June 08, 2011
In certain circles of educated women who’ve mastered the all-mighty art of snark, pondering aloud which one of the four Sex and the City ladies each one of you is most like is considered especially poor form. If you do make this faux-paux, it is even worse for you to say cheerily, “I’m Charlotte!” For the uninitiated, Charlotte is the brunette, aka the “conservative” one, the one who is leery of anal sex and never, ever calls a man first. Her character arc moves toward marriage and motherhood with a raw determinism that is equally poignant and infuriating. One of Charlotte’s comic high-points in the show was an argument with Miranda (the redhead, aka the “tough” one, the one who tries to sublimate her endearing awkwardness in her workaholism), when, after marrying, she elects to give up her job as the buyer for a prestigious SoHo gallery. All Miranda has to do to trip Charlotte’s post-feminist guilt is frown. “I choose my choice,” Charlotte cries. “I choose my choice!”
This issue of choice has been uppermost in my mind ever since a friend invited me to join her at the D.C. SlutWalk on August 13th. I can see why she thought it’d be up my alley: I’m a proud contributor to Planned Parenthood, I still have the sign I carried at the March for Women’s Lives, and I bristle whenever someone says, “I’m not a feminist, but…” The exuberant aggressiveness of SlutWalk should have appealed to me; I used to augment my black eyes with gold glitter, not concealer. As a survivor of domestic violence, I’d been told point-blank by family members that if I would just “shut up and simmer down,” I wouldn’t get hit.
SlutWalk is a global grassroots movement that sprang out of a Toronto police officer’s callous quip that women shouldn’t dress like “sluts” if they don’t want to be sexually assaulted. The stated objective of SlutWalk is to reappropriate the word slut, and, in doing so, disrupt the social and sexual hierarchies that charge it with meaning. So, if wearing a mini-skirt (or, hell, a skirt that comes even slightly above the knee—your mileage may vary when it comes to defining authentic slut regalia), justifies sexual assault, then spilling the milk that one time justified getting my nose broken. I get this—at least intellectually, I do.
And yet, something inchoate in me is unsettled. It started when I saw photos from the earlier SlutWalks, some women in fishnets and bras, words lipsticked onto their bare stomachs, head-on confronting the archetype of “slut” by dressing in clothing that even SlutWalk supporter Jessica Valenti acknowledges would’ve been — and, I’d add, still often is — considered “objects of female oppression” by their feminist foremothers. In case taking to the streets in lingerie was still too subtle, there were women wearing t-shirts that point-blank said “this is what a slut looks like.” I felt an active, low-thrumming annoyance when I saw that the Facebook invites for various SlutWalks read “Sluts and Allies unite!” More than annoyance—I found myself offended.
In order to participate in this rally, I would have to be able—not only able, but eager—to call myself a slut. Which is, of course, exactly the point. But by making participation contingent on this eagerness, SlutWalk makes itself exclusionary; something that presents a kind of female chauvinism—as typified by a blunt insistence on exhibitionism for its own sake—as the hip, post-modern woman’s proper response to the odd politics of gender identity. It also assumes that all women’s experiences of “slut” are uniform, and that every woman endures assault and abuse identically. So when I read that the Toronto SlutWalk organizers are “tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result,” it’s the “our” that gets me.
This kind of language assumes an inclusiveness that the event itself doesn’t actualize. Many writers and activists have pointed out that different cultural histories and perspectives negate the possibility for certain women to participate in SlutWalk on its terms. In a brilliant post titled “SlutWalks v. Ho Strolls” that appeared on The Crunk Feminist Collective, blogger crunktastic opines that the word slut “very much reflects white women’s specific struggles around sexuality and abuse.” She reminds us that Black women — and, I would add, women from more economically disadvantaged classes — have been viewed as “lascivious, hypersexed, and always ready and willing,” which renders them outside of the punitive grasp of “slut,” though no safer from abuse. “What becomes an issue,” crunktastic writes, “is those white women and liberal feminist women of color who argue that ‘slut’ is a universal category of female experience.”
In Harsha Walia’s essay “Slutwalk: To march or not to march,” Nassim Elbardouh, a community organizer, correlates her dilemma with SlutWalk’s method of expression with her own core values as a Muslim woman: “I didn’t go to Slutwalk because rather than focusing on lack of consent in sexual assault, there seemed to be a message that I have heard since I was a young girl — that I am only a feminist under the white gaze if I dressed and behaved in certain exposing and forward ways. People need to realize that being ‘scantily clad’ is not the only patriarchal excuse that victimizes women. Sexual assaults against Muslim women are often minimized in our society because Muslim women are perceived as repressed, and therefore in need of sexual emancipation. I would much rather have attended a ‘Do Not Rape’ Walk.”
