Slutwalk: A critical note around coverage of criticism.

There have been, as I’m sure, at this point, you’ve all noticed, many, many critiques of Slutwalk. For a brief, but thorough, summary, check out the Feminist Frequency’s Link Round Up: Feminist Critiques of Slutwalk. Critiques have ranged from questioning Slutwalk’s authority or ability to ‘reclaim’ a misogynist and gendered word like ‘slut’ and whether, in fact, such a thing is possible or desirable, to the marginalization of people and communities of colour and ignorance around how class and privilege might play into both the event as a whole, as well as factor into the assertion that ‘slut’ has been reclaimed and now means something awesome/compulsory-sexuality-for-everyone!, to the reinforcement of mychoice feminism (FUCK YEAH) in so much of Slutwalk discourse, which represents individual choice and personal empowerment as, somehow, a ‘movement’. Critiques have been nuanced, thoughtful, intelligent, and hey, we’d like to think, kinda important. And yet, when given any ‘air time’ from supporters, i.e. aside from the space given to critiques by the criticizers themselves, they are completely misrepresented and almost immediately erased. Once again.

In fact, much of the more positive coverage of Slutwalk, when it does pander to critics, for some reason, paints them as distracters and derailers; faulting them for leading the conversation off track into a purposeless argument of semantics. The Socialist Worker wrote, in a piece entitled: Sparks of a New Women’s Movement

“The Slutwalks also have their critics. But in many cases, the criticisms focus narrowly on the use of the word “slut” and don’t discuss the actual message of the protests and the wide popularity of their demand to stop blaming women for sexual assault.”

Wait a minute. We’re doing what now? In following the coverage of Slutwalk, as well as the statements and blogposts coming from the various satellites, admittedly, obsessively, I have noticed one thing. The focus, and the re-focusing of the conversation back to the word ‘slut’ and the intended reclaimation of the word as, been coming, not from the critics (though critics have most certainly addressed this issue), but from the organizers and satellites themselves.

When Chloe Angyal was included in a conversation on Seattle’s KUOW 94.9fm about Slutwalk, she argued that the protest wasn’t really about reclaiming the word and that, rather it was about “protesting the idea that sluttiness causes rape.” Other feminist writers and supporters have done the same in an effort to keep the Slutwalk conversation on track, reminding folks that this is really about fighting rape culture and victim blaming, often noting that really it’s the critics who are doing all the derailing, that we are “discrediting the movement”, when we should, in fact, be talking about rape.

Now, I agree (and I *think* I’ve made this very clear) that we should indeed be having conversations about and taking action against victim-blaming, sexual assault, and rape. I understand and support the initial anger against the Toronto cop who engaged in victim blaming, as well as the desire to take action. The fact that the discourse and the action has been derailed into a conversation and focus on ‘sluts’, language, reclaiming language, privilege (in terms of who calls themselves slut, why, and what this means) and, yeah, essentially arguments around semantics can be credited squarely in two places:

1) The organizers who decided to name the event ‘Slutwalk’

2) The Slutwalk organizers and supporters and satellites who keep asserting that these walks are, in fact, about reclaiming the word ‘slut’.

In response to Angyal’s pretty mild (and supportive) statement on KUOW 94.9fm, Seattle Slutwalk felt the need to issue this open letter, clarifying that:

“Reclaiming, or more accurately, reappropriating the word “slut” is a fundamental cornerstone of the movement, as a brief look at our posters bearing the slogan “reclaim the word slut” would suggest.”

As we have already witnessed, both Slutwalk DC and Slutwalk Toronto, have stated the same thing.

On May 16th, Slutwalk Calgary issued a statement which addressed the whole issue of  ‘The Name’, concluding that “This will probably be our last comment on the name. That conversation is nothing more than a distraction from the real issue, which is our communities blaming sexual assault survivors for the actions of their attackers. Period.” Well. Ok. I agree. Sort of. The conversation should be about blaming victims for having been assaulted. But wait. Then WHY is the conversation continually being re-focused back onto the whole name thing? And the assertion that one group, on behalf of all women, regardless to how this might impact them, are ‘taking it back’. MY opinion on this? If you don’t want to talk about the name, then don’t call your event Slutwalk.

It is not the fault of the critics that the conversation is being derailed. It is the fault of Slutwalk. And it is the fault of Slutwalk organizers who keep telling us that reclaiming slut is indeed central to the conversation.

Elizabeth Shulte, whose article I quoted earlier, really manages to erase and invalidate criticism, arguing that criticisms coming from activists on the left go “so far as to portray SlutWalk organizers as white and privileged, and therefore completely at odds with the concerns of women of color. One blogger even accused organizers of being “white supremacists.” *GASP*

Shulte goes on to criticize Gail Dines perspective on Slutwalk simply because on her website (way to stretch your research wings there) “Dines situates herself in the tradition of theorists Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, who argue in favor of censoring pornography and every man’s culpability in violence against women.” So the marginalization of any criticisms at all are generously extended to anyone who dares to align themselves with radical feminist arguments. Which is, of course, what many of the criticisms are about.

We just can’t win, friends. Pointing out that race and class privilege are alive and well in this ‘movement’ is ‘absurd’, if you criticize the neoliberal, mychoice (FUCK YEAH) discourse with radical arguments, you are immediately erased from the discussion, and if you challenge the concept of reclaiming the word ‘slut’ and the impact that may have on women you are derailing.

Again, I’m lost. And I’ve really been following.

So which is it? Are conversations about the word ‘slut’ simply a tool used by critics to distract from the real issues?  Are we just not getting the point? Are all critiques of Slutwalk ‘ shit’? Completely absurd? Or, are critiques being consistently dismissed and erased? For an event that claims to be completely inclusive, to really be listening, why are critics consistently being blamed for derailing?? The focus on the name, on the word, on the supposed ‘reclaimation’ of said word, is enforced and reinforced by Slutwalk organizers. As are, therefore, the derails into conversations about semantics. It seems like, if someone was really listening, there wouldn’t be such an active effort to erase and marginalize criticisms and to present them as being completely irrelevant.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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