Why I am not a SlutWalker

By , 29 September, 2011, 2 Comments

On Saturday, I am going to SlutWalk. I have decided to attend the rally, where some of the walkers will give speeches explaining why they’re there, but not the march.

As someone worried that the feminist movement is losing steam, I am thrilled to see that feminist causes can still get people, especially young people, on the streets. And while I welcome the intention to combat a culture that feeds violence against women – that is a noble feminist cause if ever there was one – I am deeply uncomfortable with the way SlutWalk has framed that cause. Attending the rally allows me to be a friendly observer, to listen and try to understand, whereas marching felt like something I should do only if I felt, truly, that SlutWalk’s message was mine.

SlutWalk began as a response to the callous comments of a Toronto cop who told women that they could avoid sexual violence by covering up. He was voicing the idea, still common in some quarters, that a woman who dresses scantily or has sex often or with many partners has ceded her sexuality to the public sphere – it is now out there for anyone to use. She’s asked for it. Implied is the notion that most women don’t like sex, and therefore that affirmative consent – of a woman asking for sex explicitly when she wants it and not being forced to participate in it when she doesn’t – is impossible.

Affirmative consent was framed quite neatly in the 1970s with the slogan, “Whatever I wear and wherever I go, ‘yes’ means ‘yes’ and ‘no’ means ‘no,’ ” Because it requires people to understand female sexuality, affirmative consent has gotten a big boost from shows like Sex and the City, which, despite its flaws, helped mainstream the idea that women like sex too, and not just the vanilla kind you see written up in Cosmo‘s advice pages. In gender studies departments, this is often referred to as ‘sex-positivity.’ And it’s great.

What distinguishes SlutWalk is a decision to affirm female sexuality by appropriating the word so often used to degrade it: slut.

It is one thing to take a word with a specific positive meaning which has been co-opted and filled with negativity and reclaim it for its original positive purpose. This is my justification, for example, for identifying publicly as a feminist, which has a positive formal definition – a person who believes and/or works towards in gender equality – despite the fact that its opponents have spent several decades filling its popular meaning with horrible stereotypes about angry sexless women who want to punish men.

But slut is a different kind of word, a word that originates as a slur. It can be appropriated, but not re-appropriated. And so its appropriation feels to me more like saying, ‘Spit on me if you like; I don’t care what you think’ rather than ‘There is nothing here for you to spit on.’ It takes a perverse pride in being the thing society hates, and maybe serves as a rebuke to the haters, but it does not directly combat or dismantle the hatred. This kind of linguistic reclamation does not feel empowering to me, and it is not part of my feminism.

SlutWalk doesn’t leave much room for someone, like myself, who wants to combat rape culture but doesn’t believe we should embrace the word ‘slut’ to do so. [More on the exclusivity of this linguistic focus here.]

SlutWalk also fails to contend with the fact that a great deal of sexual violence stems from forces other than the degradation of female sexuality. Rape happens to men too and they face a different social constraint – the pressure to appear tough – in going public about it. Most sexual violence (one study estimated 84%) happens between people who know each other, often as an extension of other domestic violence, and is about debasing the victim’s humanity, not just their sexuality. Where sexual violence happens between strangers, it is still only partly about sex – that’s why it so often goes hand in hand with murder.

Instead of addressing these complex power dynamics directly, SlutWalk – at least its New York incarnation – purports to combat all power dynamics. The fight against sexual violence, its mission statement reads, is also the fight for the rights of the disabled and against imperialism, among other things. These are causes I support. But they are not part of my feminism. They are part of my liberalism. Liberalism and feminism are not the same thing.

SlutWalk’s organizers wanted to be inclusive of the full panoply of young activists. So instead of a coherent and powerful assault on one idea, they have turned their protest into a general purpose sticking-it-to-the-man, its ideology too thinly spread to do true justice to any of its causes. [Occupy Wall Street seems to suffer from a similar problem.]

Feminism has made the mistake of tying itself to other causes before. It tried to fold itself under the umbrella of the British labor movement, but the Labour Party opposed women’s suffrage to the last, fearing that women would vote Tory. It tried to fold itself into the civil rights movement, but struggled with the internal sexism of civil rights organizations. It threw itself behind the anti-war movement, and George McGovern’s anti-war presidential campaign, only to have McGovern toss abortion rights off the party platform to secure the Democratic nomination.

These were good causes and there was nothing wrong with individual feminists getting behind them – I would have. But it was and is a mistake to conflate feminism itself with the broad umbrella of the left and all the causes liberals might support. Feminism needs to carry its own weight.

Because I want a feminism that is interested in improving women’s lives, not just providing an emotional cushion for their suffering; because I want a feminism that is simply defined and widely accessible; because I want a feminism that has its own identity, distinct from that of other ideologies; I am not a SlutWalker.

But I will still see you at the rally. Tweet me at @maharafiatal if you will be there.

Related Posts
2 Responses {+}
  • Jeff Clark

    I am not crazy about the ‘slutwalk’ term. It continues a coarsening of society and I am hardly a prude. That said, I responded to a woman (who happens to be a celebrity of sorts) whom I follow on Twitter about her comments about liking a Chris Brown song. I asked her if he was the guy who had pummeled a woman. I said that if was that person, basically, he was a non-person.

    She replied (nicely) that he was that individual and that he had recognized his mistake and had apologized and was seeking forgiveness. I responded that she was a better person that I because there is no excuse for hitting a woman, ever. I am hardly a perfect person but I don’t think I have ever raised my voice to a woman.

    My point (or question) is can abusers atone for their acts and move on? I don’t know the answer but I do know if something like that happened to my daughter, I would deal with the situation.

  • Erin Gell

    Hi Maha! Great post. I volunteer with a feminist organization here in Dublin and we’ve been considering whether or not to organize a SlutWalk of our own, as we’ve had pressure from people on both sides of the argument. Think you raised a lot of interesting points here!

Leave a Reply