Confessions of a Prude: Why I Can’t Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the SlutWalkBy Laura Bogart
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.
Thanks for this piece. I really agree with what you say.
Girl power / SlutWalk or whatever one wants to call it, cannot possibly be a central part of feminism.
The real problem persists: there are men out there who do not take women seriously as colleagues, or friends or even as passers-by in the street. These men view women as sexual objects, and they have no interest in the political message of SlutWalk. All they will see is a load of skimpily dressed women, which is the way they like it.
Thanks for reading and responding. I have no issue with Girl Power or Riot Grrls, per say; I actually think those movements were about women expressing themselves in very raw and intelligent ways. Riot Grrls, in particular, gave voice to a lot of female rage — among the causes of this rage, the whole “slut” stigma. But I agree with you when you say that SlutWalk presents a lot of skimpily clad women without context, which may be more adverse than helpful. My question, at the end of the day, is what, exactly SlutWalk aims to accomplish in real, tangible terms. I don’t even think I’ve heard a cohesive explanation for what “reclaiming slut” even means. What kind of follow-up advocacy would they do after the marches are over? I just don’t think this movement is very clearly thought-through.
This was interesting, Laura–I’m not a very “showy” person and don’t tend to go in for public theater on a personal level: walking around in my bra would not be my idea of a good time. But I think part of the problem here also stems from the ways in which feminism is still defined by “what men will think of it” and “whether or not it will make its case persuasively to men.” Henning makes the case above, for example, that many men may just see SlutWalk and feel excited, or use it as an excuse to further turn women into sexual objects–and I don’t dispute that in the least; he’s absolutely right. But I guess my feelings are that this is entirely beside the point. I don’t think women and feminism need male approval or understanding to be legit, you know? I think that kind of anxious wondering of whether men will grant a stamp of approval or “get it” is almost as silly as the separatism and anti-male aggression of some Second Wave feminism, and a flip side of that same coin that is still somehow so terrified or reverential of men as to make them too central to every argument, and feminisms positions as constantly in reaction to men, instead of being about women ourselves.
Men and women have to live together and work together and play together, and I’m all for that, certainly–I love men, or at least the kind of men who tend to hang out at TNB, and men like my husband, my writer friends, my crazy-neurotic old Italian dad. But feminism, to me, seems more than able to carry off a broad inclusion of whatever makes a group of WOMEN feel vibrant and empowered and seems fun and exciting and meaningful to them. Some feminism has real legs and can change the world via public policy or, say, opening a school for girls in Afghanistan, etc. Other feminism is just about community and fun and flashing some–for lack of a better word–balls at the established order and giving the finger to stereotypes just for the day. There is room for all of this, and more.
And it’s totally cool if you don’t want to run around in Slut Garb, too. Women–and feminists–aren’t homogeneous and shouldn’t have to be.
Thank you for reading and responding. I agree with your point that women — and feminists — aren’t homogeneous and shouldn’t have to be. A balance that truly focuses on women’s well-being and includes men as allies is really, in my opinion (pipe dream?) ideal as well. However, I think SlutWalk, or at least the language SlutWalk supporters are employing, doesn’t really concede this point. I’m perfectly fine with groups of women banding together and saying that they want to give the finger to stereotypes, but what I’m not so kosher about is claiming that this is the new wave of feminism, and if you can’t hang with it, you’re not cool enough to call yourself the f-word. I like your image of feminism with legs, and I just don’t think SlutWalk has them — precisely because so many of its methods and so much of its rhetoric excludes a lot of women. The tone-deafness toward, or at least failure to acknowledge, this exclusion is really what set me off.
I kind of see SlutWalk as being like a flash mob: It will be entertaining to watch, but once the moment is over, the crowds will disperse and nobody will think about what they were dancing about. I think that SlutWalk will be a blast for the women who march, but I fail to see how it can accomplish any tangible goal other than blowing off steam. I don’t think we should be coordinating feminist movements in deference to men by any means, but I think that claiming that all women’s experiences of a certain word, or their reactions to trauma, are uniform enough that “reclaiming” that word is unilaterally cathartic and cool, is condescending — I’m not saying you’re doing this at all, I’m referring to some of the organizers and supporters that I’ve read online.
