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Women march past the Statehouse during the SlutWalk in Boston, Saturday, May 7, 2011, a demonstration against those who blame the victims of sex crimes.JOSH REYNOLDS/The Associated Press

The "SlutWalk" phenomenon that is sweeping North America and Europe, and taking root as far afield as Australia and New Zealand, is part of a broader, and healthy phenomenon, of ending the silence, stigma and shame around the crime of rape.

This refusal to accept silence and its inevitable partner, shame, has been seen of late in the interviews given by Melissa Fung, a CBC reporter held captive in Afghanistan in 2008 for 28 days and by CBS's chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan, who was lucky to survive a mob assault in Egypt in February. Jeannie and Anne Marie Hilton of Quebec, victims of incest by their father, the former boxing champion Dave Hilton Jr., wrote a book in 2004 to fight back against the shame they felt that silence imposes on sex-assault and incest victims.

The SlutWalks started in Toronto when a police officer told York University law students that they would be safer if they didn't dress like "a slut." This police officer should not be seen as representative – he had been warned against making such comments, and he has been disciplined for doing so. But neither can it be said he is alone. A segment of society (well beyond the police) still holds to this view.

And if dressing like a "slut" invites sexual assault, why is it that, in Britain, a serial rapist is targeting elderly women? Why, in parts of the world, are babies raped? Why have so many boys been sexually assaulted in institutional care, or men in jails? The implication of the "slut" comment is not only that the victim is at least partly responsible, but also that the victimizer is not fully responsible for his crime. At best, it serves as an excuse; at worst, as a licence for rape with impunity.

Some feminists have scorned the protesters for trying to take the sting out of "slut." "You are accepting a label that is intrinsically misogynistic, one that defines women by their sexual relationships and stilettos," one British critic wrote. But these criticisms seem beside the point. The protesters' humour and insistence on expressing themselves in words and clothing, on their own terms, may do more to explode the shame that still persists around rape than 1,000 feminist dossiers could do.