Even the perceptions of women who have suffered the violence and degradation associated with “slut” are hardly universal. In response to crunktastic’s post, a commenter named Heather offers her experiences as a white single mom on welfare who grew up in a household where her father frequently called her mother a slut, and whose own ex called her a slut on the day she gave birth to her daughter. “My kid is 9.5 years old and do I want her to grow up thinking that slut is an empowering word? Fuck no. I find the word coming from an awful place of abuse and I really could care less about ‘taking it back.’ ”
Like Heather, I’m troubled by SlutWalk’s assumption that “reclaiming slut” is the one-stop-shop for catharsis. I’ll admit that I have never been called a “slut”, but I have been called a bitch. A goddamn bitch. A stupid bitch. Sometimes bitch replaced my proper name: Bitch, I said stop it. Bitch, I’m counting to three. Bitch, don’t you dare get up. With a lot of time and more than a little therapy, I have come to see that I am not what bitch means. But what “bitch” has come to mean to me is a reminder of those times when I was brought low enough to believe that maybe I was too clumsy, too stupid, too loud; maybe I did deserve it. Bitch is to me what slut is to Heather: the thing I can never believe about myself if I want to move forward. “Reclaiming bitch” would mean becoming the girl whose back bleeds under the shower faucet.
So my discomfort with SlutWalk’s emphasis on exhibitionism isn’t oriented in cultural or religious mores. It is rooted in my own struggles as a survivor. I suffered at the hands of the very first man who was supposed to care for and protect me, and that has troubled my abilities to connect with men (and not only as romantic partners). I’m not able, as one of the founding members of Toronto SlutWalk wrote in her bio, to “enjoy wearing…tight clothes, and socializing with guys.” Given what SlutWalk’s agenda is, this defiance makes sense; however, it still strikes a tone that being a bawdy “guy’s gal” is more fun — and therefore superior — to being more reserved.
Yes, there are women in sweatpants and flannels attending SlutWalks, but the predominant vision is one of — as Laura Woodson writes on The F Word blog — “ ‘fuck you, I can wear heels if I want to.’ ” Woodson rightly points out that “there’s so much pressure on women to dress hyper-feminine anyway that it seems pretty self-defeating.” In their Guardian UK piece “SlutWalk is not sexual liberation,” Gail Dines and Wendy J. Murphy assert that this kind of pressure makes women feel as though they must be “sexually available ‘on demand’” in order to be valued.
This availability, of course, hews to the cultural mandate of uniform attractiveness. Though mainstream actresses adopting the porn aesthetic of narrow hips, inflated breasts and plumped mouths isn’t entirely new, the influx of reality-TV stars taking on this look demonstrates a devastating trickle-down effect. Think of the Teen Mom who used her MTV earnings on breast implants before she’d even finished growing and developing. Dines and Murphy see this unrelenting barrage of hypersexualized imagery as a contributor to depression, anxiety, eating disorders and self-mutilation among young women. I couldn’t agree more with their claim that by calling themselves “sluts” and encouraging others to do the same, SlutWalkers are “making life harder for girls who are trying to navigate their way through the tricky terrain of adolescence.”
Perhaps my defensiveness is rooted in the discourse I’ve seen on the SlutWalk blogs, which seem to suggest that there are very tangible and specific ways of embracing one’s sexuality. For instance, on the Denver SlutWalk tumblr, a very legitimate question about the efficacy of this kind of protest, about whether enacting the archetype of “slut” through sartorial choices would truly change perspectives instead of reinforcing stereotypes was met with this response: “But let me ask you – what wrong idea are…people getting? That its [sic] ok to identify as a person who owns their sexuality, regardless of what that may be, or even if they are having sex at all? That it is OK for them to be sexual? The idea that the word Slut has such a powerful negative connotation is part of what Slutwalk is fighting against.”
This response is troublesome because it correlates a healthy attitude toward sex with a certain degree of exhibitionism. Even though this technically inverts the Toronto police officer’s assumption that manner of appearance is an invite to assault, it still operates with his logic that dress signifies sexual proclivity. What if you believe that it is more than okay to identify as a person who owns her sexuality, but, in fact, being able do so constitutes a human right—yet you’re uncomfortable with the idea that the most powerful way of expressing your beliefs is to assume a persona, or even a label, that doesn’t feel natural to you?
