It would appear that, through lack of clarity, something has finally become clear: Slutwalk has lost me.
I have been following the media coverage, the blog posts, and especially, the threads on SlutwalkTO’s Facebook page, with vigour over the past month or so, since the original walk took place in Toronto on April 3rd. I think it’s safe to say that my relationship with Slutwalk has been a little bit of a feminist rollercoaster ride. One moment I feel like YEAH! WOMEN GETTING MAD. Because, hey, women should be mad. Victim blaming is one of the most insidious, abusive, and traumatic experiences a woman can go through. Not only have we been assaulted, had to come out and admit/describe the assault (terrifying in and of itself), but then we are treated as though we somehow instigated, deserved, or imagined the assault. It is sick. I have witnessed it and I have experienced it. No woman should ever be told that she must stay inside in order to ‘avoid being raped’ or that her clothing or her actions or her behaviour or her level of intoxication somehow made her deserving of sexual assault. With this in mind, I can certainly get behind Slutwalk’s message. I am glad that we have had enough, and I am glad that we’re getting pissed off.
But I think there is more to Slutwalk. I was hesitant, initially, to come out and support the event, though I wasn’t quite sure, at first, what it was that was making me feel so uncomfortable, so unwilling to jump on the Slutwalk bandwagon. While these issues seemed very feminist to me, I was hard-pressed to find anyone actually talking about feminism. I was very uncomfortable with the word ‘slut’ being used as a way to empower women, and even more uncomfortable with the assertion that organizers had taken it upon themselves to ‘reclaim’ the word. This is a word that has been used to hurt, shame, and abuse me. It is a word that has been used to hurt, shame, and abuse women everywhere. In order to silence them, control them, punish them and, of course, blame them. As a teenager (and having been less selective about my choice of social circle), I witnessed friends participate in victim-blaming, I listened as both my female and male friends and acquaintances refused to believe it when a mutual friend came out and said that she had been raped because, well ‘you know how she is’. It was traumatic then, and continues to make my blood boil even now, over 10 years later. It taught me a lesson as a young woman that has been reiterated over and over again: if you are raped, if you are abused, if you are assaulted, be prepared for no one to believe you. Be prepared for the excuses people will make for the men who have done this, be prepared to have your character come into question. Even as a teenager, I knew that when a woman says she has been raped, you believe her. You don’t blame her. I can’t say the same for my peers and clearly little has changed since those days.
I followed the progress of Slutwalk Toronto and, in particular, the threads and posts on their Facebook page, as it seemed to be the place where the most of the conversations were happening. I looked and looked for some mention of feminism, some alignment and acknowledgment that this was, indeed, a feminist issue and a feminist fight – a fight that has been being fought by women for decades. Instead what I found, over and over again was, not only a refusal to align with feminism, but often, an outright aversion to it. I saw numerous attacks on radical feminism and radical feminists and I witnessed the reinforcement of negative and untrue stereotypes about feminism (you know the ones: man-hating, misandrist, no-fun, sex-negative, etc). While I do believe the organizers had good intentions, desiring that Slutwalk be inclusive to all, it began to look a lot like the ‘funfeminist’ – NO NO WE’RE THE CONVENTIONALLY ATTRACTIVE FEMINISTS. THE FUN ONES. WE’RE OK. WE LIKE PENISES AND PORN AND LOOKING SEXY kind of feminism that, in the end doesn’t successfully challenge much of anything, and simply repackages sexist imagery in ’empowering’ wrapping paper.
I also found an almost desperate and certainly consistent erasure of gender as a primary issue in terms of sexual assault.
Having made this mistake in the past, and learned from gentle haranguing and online beration, I do not wish to erase the fact that men are indeed often victims of assault, abuse, and rape. Often they are raped and abused by other men. Sometimes they are raped and abused by other women. Domestic abuse, rape, and sexual assault is still, overwhelmingly perpetrated by men against women. The Toronto cop who recommended that women avoid ‘dressing like sluts’ in order to avoid being raped was addressing women. He was engaging in victim-blaming in a very gendered way. He was implying that a women could ‘bring on’ or encourage assault at the hands of a man by ‘dressing like a slut’. We are all in agreement on this, correct?
Not only that, but the word, ‘slut’, is gendered. Can we also agree on this?
As such, I’d like to talk about this word, ‘slut’, and its use in an event against victim-blaming, called ‘Slutwalk’.
