Slutwalk Vancouver keeps it real

According to coverage in the Georgia Straight of Slutwalk Vancouver, this year’s event had a definitively different focus than last year’s. That is, the overt promotion of the legalization of prostitution.

Normalizing and mainstreaming prostitution is not, in fact, a concept that is new to Slutwalks. Across the world, the pro-sex work lobby have been actively engaged in various Slutwalks, using the convoluted message and apolitical nature of the event as an opportunity to promote prostitution as a potentially empowering choice for women. While assault and violence against prostituted women happens with appalling regularity, the trouble with Slutwalk’s promotion of prostitution is that it avoids addressing the root cause of the violence, instead opting to advocate for the mainstreaming and normalization of women as consumable objects.

Slutwalk placed itself in opposition to the feminist movement early on, and unfortunately Vancouver appears to have reinforced this disconnect to an even further degree this year. Or perhaps merely a more transparent way?

In a video attached to the article, which you can watch below, the interviewer asks why there is “so much anxiety in Western civilization about sex”, the interviewee responding by referencing “suffragettes, the Social Gospel movement, and prohibition” as the source of said “anxiety”.

I’m not sure exactly what the interviewer is referring to in asking about this “anxiety”, but I’m guessing he was referencing some kind of fear of female sexuality. The accusation of “slut”, of course, is commonly used as a way to shame, silence, and insult women. This fear or “anxiety’, if you want to call it that, though, came from and continues to be perpetuated by a patriarchal society (see: Rush Limbaugh). You know what else exists as a direct result of patriarchal ideology and male power? Prostitution.

The creation of the virgin/whore dichotomy, for example, is very much a product of a culture wherein men want to control all aspects of women’s lives – so they want their wives or girlfriends to perform pornographic scenarios in the bedroom but to be chaste in every other context and in public spaces. Under patriarchy, women’s sexuality is meant to exist for male pleasure. Prostitution exists to fulfill male desire and because it is profitable for pimps. Prostitution exists because men believe they are entitled to access female bodies.

While feminists, particularly those feminists who are critical of the sex industry, are often accused of being ‘anti-sex’ or ‘prudish’ (as opposed to ‘pro-sex’ or ‘sex positive’- a label that is popular among Slutwalkers) and are mistakenly conflated with the religious right, attempts to control and monitor female bodies and women’s sexuality comes from a male-dominated society. Any “anxiety” that exists around female sexuality is not due to the feminist movement, which has worked against compulsory sexuality, objectification, and the idea the sex, for women, must only happen with men and on male terms — rather, it is due to patriarchal ideology.

Within the context of Slutwalk, which, depending on who you talk to, either seeks to address “slut-shaming”, the right to ‘wear what I want when I want’, victim-blaming, and/or sexual assault and, therefore, in the end, sexism and violence against women (Right? Right? Or is that just wishful thinking?) I’m unconvinced that “anxiety about sex” is a key issue here. I do think that male power and privilege is an issue that remains noticeably less visible than all the commentary around the “I wear what I want” mantra, the identification with ‘slut’ as a term of empowerment, and the focus on normalizing the sex industry.

Violence against women has less to do with “anxiety about sex” than it does gender inequality, systematic oppression, power, and misogyny (so, male violence against women). All women are vulnerable to violence at the hands of men, but marginalized women are particularly likely to be victimized and men who are violent against marginalized women are more likely to get away with it. The proof of this is right in front of us as we have and continue to witness impoverished, mostly Aboriginal women go missing all across Canada and, in fact, across the world.

Are these women going missing because of some kind of “anxiety around sex”? Or because of suffragettes? Or are they going missing because of systematic injustice, racism, and institutionalized poverty? Are they going missing because men know that they will get away with treating women as disposable and because, in the end, we as a society view women as disposable things?

While Slutwalk focuses on working to normalize and legitimize male power by decriminalizing pimps and johns, it completely misses the root cause of male violence, gendered oppression and sexual assault and reinforces it’s oppositional position to the feminist movement.

And yet it wasn’t feminists who created a punitive welfare system that forces women into desperate situations wherein they are then criminalized. Feminists have not encouraged men to objectify women. Feminists were not the first to colonize what is now known as Canada, take on “country wives” and build brothels. Feminists did not watch porn instead of looking for the missing and murdered women. Nope. That was the work of white men in positions of power. The failure of Slutwalk to address the connections between prostitution, violence against women, and male power continues to confound me.

When I attended an ‘unconference’ put on by Slutwalk organizers in an effort to address, among other things, concerns about the name of the event and the use of the word ‘slut’, I have to admit that I felt hopeful that the Vancouver event might take a different route than other events had. The discussions felt productive. I was disappointed when a decision was made to keep the name and so I remained steadfast in my commitment not to march under the banner of “Slutwalk” and did not attend.

Despite numerous criticisms, it appears as thought nothing changed for Slutwalk in Vancouver. Except for, according to Charlie Smith, the author of the Georgia Straight article, a more overt message advocating for the legalization of prostitution.

The fact that an event that could have addressed male violence against women is instead being co-opted in favour of promoting prostitution as a potentially empowering choice for women and working to normalize male power and privilege by decriminalizing pimps and johns is, well… it’s fucked. I simply fail to see how decriminalizing violent and abusive men will prevent sexual assault and promote equality. I fail to see how advocating to further entrench a deeply misogynist and sexist industry works towards equality or addresses sexual assault. Yes, we want to stop blaming victims for their own abuse, but do we want to do that while simultaneously normalizing an industry that hates women? It is even possible to stop victim blaming and sexual assault while simultaneously working to reinforce male power and privilege? Somehow I doubt it.

Feature image: Charlie Smith/The Georgia Straight

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.