I love the fact that we can respectfully disagree about this, still call ourselves feminists, and enjoy an open forum like TNB as we continue the dialogue. Thanks for getting me to think even deeper about my stance.
“Women–and feminists–aren’t homogeneous and shouldn’t have to be.”
Amen, sister, amen.
I didn’t participate in SlutWalk, but I know several women who did and I can’t imagine any of them claiming that women who weren’t into it were therefore not feminists, or not “cool,” or any of that. I think the problem with any (ANY) political movement or ideology is that nobody “owns” it precisely, so any one person who participates in it can essentially get online and start saying that this or that is representative or total of an entire movement, and that if you can’t get on board, you’re square or backwards or not really part of the movement. But I dunno. Maybe that’s giving too much credit to just a few people who are being reactionary, and to go in the other direction and decide that SlutWalk as a whole is somehow negative or harmful or even just silly is, in effect, doing the same thing? There’s nothing inherently wrong with reclaiming a negatively tinged word and deciding to rob it of some of its cultural power in some kind of showy, coordinated effort. This was done in Civil Rights, too, of course, and many other movements. The idea is a good one on a core level, I think, so long as somebody doesn’t actually believe that marching in SlutWalk is all it takes, and the goal is now Complete or something.
Your point that feminism is not uniform is such an important one. One of the absolute biggest roadblocks to feminism and female equality worldwide has been women’s propension towards turning on one another and in-fighting about who is a feminist and who feminism serves and how. While I don’t think your points are “wrong” on an individual level, per se, I question the wisdom in spending time and energy on “taking down” somebody’s idea of feminism and empowerment, because at the end of the day it seems to me that ANY woman–in a largely apathetic culture that still openly questions women’s rights over our own bodies and that still has widescale sexual and physical violence against women, and doesn’t even mandate equal pay–who is willing or eager to take any kind of stand at all, even one that is perhaps largely theater and flash, is more part of the “solution” than the problem, and that there are so many other things that are truly detrimental to women’s well-being, you know?
It’s sort of like the Mommy Wars, wherein women spend so much time questioning other mothers’ parenting choices–the choice to work or not work, co-sleep or put baby in a crib, nurse or bottle-feed, make organic baby food or buy Gerber, etc.–ends up derailing a lot of energy women could COLLECTIVELY be putting towards actually having better legislation and policies for mothers and families. As women, I sometimes fear our first line of attack is usually another woman. That women are “safer” targets and we spend too much time slinging mud and not getting anything done.
But that’s more of a tangent. A critique of SlutWalk is interesting and relevant, culturally, and you have every right to have strong opinions about it. I just suspect that you have a lot more in common with the proponents of SlutWalk than either of you do with the majority of people who would neither march with SlutWalk, nor write an article like this one analyzing it. I suspect you are more on the same side than you think . . . maybe just like Charlotte and Miranda, ha.
This is an interesting conversation. While I completely understand why it might be off-putting for many women and many feminists, to me, Slutwalk seems like a very empowering and direct way for those who are so moved to respond to the police officer’s comments. And I also think it can be effective in helping to shift attitudes. So very many people on some level accept that there’s a connection between how a woman presents herself and how likely she is to be raped; high-profile stories have shown us that again and again this year. The message that there’s not needs to be repeated a thousand times in a thousand ways in order those wires to disconnect. Slutwalk is one way–and it’s a way that’s likely to get attention from people who might be missing other messages. I actually take no issue with the dude from Denver who wanted to know how he could support it. His tongue might be in his cheek, but the way in which he’s different from your harasser is that he’s asking questions: should he ogle, or should he stay home? That seems legitimate to me. The belief that it’s always wrong to rape needs to be spread far beyond those who identify as feminist. And I am definitely OK with the belief being packaged as sexy and fun in this case.
Like Gina, I wish we could move way beyond exclusion and defensiveness when it comes to the feminist label, because it does us no good, but we’re sure a long way from doing that. Many people seem to crave a roadmap to help them find their way out from under pernicious gender expectations. But this desire cuts both ways. For every woman who feels like she’s being told that good feminists are painting SLUT across their bare belly, there’s a woman (or 4) who feels like she’ll be judged unfeminist for the outfit she wants to wear on Saturday night. I’ve met women who feel like feminism told them not to have babies and women who felt like they had to give up certain sex acts in order to call themselves feminists and women who feel like they’re not good feminists if they’re not growing and cooking and canning their own food. And when women feel like feminism has denied them something, there can be a backlash.