Obviously, the protests are meant to renegotiate concepts of respect: how respect has been and shouldbe demonstrated, as well who shows it and who receives it. I’m sure many of the men who identify as “slut allies” simply want their partners, daughters, and friends to enjoy the freedom of sexual expression without worry of reprisal. Still, I wonder if the kind of openness SlutWalk has established as its driving force from actually undermines its demands for respect and acceptance.
I was taken aback by this message on the Denver SlutWalk tumblr: “I’m a dude who generally enjoys sluts. How would you prefer us slut-loving dudes support your effort? Would you like us to watch and ogle the sluts as you go by? Or just stay home? On the other hand, we could make ourselves useful as a human-stripper-poles [sic] during the protest; maybe with hands-tied to show ‘hands-off’ without permission?”
How, exactly, is this man, with his “show of support” by “ogling the sluts,” any different than the man who hollered “sweet tits” at me as I walked my dog one evening? After all, in both instances, women are reduced to bodies in motion, with the meanings of those motions — marching for gender parity or picking up dog shit — completely irrelevant. His offer to stand as a human stripper pole also conjures the image of nubile young protesters winding their bodies around eager men, which positions these women, at an event that purports to be about empowerment and affirmation, as mere sexual playthings. On a far more basic level, it supposes that the majority of women attending this event are strippers; this, in turn, supposes that only strippers are interested in the freedom of expression; or, rather, that women who are interested in freedom of expression are strippers.
This is, of course, ludicrous; however, since women who choose to identify themselves through other career choices — whether as a lawyer or a stay-at-home parent, a newspaper columnist or a PR rep — are excluded from this logic, they are, by extension, excluded from the spirit of the event. So, then, is anyone who may support freedom of choice (from dress to conduct to reproductive health), but whose cup of tea steeps more prim than raunchy. Surely, the tumblr’s author would point out that, in this regard, this “dude who generally enjoys sluts” wasn’t being much of an ally. Instead, the response was “come out and join us!”
These issues of self-identification and exclusion form the crux of my discomfort with SlutWalk. As Harsha Walia writes: “Slutwalk — in its slick branding — runs the risk of facilitating the dominant discourse of ‘liberated’ women as only those women wearing mini-skirts and high heels…In reality, capitalism mediates the feminist façade of choice by creating an entire industry that commodifies women’s sexuality and links a woman’s self-esteem and self-worth to fashion and beauty. Slutwalk itself consistently refuses any connection to feminism and fixates solely around liberal questions of individual choice — the palatable ‘I can wear what I want’ feminism that is intentionally devoid of an analysis of power dynamics.”
Where then, do women like me, whose all-too-keen awareness of power dynamics have lead us to a more contemplative, conservative approach, stand? If, as Jessica Valenti claims in her Washington Post op-ed, “SlutWalks have become the most successful feminist action of the past 20 years,” then we are persona non grata. The stigmatization of “prude” is just as real as the stigmatization of “slut”; and while I would certainly not suggest that it is more harmful and overarching than “slut,” it does have a damaging cultural potency that is often overlooked. Though some SlutWalk organizers and supporters acknowledge the very real concerns other feminists have with the events, others have decided that we just don’t “get it”, and should be excluded from the feminist movement as a whole.
Take Sophie Jones’ bratty declaration in another The F-Word post: “Calling yourself a feminist because you are sick of women dressing ‘sluttishly’ and pandering to the man is like calling yourself a vegetarian because you hate animals too much to eat them.” Though I vehemently disagree with SlutWalk’s methodology, I would never deign to decide that its organizers weren’t real feminists. That’s simply not my place. While there is clearly no place for me in the SlutWalk community, I resent the accusation that my “prudery” excludes me from feminism as a whole. This negates the entire premise of SlutWalk — that a woman’s personal choices, no matter how they fit with the norm, shouldn’t be used against her.
Still, when I declined to walk with my friend, I felt like Charlotte, defensively crying “I choose my choice, I choose my choice!” After I told her I wanted to write about my reaction to SlutWalk, my dear friend and fellow Nervous Breakdown contributor Arielle Bernstein sent me the link to Valenti’s piece. She told me that while she could appreciate the heady brashness of the protest, she wondered, somewhat dispiritedly, if this is really the best way women’s voices can be heard. I hope not.