw the offensive T-shirts. Business should not profit from sexist slogans.

But we also acknowledge the reciprocal relationship between culture and society — the T-shirts are a reflection of sexist attitudes within society, but those attitudes are also influenced by art and culture.

Changing both — and fighting all forms of sexual violence — will require a broad movement for women's liberation that changes attitudes and — ultimately — society.

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