I have never experienced feminism as that prescriptive–when I was forming my identify, I read widely enough to see there were many feminists visions, and that I could draw on more one to find my way. But if I have to wear a label, I’m pretty OK with Sex-Positive Feminist. The pictures I saw of Slutwalk Chicago looked awesome to me. I loved seeing such a large vocabulary of sexiness. I loved the sexiness mixed with defiance, the sexiness as joyful strength. The whole aesthetic was far removed from the trilogy of fake boobs/fake tan/flat abs; it was a fuck-you to that. And actually, I can easily imagine there being room for a performance piece of a hands-tied guy acting as a human stripper pole. Judging from the photos, it could very well have taken place next to a couple butch dykes in their flannel and doc martens. To me, it would read as a mark of diversity, not a signification that only strippers are sluts.
But of course I also understand if the sexy circus scene it not your cup of tea. I can see how it can be frustrating to identify strongly as feminist and not feel comfortable with a feminist action that’s getting a lot of press. It’s good to hear that side of things, too.
You’ve hit the nail on the head with this: “it can be frustrating to identify strongly as feminist and not feel comfortable with a feminist action that’s getting a lot of press.” Even though it ain’t my cup of tea, I’m cool with SlutWalk as an individual endeavor by women who feel that protesting in this way is empowering, sexy and fun. Whatever floats your boat! What I’m not down with is people saying that this is somehow the great future of feminism (which, by the way, nobody here is saying, it’s just a vibe I’ve picked up on elsewhere), since, as a number of very smart commenters pointed out, feminism is as complex and varied as the women who identify with it.
Truly, there’s no “proper” way to be a feminist. I remember taking a raft of crap in graduate school for finding Marlon Brando ungodly attractive in “Streetcar Named Desire.”
I suspect you’re right as well; I’m every bit as brassy and opinionated as the women who organized SlutWalk, and I think if I met a number of them over a beer, we’d get on like gangbusters. There are a number of women who are very, very dear to me who will be marching. It was comments like Sophie Jones’ that detonated the little atomic bomb blast over my head and prompted me to write. The divisive element I see here is when it’s inferred that reclaiming this word is a unilaterally empowering thing. I have no doubt that it can be for some women, absolutely. But for women like Heather, the commenter on The Crunk Feminist Collective, the word is deeply triggering and simply can’t be reclaimed. Or, for women like Harsha Walia and Nassim Elbardouh, it puts them in conflict with their cultural mores and estranges them from something that, in theory (working against rape culture), they wouldn’t be against. Yes, SlutWalk is doing some valuable work in galvanizing discussion and action, but I wonder if the flash of it is blinds us from some other pivotal issues. In a comment to a SlutWalk organizer who posts a thoughtful response to her essay, crunktastic writes:
“Your universal use of the term ‘our’ obscures the very real, material ways in which ‘taking back power over our bodies’ means different things based on race and class. If you are talking about poor women and women of color, taking back power is about a very real challenge to the power of the state not to regulate our bodies and sexualities (e.g. in welfare policy.) SlutWalk focuses on one aspect of the problem, namely dramatizing the problem with blaming victims based on sartorial choices. Even if this acts as an effective form of protest, it does not change the ways that the state itself does variable kinds of violence, in particular to the bodies of women of color, and that violence is not at all based on clothing choice. So I again, I reiterate that while SlutWalk has legitimate aims, those aims are limited and not generalizable for all women.”
If anything, this is an interesting study in the growth and development of a grassroots movement; you’re right, it can be both thrilling and problematic when nobody “owns” it. There is the possibility for people make grand pronouncements based on half-baked theories and knee-jerk reactions and unfortunately they can be seen as the voices of those movements. The immediacy of social media excites and complicates this even further. It does make me wonder how the civil rights and feminist movements of the 50s, 60s and 70s would have played out if they’d had then what we have now — and it makes what they did accomplish all the more staggeringly impressive.