Certainly there are reasons organizers decided to use this word. One of these reasons is that, by using the word ‘slut’, ‘it makes people take notice’,
But is that ‘the whole point of it all’? I’m afraid I would have to disagree. Vehemently. Getting attention is easy. Being a feminist is hard. That is not to say that it must, at all times, be difficult, in order to be valid. That is to say that being feminist, often, means being unpopular. Challenging dominant ideology is unpopular. If we focus too hard on trying to make people like us, on trying to make our image palatable, ‘attractive’, easy-to-digest, we do risk, I believe, the movement.
Another F Word, in the UK, wrote a piece addressing, specifically, the term ‘slut’. The author wrote that, while they supported the original sentiment to ‘reclaim the streets’ regardless of the time of day (in reference to ‘Take Back the Night‘), they did not feel comfortable with the idea that they should ‘reclaim’ the word ‘slut’. The author of the post saw, as do I, a reference to that which has infiltrated much of post-feminist discourse, in that ‘I-have-the-right-to-wear-heels-if-I-want-to’ kind of way that is often used to negate critique or criticism of anything that is described as an ‘individual choice’. This post was responded to, by Slutwalk organizers, in what I viewed as, a condescending way, saying that: ‘It seems some people still don’t want to participate because they grapple with the word ‘slut’.
Well, Slutwalk, I also ‘grapple with the word slut’. This word, as I have mentioned, has been used in a myriad of ways to hurt me. I have been called a slut for having sex, for not having sex, and for being coerced into sex. I have been called a slut by partners, by friends, and by acquaintances. I wish that this word did not hold the power it does. I wish that it had not been used to hurt and abuse me. But it has. There is no erasing that. Regardless of whether or not I decide to redefine the word. It continues to be used in this way. And so I still ‘grapple’ with the word, ‘slut’. While some may have decided to reclaim it or redefine it for their own personal empowerment, I’m afraid that this does not change my experiences.
This is not to say that attempting to change language is not a purposeful endeavour. Or that to take away the power a word has to hurt and abuse people is impossible. But rather that this is something that we must not only agree upon, as the oppressed group who has decided to reclaim the oppressive word, and that this takes time. While the argument has been made that the intent is not to force this supposed ‘reclaimation’ on others, that, rather, anyone can volunteer to be a ‘slut or an ally’, the very uncomfortable fact that Slutwalk pressures women (and men!) into accepting this word, a violent word, as part of their empowerment discourse, it not addressed. In fact it seems to go unnoticed. I may well be, in theory and in life, the ‘ally’ of a self-described ‘slut’. But I am not about to call her one.
Is ‘slut’ a choice when we are marching under the banner of ‘Slutwalk’? This language of self-empowerment and choice seems all kinds of accommodating, but when we chastise critics of the event and language for ‘grappling’ with term, I wonder if, perhaps, Slutwalk isn’t quite as accommodating as they would like to be. Informing the public at large that ‘slut is being reappropriated’ is certainly empowering and delightful for some women, but does not necessarily encourage solidarity. Nor do insinuations that feminists who do not wish to take on this label, are simply having not quite empowered enough to have stopped ‘grappling’ with the language.
While we’re talking about language, Slutwalk TO would seem to have rejected some particularly pertinent language. They do not, as a whole, identify as feminist, nor do they seem to take the position that gender is a primary factor in sexual assault and victim blaming. In an effort to be inclusive, I wonder if the onus has been taken off of men? Many men seem to love the event. The Facebook page is full of men who revel in the ‘no we’re not feminists we’re humanists’ slant, who use the page as a platform to promote their I’m a good guy persona. Who are cool with feministish activism so long as they aren’t made to feel uncomfortable, the kind who prefer this version of feminism:
i.e. The kind that is very pleasant and doesn’t say much. The kind that reassures the public that feminists are just attractive, heterosexual, women who love penises and shaving their legs. Women who don’t threaten the status quo.
Using porny kinds of imagery makes the event all the more appealing to men who may feel nervous around feminism, but not so much around the sexy mudflaps girl.
Check out the image used for Slutwalk DC’s ‘sexy new website’:
(***Update! Slutwalk DC has removed this image. Unfortunately, now there is this.)
I’m afraid that I can’t see how the mudflaps girl presents a challenge to sexist imagery and discourse around women and female sexuality. Why, exactly, does feminism have to be ‘sexy’ in order for it to be supported? Well, the answer, of course, is so that it is palatable to men and to people who don’t much wish to challenge dominant ideology or to look at the roots of patriarchy. So that it doesn’t make anyone uncomfortable. And now a space has been created where it is not only acceptable, but progressive(!) for men to call women sluts;
where it is perfectly acceptable for men to watch porn because, hey, women do it too!
