I’m sure that many of y’all have heard of Slutwalks, protests against rape and victim-blaming that started in Toronto this April in response to remarks made by police Constable Michael Sanguinetti, who told a group of students at York University that in order not to be victimized, “women should avoid dressing like sluts.” Activists latched onto the statement as a shining example of everything that’s wrong with the way society blames rape victims and polices women’s sexuality, and so an international movement—a phenomenon, really—complete with rallies and workshops was born. According to Facebook, it’s coming to New York sometime soon. I will probably march, even though the name Slutwalk makes me feel a bit itchy. Yes, I will fight victim-blaming until my last breath, and yes, I get that the point of the name is akin to Queen Latifah’s U.N.I.T.Y. shout: Who you callin’ a bitch? To my way of thinking, though, repeating a slur is not an effective way to restore dignity to the person who’s been smeared by it, so splashing misogynist language all over an anti-rape protest movement seems to contradict the whole purpose.
In a post at Racialicious, Harsha Walia—who did march in a Slutwalk—talked about why the term slut is even more problematic for women of color, and quoted Nassim Elbardouh, a Canadian Muslim activist who said she’d rather have a “Do Not Rape Walk.” Amen, sister. But then again…would the media show up to something called a “Do Not Rape Walk?” I think we all know the answer to that. Calling it Slutwalk makes people want to look…but for the wrong reasons. It seems that a titillating rape-culture term is what we need to draw attention to the fight against rape culture. Frankly, that give me a giant feminist headache.
But instead of writing my own rant on the topic, I’d rather hand the mike to two of our commenters, gherkinfiend and Nadia, who have written some damn good blogposts with differing but well-considered views about Slutwalks in London and Melbourne. And I’ll simply add: Yeah, what she said, because I think they’re both spot-on in their analyses. I’m excerpting here and then including links to their full blogposts. Read on…
Gherkinfiend on Slutwalk London:
The first thing that happens when you Google ‘Slutwalk London’ is that you simply get links to all the press articles written about it. There is no webpage for the project itself visible on the first page of hits. Then your eye falls on the descriptions in the press of the event. The words ‘slut’ ‘scantily clad’ ‘revealing’ dominate mixed in with ‘rape’ ‘blame’ and ‘fault’. Without even trying, the Slutwalk has given us a little taster of rape culture. The media has immediately focused on the titillating aspect of the idea rather the details and without a clear mission statement to counter this and set out objectives for the project, I feel the whole thing is creating a perfect storm of word association where the average person, unschooled in the various waves of feminism, unaware of ‘sex positivity’ and naive to the concept of ‘reclaiming’ a word, simply gets a jumbled message that links the words ‘rape’ ‘blame’ and ‘slut’ in the same sentence. Doesn’t that just reinforce already negative thoughts about the victims of sex crimes? In a soundbite culture, is it surprising that people don’t sit down and read beyond the headline and seek to educate themselves about a subject that seems irrelevant to them, especially when it is punctuated by pictures of pretty white women in their bras?
Ah, but that’s not the fault of the Slutwalk, I hear you cry. That’s the fault of rape culture, icky side effect of the patriarchy. The Slutwalk can’t help that the Daily Mail called them ‘scantily clad’ can they? Well, in my mind, yes they can. They could actually stop and think about the culture they are trying to challenge and consider whether their actions are going to change or perpetuate it. Does society usually really listen to a woman with visible breasts or does it just nod and pretend while enjoying the view? What makes them think the people who need to have their attitudes changed about rape are going to remember anything relevant from this movement afterwards apart from some images in their head of women in their skimpies? If rape culture is so damned important to them why haven’t they considered that seemingly copying its actions isn’t the best way to break it down?
And haven’t they considered that if you don’t want what victims are wearing to be the main focus of the discussion about rape, it’s odd to make the outfits of women so incredibly central to their entire movement? I want us to move entirely away from the ‘what was she doing/wearing/saying’ debate about rape to the ‘what was he doing when he raped her’ question and I really really don’t think focusing on clothes is the right way to go, even if that focus is saying clothes don’t matter. Simply mentioning them makes them noticeable. That’s how advertising works. Mention something repeatedly, even subliminally and people make associations. And to me, this constant focus on your clothes, no matter how normal or unslutty they are, forges that link to those people who just hear about this in passing and don’t have the time or inclination to research further.