Maybe we don’t all have to come together on everything — this is the beauty of any “ism” or civil rights movement — but we also shouldn’t say that one group’s perspective on a particular word should be the mainstream response. Your comparison to the various approaches employed by the civil rights movement is apt, and just as there are people within these movements who think that reclaiming language is powerfully corrective, there are others who disagree entirely, and still others who only agree/disagree conditionally (I’m thinking of crunktastic’s remark about only using the n-word with an “a” at the end of it).
I guess what frustrates me is that we don’t yet have the sense of what may come after SlutWalk, what further action this may lead to. In her post, crunktastic points out that Hollaback and Stop Street Harassment are worthwhile advocacy organizations that haven’t gotten the same attention that SlutWalk has because ” when white women cry out, this is always seen as an important issue.” Not that this is at all the various organizers’ faults, not at all! What I’d like to see is some recognition that the protests are coming from this particular place, and that the nature of the participants make them more likely to receive attention than other movements. I think, if this makes sense, that once we acknowledge our differences, we move into the beyond and become more united in our common interests.
I know I’ve quoted extensively from “SlutWalks v. Ho Strolls”, but this one comment crunktastic posted truly sums up how I’m feeling now: ” If you would specify the origins of the activism as mostly relevant to particular communities … in my opinion you then can more critically engage with the limitations of your movement, stop trying to make all women believe it’s OUR movement, and think through how our movementS can work together for a common goal.”
So, yes, in the end, we are really on the same side. And I will concede that I am indeed some kind of odd hybrid of Charlotte and Miranda — and even sometimes a bit of Samantha, though my aversion to puns makes me not likely to identify with Carrie.
I actually spent a lot of time considering this whole slut walk thing. I was perplexed and confused by both the actions/events that lit the flame, and also by the reaction itself.
I mean, it’s about as flaming a contradiction as you can get, on the surface.
For me, it ended up distilling down to a pretty simple concept:
“…regarding the slut, just because she’s going to give “it” to me without making me jump through hoops, doesn’t mean I can dispense with the niceties on my side of the deal…”
I think that’s the crux of it. There’s a big huge quid pro quo around women and men and sexual relationships: they (women) have what we (men) want (sex, intimacy), and they (women) make sure there’s a price. The price I’m talking about is the demand for respect and “good” behavior. The demand for support and protection in trade for sex and affection.
Now, obviously this is a narrow, male-centric perspective and it patently ignores that they (women) like sex and intimacy too, and want it, and also for that matter that you can switch up the players any which way. So consider it just a facet, not all-encompassing.
Perhaps if we could eliminate that quid pro quo. Disconnect sex and intimacy from the “load”. Eliminate the assumption that a quid pro quo is required or necessary in order for each “side” to get what it needs. Then women (and men for that matter) can be free to be sluts, and men (and women for that matter) can just be good and respectful and supportive, without any NEED to be so.
Sex is, and always has been in all it’s forms, a TRANSACTION. Let’s just let it be sex, perhaps.
This a great piece, Laura. So well thought-out and so very interesting.
Thanks, Jessica! That’s really kind of you. I’m loving the discussion that this piece has prompted, both on TNB and on my Facebook page as well. I was actually Facebook-emailed by a girl I knew way back in high school because she wanted to share her own experiences with me. If nothing else, I’m grateful for all the questions this is raising.
Hey Laura, hey Zoe (nice to see you here, Zoe–I figured you’d stop by!)–yeah, this is an issue where there’s no “right” answer per se. I mean, the divide between white feminists and feminists of color; the divide between privileged (educationally or economically or both) feminists and those who are poor, or blue collar–these are old, old issues that have been in explicit discussion since before I was born in 1968. There is no dividing the truth of “when white women make noise, everybody assumes it’s a big deal” from the truth of “when a white gets murdered, it’s treated like a national crisis, and when a black person gets murdered, it’s on the local news one night and then forgotten.” In both cases, the fault is not exactly the white feminists’ (nor, certainly, the white crime victim), but is a system that, of course, privileges one group above another . . . and for the privileged group not to acknowledge its privilege or openly engage in questioning of how their cause or agenda may be limited because of that, can constitute a certain type of culpability. But I’m not sure it actually dilutes the original cause, yet instead of the result being more attention to BOTH causes, the result is often (just as those in power, i.e., governments, men, etc., like it to be) that BOTH causes are diminished in the public eye.
