The politics of SlutWalk

Submitted by Matthew on 9 June, 2011 - 12:28

The SlutWalk story is now ubiquitous. In a January “campus safety information session” at Toronto’s York University, police officer Michael Sanguinetti told women to “avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised”.

Shocking? Yes. Unusual? No. Blaming the person who experiences sexual violence, rather than the perpetrator is a common reaction of both the police and wider society. Rape Crisis England and Wales suggests that 40% of adults who are raped tell no one, and 31% of children who are sexually abused reach adulthood without having told anyone — precisely because they are afraid of blamed and made to feel guilt and shame.

It is routine for sexual violence to be placed within the context of men’s response to women’s actions, and the idea that men “just can’t help themselves”. Rape is not the product of sexual attraction, a person’s dress sense or behaviour — it is a form of violence; a way to demonstrate power over another person. Yet responses to sexual violence which place responsibility on women to avoid “risky situations”, such as having the temerity to walk home alone or drink alcohol, are widespread, even amongst people who would condemn Sanguinetti’s remarks.

What is unusual about Sanguinetti’s remarks is that they have sparked protests worldwide. York University was quick to ask for a formal apology from Toronto police, but a group of young women felt that this was not adequate. They wanted to “speak to the bigger picture of common, persistent and documented victim-blaming within…Police Services. […]to demand accountability, not apologies”.

Aiming to “make a unified statement about sexual assault and victims’ rights and to demand respect for all” they organised a protest march — “Slutwalk” — calling on people of all genders and ages to “Come walk or roll or strut or holler or stomp with us”.

Toronto Slutwalk on 3 April attracted three or four thousand people and since then “satellite” marches have taken place across Canada, the USA, Australia, the Netherlands, Brazil, New Zealand, South Africa and Mexico. Seattle reported over 5,000 “slutwalkers”. Rallies typically end with speakers and workshops on stopping sexual violence and ending blame culture. In the UK Slutwalks are planned for Manchester, London, Edinburgh, Bristol, Newcastle, Birmingham and Cardiff. Toronto organisers are already planning the return of Slutwalk next April.

Despite the clear underlying political message of the protests, Slutwalk has provoked a variety of responses; it has not been a “unifying” protest. Discussion across the media and internet has ranged over women’s sexuality and the objectification and violence that women experience. In London discussion groups have been organised by Feminist Fightback and the Feminist Library.

Some have found the “slut pride” signposting freeing and empowering, others just plain offensive. Critics have said the word slut cannot be “re-appropriated” because it is the language of “patriarchy”.

For that reason SlutWalk’s been labelled un-feminist or post-feminist — indeed some organisers (but by no means all) have said they are not feminist!

Others have charged that the protest could exclude black and working-class women who are most vulnerable to domestic and sexual violence.

It is worth looking at some of these arguments in detail.

The fact that some women find the word alienating is not difficult to explain. It is an insulting word with a long history. The meaning of “slut” thirty or forty years ago was more to do with the kind of woman who doesn’t care too much for housework (hurrah). It is now used in the street with varying degrees of aggressiveness but also (usually) to demean women in more personal contexts, perhaps synonymously with phrases like “prick tease”.

But why do some do not want to “play along” with a subversive use of the word?

Some have said that trying to “reclaim” the word “slut” represents a white middle-class point of view and that is alienating to women who have to live with being constantly presumed to be sexually promiscuous as working class and black women may be.

But perhaps this is presumptious of the critics. Wouldn’t any woman who has been on the receiving end of sexual violence or harassment (and that’s a great many women) be provoked into anger by the casual use of the word slut by the police? And these SlutWalks have surely been angry.

Some have objected to ironic wordplay precisely because it is “having fun”, demeaning the seriousness of the underlying message.

One criticism is that SlutWalk invites women participating to dress up as sluts. Some feminists are dismayed by another dress code which emphasises how women dress. Isn’t this just putting more pressure on women to conform to stereotypes?

But even the original Toronto march didn’t specify anything had to be worn, saying “you don’t have to wear your sexual proclivities on your sleeve, we just ask that you come”. Although for some dressing up is part of it, it has never been at all compulsory or anything like it from the start. That idea seems to us to have come mainly from the media liking to put photos of young women in their underwear in the papers. (And where are the photos of older women in their underwear? There must have been a few...)

Moreover some Slutwalks, e.g. Manchester, have gone to great lengths to say “come as you are”, dress as you want.

There is a lot to be said for trying to subvert the idea of “sexiness”. It has feminist history. Back in the 1990s some feminists, in a reaction against those who wanted to ban pornography, tried to think about alternative representations of female sexuality.

Those efforts are a long way from the superficially reasonable and bland attempt by Counterfire to organise a “Hijabs, Hoodies and Hotpants” contingent on the London march. It is one thing to endorse a liberal notion of personal choice, quite another to endorse a dress code — the hijab — which is, as part of a global religious system, about repressing women’s sexuality! In many countries where women “choose” not to wear it they risk harassment and worse.

Does the fact that sexist media shits (Rod Liddle) have had a good chortle at the potential “sluttishness” on display show that SlutWalk has failed to think through its tactics? Let’s hope he’ll get enough men angry enough turn up to demonstrate, as they have done in many places.

Saying “I will demonstrate exactly how I want” is a great part of the message. But if you want to build a big movement, if you want to have a real impact on some of those appalling facts about sexual violence you have to think tactically. If SlutWalk is badly misinterpreted in a press it can’t control and therefore reacted against by people you want on your side, perhaps they should think again.

In truth “slut” is a word that is loaded with different meanings and therefore was always going to feel different to different women. It was always going to be more difficult to reclaim or subvert than, for example, the word “queer”.

But this has been a young woman’s “movement” organised by people who (fortunately) do not have the kind of political baggage of liberal/radical feminists who organise Reclaim the Night marches in London. That’s a demonstration that does not welcome sex workers who want to organise to improve their conditions of work and excludes transgender people. SlutWalk is much better in that respect.

This generation of young women are pressurised from an early age to dress as if stereotypically sexually available, to “perform” well at “being sexy” in a grotesquely unrealistic way. And yet they are slapped down and not expected to actually enjoy sex. Furthermore the really negative side of young women’s experience (as opposed having consensual sex) — that of sexual and domestic violence — is simply not talked about.

Here are young women saying yes, they enjoy having consensual sex but no, they will not put up with anything else. And good for them!

Older feminists and the sceptical should go with the flow, see this as the start of something new, as something to be supported and, where necessary, constructively criticised. It is up to more experienced activists to fill in any political gaps.

For instance we need campaigns to defend and extend women’s services which have been so badly affected by the cuts. We need to make sure that the right-wing in the Tory party and beyond do not get their way on such things as sex education. We need to campaign for those things that help give all women, of all ages and all backgrounds the freedom they want.


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