On April 3rd, an estimated 3000 to 4000 protestors walked the streets of Toronto armed with banners saying “Stop Slut Shaming” and “Reclaim the Word Slut.” Many who attended the Toronto Slut Walk wore classically “slutty” attire, including low cut tops and brightly colored fishnets. Here’s why they were protesting: At a local community meeting about women’s safety, Constable Michael Sanguinetti had recommended that if women wanted to avoid sexual assault they shouldn’t dress like “sluts.”
Recently, I’ve seen many debates about how to fight such slut shaming. There are too many people who will call a woman a slut in an attempt to control her sexuality. “Be less sexually empowered,” they tell us, “because if you don’t, we’ll brand you.” Well, announcing that those who dress like “sluts” should cover themselves up to help prevent violence does even more damage. Imagine if you’d been assaulted in a short skirt and heard a thing like that. “Was it my fault?” you might ask yourself. The answer is no, no, no.
Sanguinetti has apologized for his remark, and I’m glad to hear it. Holy heck, you should be able to walk down the street wearing anything you like without being attacked, regardless of gender, sexuality or aesthetic. Any fool knows that.
But as sex educator and call girl Veronica Monet reminds us, the “slut” archetype is deeply engrained in our culture, and many of us don’t even realize. On In Bed with Susie Bright (The Sex Remedy interviews) Monet explains that when lecturing at San Francisco State University, she asks the guys in the room to think back to when they were last called a whore. “There is a lot of laughing, giggling and shuffling around,” says Monet. But when she then asks the girls to reflect on the last time they were called a whore, the room goes deadly silent. In response, Monet tells the students, “Let me explain why sex worker rights apply to you.”
Of course, she’s spot on. Whenever any woman is attacked because of her sexual behavior, all of us feel the impact; and when women are threatened, so are other groups, because how can we not be affected by one another? Monet also speaks to the power of reclaiming language – like many sex workers, she uses the word whore with pride. Also, it’s worth remembering that there are male and transgender sex workers too – when slut or whore are used to control women sexually, these terms mess with the rights of sex workers of all genders.
By being ready to educate society, Monet’s response to such problems is similar in many ways to the concept of Slut Walk. When we start to confront problems like slut shaming, our response has to be creative – moving away from widespread stereotypes demands breaking free from social constraints and that’s a creative endeavor. I’m reminded of Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” in which the artist displayed her actual bed, along with its clutter, as an artistic installation. The piece was short-listed for the Turner Prize in 1999 and has become a classic. Complete with dirty underwear, condoms, and urine-soaked sheets, many call it an intimate “confession” about a young woman’s way of life. But I like to look at Emin’s “My Bed” as a vehicle for the artist to shout the truth: We’re not always virgins with clean sheets, she seems to say, and we’re done with being ashamed.
Well, as a dear friend recently reminded me, creative activism must exist in small ways as well as big. Slut Walk Boston is taking place on May 7th and I will be there. But if you can’t attend, do keep speaking out and if you don’t feel you can stand up for your rights at the time, you can always do so later. An email, some sharp wit, or even a raised eyebrow – these are all creative responses and they count.
It’s been said that one flap of a butterfly’s wings can cause a tornado. And I don’t doubt it for a second.
For more on the topic of slut shaming, including how to fight it, check out these resources from Betty Dodson & Carlin Ross.