I’ve got to be honest here. I truly believed that Slutwalk NYC was going to be different. Not different enough to lose the ‘slut’, and therefore, not different enough to convince me that this ‘movement’ was one I wanted anything to do with, but perhaps different enough to hold validity beyond personal catharsis. Maybe this Slutwalk would actually say something radical. Maybe this Slutwalk would comment on systematic oppression. Maybe even this Slutwalk would present a challenge to male power.
Today, this video was posted, along with a blog which notes, among other things, the frustration felt by many about the way in which the media has focused “on the most elaborately undressed and risque marchers.”
Strangely, this video did just that. Which leads me to believe that maybe, just maybe, that’s what Slutwalks are actually like? Maybe those images we see of women marching down the streets in their underwear holding signs that read: “sluts say yes!” are an honest representation of what actually happens at Slutwalks? Is it really just the media manipulating the message?
In any case, there are a few reasons I thought this particular Slutwalk might, just might be different:
a) Slutwalk has been critiqued to death by so many feminists that one could fairly assume that some of these critiques might actually have sunk in.
b) This semi-promising promotional video which, unlike many other Slutwalks, actually mentions the word ‘feminism’:
c) I actually spoke with some Slutwalk NYC organizers who seemed to have put a lot of thought into this particular event and didn’t necessarily agree with the idea that we could or should be working to ‘reclaim slut’
d) Wishful thinking?
And hey, I wasn’t there. There are women who were there this past weekend, at the march, who reflected on it with mixed, though relatively positive feelings.
But then there was the video.
Between the women dancing and posing on stage in their underwear, the women with ‘tramp’ and ‘slut’ inked onto their bodies, the slogans: “I have the pussy so I make the rules”, the pole-dancing, and the men, standing on the sidelines grinning, leering, and taking photos, this video really says it all. Or it says a lot, at least.
A feminist ‘movement’ wherein men take photos of women dancing around stripper poles? Sounds radical!
I’ve talked about Slutwalk with so many people, coming from so many different places (participants, organizers, criticizers, and those who’ve never even heard of it before) that I think, at this point, I have a fairly good understanding of why women participate. Slutwalk does make many women feel empowered. It does make women feel as though they no longer are alone, or that they no longer need to feel ashamed about their sexual assault. And that’s great. But where do we go from here? How do we make change so that women actually aren’t raped anymore? So that men no longer feel that they have the right to access women’s bodies? So that women no longer feel like every move they make is being watched and sexualized?
These are all questions that I feel continue not to be addressed by any Slutwalk. Somehow, connections between objectification, the oppressive male gaze, sex industries, and rape culture are not being made. And when they are made, they are quickly shut down with retorts that accuse critics of being either ‘sex-negative’ (spoiler alert! There’s no such thing!) or of hating sex workers. And again dialogue is squashed, critiques are silenced, and Slutwalk rages on, claiming to have ‘reinvigorated the feminist movement.’
Now, I think we can reasonably excuse some of the mistakes made by the original Slutwalk held in Toronto. It was reactionary and it was organized very quickly as a direct response to an incident which happened in Toronto. This is not to say that we should not have critiqued this event, as there were many, many problematic aspects of that original Slutwalk which deserved critique and questioning, but rather that, at this point, I would have thought things might have changed a little. I thought that, perhaps, after all this discussion and debate, some of this discussion and debate might have been heard and then reflected in future events. But no. Instead, we see the same old thing.
As many have pointed out, and Keli Goff points out, once again in an article called ‘Dear Feminists, Will You Also be Marching in N***erwalk?’: “you can’t “reclaim” a word defined by a predominant group in power unless you are a part of that group.” And to that, I would add: you can’t ‘reclaim’ the male gaze. It doesn’t belong to you and it doesn’t empower you. It is a disempowering gaze. Which is why I find it so absurd that this march, supposedly against rape culture, is so focused on performing for the male gaze and calling it empowerment.
One woman in the video states: “we should not blame women for their own sexuality,” – but what does that mean? Is pole-dancing about female sexuality? Or is it about performing for the male gaze? Is rape about female sexuality? Are fishnets about female sexuality?
There appears to be some deep, deep confusion about the difference between what men, in a patriarchy, have decided is ‘sexy’ and what ‘female sexuality’ is. The fact that we don’t even know – that we can’t even imagine such a thing as ‘female sexuality’ without dancing around on a stage in our underwear or without calling ourselves ‘sluts’ is depressing. And when we go so far as to point out that, in fact, stripping, stilettos, and the word ‘slut’ are things which are used to disempower and objectify women, rather then to celebrate women as human beings that don’t exist to service men, we are told that we are attacking this elusive ‘female sexuality’.
The reason Slutwalks have become so popular is because of the name and the sexy photo ops. It isn’t because anything is changing, it isn’t because Slutwalks are revolutionary, and it isn’t because the media are just so freakin excited about female liberation. Women on stripper poles have always been able to capture the gaze of their audience but never have these images provided women with equality or humanity. And yes, I know that lots of women do this work and that these women are not to blame for our oppression. The men who hold power and privilege and have treated women like pieces of meat for eons are to blame. But replicating and celebrating this imagery challenges nothing. It doesn’t celebrate female sexuality, it celebrates male privilege and male pleasure.
If these marches were actually challenging patriarchy and male power you can bet most of those men would not be standing on the sidelines, smiling and taking photos. They would be angry.