And where it is acceptable to objectify women because we’ve decided that objectification is actually empowering.
This palatability includes, what appears to me as, the consistent erasure of there being anything exploitative or gendered about everything from sexual assault to sex work:
Say anything about the gendered nature of domestic abuse or sexual assault and you will be sure to get a reminder that ‘women rape men too’ and that it is correct to view everyone as ‘human’, rather than gendered, thereby removing patriarchy as a guiding force when it comes to rape and abuse.
Just like Suicide Girls and the Neo-Burlesque movement argues, Slutwalk seems to encourage the perspective that objectification is ‘ok’ so long as we are objectifying women who deviate from the norm perpetuated by mainstream media (ie. blond, thin, white, conventionally attractive). Making feminist fights palatable to men or anti-feminist women means that it is ok and, feminist even, to objectify, for example, ‘curvy girls’ and not skinny ones:
These comments tend to be met with back pats (because being attracted to ‘curvy girls’ is progressive! You are such a forward thinking man!) and supported by arguments that ‘if you are objectifying yourself then it is ok’:
Naturally leading off of this kind of commentary, posts will inevitably draw the line between ‘good feminists’ (i.e. sluts) and ‘bad feminists’ (i.e. radicals). Ariel Levy is, in this thread, viewed as ‘shrill’ and ‘incoherant’, one would assume, because she criticizes this nonsensical and ‘post-feminist’ concept that objectifying oneself is somehow empowering.
The constant differentiating between the imaginary ‘man-hating feminist’ (radical) and the ‘sexyfun’ feminists who like to be objectified is just, well, pukey. Are we meant to turn a man into a hero because he ‘likes big butts’? What purpose does it serve in a conversation about women, sexual assault against women, and victim blaming (women) to continuously remind everyone that women are perpetrators as well? I believe that we all know that men are assaulted as well as women and it is indeed important to keep talking about this in order to disrupt the ‘men cannot be victims’ dichotomy that is so much a part of our tiny little vision of what ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ means. Conversations about male victims are important and should be had. But, as Elsie Hambrook notes in her piece: “The Facts and Politics of Intimate Partner Violence”, ‘But, What About the Men?!’ comments are rarely made in good faith. “They are rarely made in an effort to add to a meaningful discussion…These comments are more often ‘meant to grind the conversation to a halt”. It would appear that, under the circumstances I am looking at, these comments are meant to erase gender from the conversation. Hambrook adds: “It is meant to take away from the few occasions where women’s concerns are taken seriously.”
On Friday, this debate aired on The Agenda.
I couldn’t help but cringe, once again, when Jarvis brought up the ‘personal empowerment’ argument as defense of the use and attempted reclaimation of the word, ‘slut’, saying that: “For me to call myself whatever language I want, if I find it empowering, for somebody else to say that that’s not a right choice, when this is my choice. I find that problematic.” I believe that, in this short quip, Jarvis sums up much of that what has made me uncomfortable with Slutwalk from the get-go. ‘If I feel personally empowered by my personal choice, then no one else should have anything to say on the matter. It affects only me,’ is not a strong argument for feminism.
Slutwalk does, in many ways, resemble the same kind of privileged, individualist, ‘anything goes so long as it’s my choice‘ feminism which argues that prostitution is simply a choice like any other (or ‘work’ like any other kind of work), that objectification can be empowering as long as we are choosing to objectify ourselves, and that hey, if heels and breast implants make me feel great then everyone else needs to accept this as some kind of feminist act, because I say it is.
Reclaiming ‘slut’ is not only unnecessary as, I don’t believe we need a term for ‘people who enjoy consensual sex’, but, in removing the gendered aspect of ‘slut’ from the definition (they have not decided to reclaim/redefine the term to mean ‘women who enjoy consensual sex’ though I am not sure that this would be much better as, of course, I would prefer to believe that all women* enjoy consensual sex….) it makes the ‘reclaimation’ of this word an impossibility. It is men or, at very least, a male-dominated, sexist, patriarchal culture which has used the word ‘slut’ to silence and shame women. This means that, were we all to agree that we wanted to ‘take back’ this word (which, to be clear, we have not) it would need to be a gender-specific reclaimation. Men have not been abused and shamed and attacked with this word. Women have.
