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Thousands march to change outdated attitudes on sexuality

SlutWalk was formed after a Canadian policeman made ill-considered remarks about rape and women's appearance

Hannah Lanyon, a student, put it at its simplest. "It's society that needs to change, not the length of my skirt," proclaimed the board she held aloft. The red T-shirt the 14-year-old was wearing obscured the length of any skirt she might have been wearing but it succinctly made the point – clothing was not an invitation to anything, least of all rape.

She was one of thousands who turned out in central London yesterday in the latest "SlutWalk", an international phenomenon sparked by the ill-considered comments of a police officer who claimed women needing to stop dressing like "sluts" to avoid rape or victimisation.

The comments, made by a Canadian policeman, Michael Sanguinetti, ignited a furore and have spurred a new generation of women – and men – determined to challenge attitudes to sexual violence. Women such as Anastasia Richardson, 17, a sixth-form student from Oxfordshire, and one of principal organisers of the event, which attracted up to 3,000 people and thousands more as part of an online campaign.

She explained: "Some people have said the comments [by Sanguinetti] were very throwaway, about clothing rather than blaming the victims of sexual assault. This whole culture of wherever a woman was assaulted, whoever she was, somebody will always find a reason to say somehow she deserved it – maybe she didn't fight back hard enough, maybe she should have made better choices in terms of her boyfriend or husband – that's what we are trying to address today. It's never the victim's fault."

"A huge number of people are very happy to stand up for this issue. It's an incredibly powerful thing. I had no idea it would get this big and there would be this sort of turnout."

The account of a homeless woman who had been repeatedly sexually abused originally inspired Anastasia. "She said, 'If you let them get on with it, it will be over quicker, and they probably won't beat you up while they are doing it.' That really stuck with me because it's absolutely horrendous. It's just horrifying that the best way for her to deal with it was to just accept it. That's why this is so important."

It was a point echoed by Yvette Kershaw, 32, a teacher from Henley, who carried a placard emblazoned with the slogans, "My clothes are louder than my voice" and "Blame the rapist not me". "I want to get rid of the blame culture rather than reclaim the word 'slut'," she said. "It's about changing public perception."

The SlutWalk movement – largely led by a grassroots younger generation of feminists – has proved to be controversial because of its name and tactics. Launched in Toronto in April, the movement has spread rapidly across the world. Yesterday's march followed similar marches in Newcastle, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Manchester.

Some feminists have attacked the ambition of some protesters to reclaim the word "slut".

Student Bethany-May Phillips, 19, from Bristol, said everyone's motivations for joining the march was different. "I am here because anything that raises awareness about rape, its myths and the causes of it, is really important," she said. "It's great to create discussion about these things. I'm not one of the people that are here to reclaim the word 'slut' but I do want people to question it, and why we damn and demonise sexuality."

Many participants in the marches don revealing outfits to demonstrate that no one deserves to be raped, irrespective of their clothes.

It was a message equally pertinent to men, said Jon Patel, 24, a shop worker from London, who sported red hotpants. "SlutWalk is an important movement to bring attention to the travesty of justice that goes on in this country in regards to rape and the views around rape," he said.

Participants chanted, "Yes means yes, no means no", and carried placards above their heads. "It's my body, not an open invitation", read one. Two others proclaimed "Must I wear a chastity belt?" and "A dress is not a yes".

The march drew to a close with speeches: writer and sexual rights activist Jane Fae told of an epidemic of abuse and violence suffered by the transgender community; a speaker in a hijab spoke of rape atrocities in Iraq and stressed that her dress – like short skirts – was irrelevant.

As Hannah Lanyon was selling gingerbread to raise funds for future SlutWalk projects, she was clear: "I'm here because the idea that it's a girl's fault if they get raped has got to become extinct."