Slutwalks, sex work, and the future of feminism

If this is the future of feminism I am afraid. This is not intended to slight Jessica Valenti’s recent article in The Washington Post and this is not to say that  Valenti isn’t right about the power of grassroots organizing and the way in which it can be incredibly inspiring to watch young women get together and fight for their lives. Protest is good. Conversations are good. And MAN has all this Slutwalk stuff started a conversation.

So it’s not so much that I think the protest is bad, or that all these conversations have been bad. This many people talking about feminism? Pretty neat. What scares me is where that conversation has headed. What scares me is this image, taken from Slutwalk Las Vegas’ Facebook page:

"Slut isn't a look, it's an attitude. And whether you enjoy sex for pleasure or work, it's never an invitation to violence."
"Slut isn't a look, it's an attitude. And whether you enjoy sex for pleasure or work, it's never an invitation to violence."

While, as far as I can tell, most Slutwalks claim to not have not taken any position on ‘sex work’ or on pornography, other than to stand in solidarity with sex workers (which, I believe, most feminists do) – I do see a very clear position in this language. Let’s first be clear that we are all in agreement that there is no such thing as an invitation to violence and that there is not a single person who deserves to be raped, regardless of the position they occupy in society, or the clothes they wear. Let’s also be clear about the position that has been taken here, and that there is, in fact, a position being taken, that is: sex work is something that is enjoyed by women.

So the discourse has been narrowed, the conversation has been ended. This one little sentence is huge. By framing ‘sex work’* as something enjoyed by women, we change the direction of the conversation entirely. We remove the context of gendered oppression that is inherent to ‘sex work’; we erase survival sex workers who do not ‘choose’ this work in any way that resembles a free and autonomous choice, but rather must do it in order to survive, (so no, these women are not doing this ‘work’ because they ‘enjoy’ it); we perpetuate a male fantasy that says: women enjoy being dominated (because if you think men buying sex from women has nothing to do with power, you are living a fantasy), they enjoy being penetrated (some women do, many women do not, certainly all women do not enjoy being penetrated by strangers), they enjoy servicing men and catering to their every desire; we perpetuate the idea that prostitution is something that is ‘natural’; and we remove financial need and a context of capitalism from the discourse. Women do not exist to service men. ‘Sex work’ is about male pleasure via female bodies. This is not to say there there are not exceptions to this argument, but those exceptions are not the rule. The purpose of prostitution is male pleasure. The mere fact (and this is no mere fact) that women are paid by men removes autonomy and negates an argument for female pleasure as the primary purpose of sex work.

In this one sentence, an opportunity for conversation has been removed, thousands of women’s lives have been erased, and misogynist discourse has been made front and center. It doesn’t feel like feminist activism to me. It doesn’t even feel like feminism.

I want to be clear that this one image, this one sentence, is not representative of all Slutwalk satellites, nor is it representative of all those involved in organizing or marching. It is, though, representative of Slutwalk Las Vegas. And it is representative of where this conversation has headed under the umbrella of Slutwalk. It is something we must pay close attention to. This is one small sentence that says a lot.

This is not the future of feminism. This is the status quo. This is the past and the future of patriarchy if we allow it.

*I have used quotations around ‘sex work’ because I do not wish to label prostitution as ‘sex work’, though many others do. I use the term ‘sex work’ in places here as a reference to the discourse I am referring to.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.