I am not naive to the importance people place on what a rape victim was wearing. The first question most people, including the police, want to ask me when they find out I was raped is ‘what were you wearing’? Generally the level of sympathy they are willing to accord you very often depends on your answer. Mini-skirt? Crop top? High heels? Empathy levels tend to wane. In my case, people nod and tilt their head to one side sympathetically when I mention my ankle length skirt that night. The same head that snaps back in judgement when I also say I wasn’t wearing a bra at the time. It’s a fine line. I am applauded for having worn a slip to make sure my knickers weren’t visible, but the police accused me of going out on the pull because both the slip and the knickers were pink. Matching my undergarments must mean I’m a slut, right?
And there’s the other big sticking point with the Slutwalk for me. What is the definition of a slut? To some people it’s sleeping with everyone you meet, for others, it’s co-ordinating undercrackers. Even jokingly, ignoring the tradition that it’s a woman who doesn’t keep a clean house, seeks to ignore the very fact that it is an arbitrary term and incredibly gendered. We don’t have a word for a man who hasn’t mastered the art of taking the washing out of the machine on time, but we do have many admiring ones for a man who is sexually experienced. Who ever heard of a man being ‘stud-shamed’ after all?
Why do we want to ‘reclaim’ a word that has traditionally been used to divide and conquer women? While all sluts seem to be women, not all women are sluts. Unlike words such as ‘queer’ that I understand seeks to be a common umbrella term to promote a feeling of community amongst people who already feel on the fringes of society or using a racial word like ‘Paddy’ that was once used to reduce a whole race to an amorphous mass to be ignored and flipping it so that it conotates pride and power in your ‘outsider’ status, slut has no universal definition or use. So how can it be re-appropriated to create a sense of community and cohesion? Especially when to many women, it is one of the cruellest and most cutting comments they hear, rendering them helpless and angry no matter how positive a spin is put on it. Why reclaim something that even in its original statement was a cruel gendered slur? Why not appropriate another word? Something women have always seen a positive or at least something non gendered rather than trying to dress up something nasty.
I think the use of the word slut as a title for the movement would only work if women were united behind it and didn’t abuse or judge each other on the same moral terms that slut suggests. By anyone putting a value on a woman for her sexual choices, we just perpetuate the same old bullshit that makes life so difficult for women the world over.
…I think it’s great. Not because it is a ‘reclamation’*of the term as has so often been said, but because it taps into the Riot Grrrl credo of the 90s that I loved so very much. Riot Grrrls were all about rubbing your face in patriarchal assumptions about women. You get treated like property? Write the word ‘Property’ on your belly and make people confront what they think of you. It was aggressive and raw and made people very very uncomfortable because of the way they would see their internalized assumptions about women externalized on women’s bodies, often in grotesque and disturbing ways. In short, it rocked.
There’s been much talk among the participants to ’slut it up’ for the walk. Lots of discussion of what ‘provocative’ stuff they’ll wear and how it’s such a celebration of women’s sexuality. I see the politics of it a little differently. I don’t think there is any particular need to dress any differently than you normally would, because somewhere out there is someone who thinks it’s ok to call you a slut regardless of how covered or uncovered you are. So rather than yet again reinforcing the stereotypical image of a slut as someone who dresses and acts in a particular way, I would like to see people take that horrible little word and slap it across every woman of every age in every kind of dress and say, Riot Grrrl style: THIS is what you think of us for simply having been born female.
Because that’s the point. If you get sexually assaulted, NOTHING you were wearing or were doing is going to be good enough. There will always be some moron going on about how you shouldn’t have gone there or done that or worn such-and-such or had a sexual or professional or intellectual history. The bottom line is that we live in a global society that believes femaleness is a fault and that if something happens to you, well then that’s just what you’re going to get if you insist on existing while female.
So yes, I’m going to the Melbourne SlutWalk and I’d encourage anyone of any gender and any orientation who can attend to do so. Because this isn’t about one kind of woman or one kind of world view or even women as a group. Victim blaming and a culture that allows and even expects it are toxic for all of us, whoever we are and wherever we are. It is important then that, when handed the opportunity on a silver platter, we lend our voices to the protest against it.