I absolutely believe that we must work to end rape culture and victim blaming. As Slutwalk makes very clear, no one is asking to be raped. No one deserves to be raped. This message is important. It is, in fact, imperative. Taking gender out of the equation, focusing on individual empowerment (ie. the ‘whatever makes me feel good should go unchallenged’ argument) and, stating (not suggesting, but stating) that ‘ The term ‘Slut’ is being re appropriated: A person who enjoys consensual sex.’ doesn’t make sense to me. It seems to leave out some very important information. For example, the word ‘women’, or ‘feminism’.
Slutwalk co-founder, Sonya JF Barnett, wrote in her blog post entitled: “Being a Slut and Getting Pissed Off” that she would “label [herself] a ‘slut’ before a ‘feminist”; embracing ‘slut’ because she enjoys sex, but rejecting ‘feminist’ because of the “reputation of ‘man-hating, hairy-legged, birkenstock-wearing’ descriptions that appeared around the term”. Ok….So why not have a feminist walk? Why walk for a term that, clearly, while some want to ‘reclaim’, many others feel triggered and shamed by. ‘Slut’ is not a word that we invented, that was taken away from us. ‘Feminism’, on the other hand, means something. It is a word and movement that women created and it is a word that patriarchy works very hard to take away from us. Why not work to keep it? Why not, instead of perpetuating the stereotypes, proudly call ourselves ‘feminist’? We already have a word that describes women who support consensual sex, equality, and the end of patriarchal oppression. Why are we comfortable to call one another, and allow men to call us ‘sluts’, but then reject ‘feminism’? Could it have something to do with the fact that men and mainstream culture are much more likely to accept and support us if we label ourselves sluts and parade around in bras? Whereas if we actually, as Gail Dines points out on The Agenda, ‘put the focus on men’, name men as the primary perpetrators of sexual assault against women, name patriarchy as the foundation of rape culture and victim blaming, and then name feminism as the movement which works to combat this, well, some men probably aren’t going to like us anymore. It is possible that, were we to do this, some men, men who do not wish for this kind of thing to be pointed out (excluding male feminists and allies, who are arm in arm with us, pointing these things out themselves), will not want to come on our walk with us. They may not want to photograph us, they may not want to come onto our Facebook pages and yell: “I love feminists!’ as much as they like to yell: ‘I love sluts!’.
But in terms of saying what we mean, addressing the roots and foundations of sexual assault and victim blaming, and challenging the system, I think that what we may be talking about is, in fact, feminism. I think that what we may, in fact, be, are feminists. Not sluts. Feminists.
Rejecting the word feminist but embracing the word slut sounds, to me, a lot like we’ve all drank the systematic kool-aid. I feel a little bit like all those patriarchal powers-that-be are snickering, witnessing the success of their hard work, having scared women away from labeling themselves feminist and instead taking on the oppressive language used to keep us down, to insult us, to objectify us, and to rape us. Hoping that they’ll stop. That maybe they’ll like us, respect us, and join us, so long as we don’t make them feel too uncomfortable. So long as we look sexy while we march.
F Word Collective member, Ellie, pointed me to this amazing spoken word piece by Julian Curry. I think we can certainly draw some parallels here.
*** For further discussion and some alternate perspectives on Slutwalk, please check out The F Word’s podcast, featuring an interview with Slutwalk Vancouver organizers, Katie Raso and Katie Nordgren. This interview is followed by a collective discussion among hosts Nicole Deagan, Laura Wood, and Meghan Murphy about some of the more controversial issues that have come up around Slutwalk. Podcast can be found at rabble.ca http://rabble.ca/podcasts/shows/f-word/2011/05/whats-name-slutwalks-feminism
*regarding the statement that “I would prefer to believe that all women enjoy consensual sex”, I would like to make very clear that what I meant, and what I should have conveyed more clearly, was that “I would prefer to believe that all women who enjoy/desire/have sex, enjoy consensual sex”. i.e. Let’s just work with the assumption that women do not ‘enjoy’ non-consensual sex. This statement was, in no way, meant to imply that all women enjoy/desire/have sex and, in no way, was meant to advocate for compulsory sexuality or erase asexual women. I make very clear, in my work (even within this post) and thought, (as well as in the comments section, though this issue has continued to be brought up and so I do feel the need to address it and clarify) that I reject compulsory sexuality and the idea that all people are sexually active or have arbitrary sexual desire. This was an error in language and clarity, not an error in thought or theory.