This was a problem in Second Wave feminism and is still an issue now. It’s also a divisive issue in most other political movements, sure–but I would venture to say that it is actually at its MOST acute in the women’s movement, because women are (even more than men) THE largest quantifiable “group” of people on the planet. There are more “women” than there are anything else (Christians, Blacks, homosexuals, etc.)–every other possible group breakdown is still comprised at least by half of women. So . . . yeah, to expect that more than half the entire PLANET could all possibly have their needs served by SlutWalk . . . clearly it would be redundant to even try to break down all the ways that would be patently impossible.
Where I think I hesitate at the stridency of some of the criticisms is that I find it hard to believe that any credible source would truly believe SlutWalk was SUPPOSED to speak for more than half the planet, you know? I can’t help but believe that there is already some implicit consciousness that this is, to a large extent, a Western, progressive, mainstream-educated form of protest. Could it honestly be mistaken for anything else? It’s not something veiled women in a Muslim country would ever feel comfortable (or safe) taking part in, for example–and many would not even ethically agree with its aims. It’s not going to even by half address the needs of impoverished women, even in the United States. It doesn’t have anything to do with the way that forcibly sterilized women in China might identify reclaiming their “sexual power.” Yes, it is inadequate to all those tasks, to be sure.
But doesn’t that kind of go without saying? What one thing COULD be adequate to every task? I’m not saying that you, Laura, are arguing that something must be in order to qualify as “feminist”–I think we all basically agree here that all movements are varied, and such an immensely populous one as feminism most of all. I guess I’m just talking aloud. What could possibly be equal to the need at hand? And if something is not equal to the need–does not even go one-one-hundredth the way towards addressing the need . . . should we even do it? And if the answer to that is no, then won’t we all just crawl into a hole immediately and give up? It can be so overwhelming to think that, if you DO dare make an effort, you will just be criticized for your inevitable inadequacy.
So (and I promise this is the last time I will beat this dead horse, but bear with me because I saw the previous generation of feminists play exactly this same “don’t call me your sister; you’re excluding me” endless spiraling game to the point that–by the time I was in college in the late 80s–many young women often saw feminism as embarrassing and ineffectual and had given up even embracing its mantle, and then this phenomenon only multiplied into the post-Gen-X generations of young women. And I end up feeling like, well, shit, I know we can’t all be kumbaya 24-7 and hold hands, but what is the middle ground that doesn’t totally . . . excuse the inappropriate metaphor . . . castrate us?
I mean, it isn’t remotely true that poor women, or women of color, don’t pay (and pay and pay) in the courts, in the schools, and on the streets, the same or even more dire consequences as a result of clothing choices that are labeled slutty or provocative when it comes to rape issues. What IS true is that they suffer from so many other horrible problems that, at times, being branded a slut–or even being date raped–can feel like the least of their fucking worries, and therefore it can seem like a very fancy luxury for a bunch of educated white chicks who like to deconstruct words to get all up in arms about terminology and put on their ho clothes and parade around with signs. But the truth is, the mythology around Slutdom–and how clothing or physical presentation impacts rape cases–is not only NOT irrelevant to poorer women, it is probably even MORE relevant to them than to the majority of SlutWalk’s cheerleaders. Poor women, and women of color, are raped MORE often, and the dominant class/race defines what fashions are acceptable, too. You don’t see a lot of girls at Harvard and Stanford who look like they’re on an audition for Jersey Shore . . . and yet when real blue collar girls imitate these fashions, they’re not followed around with a camera, they’re just mocked and presumed to be skanks. And that doesn’t even bring in the complicated way race plays into this sort of thing.
So, would a bunch of . . . say the Italian and Latina girls I grew up with . . . putting on their best fishnets and strutting around solve the real life rape issues we all witnessed, much less the governmental control, or religious control, that millions of women face world wide? Of course not. For some young, zealous SlutWalkers to get on blogs and start saying how it will empower the world is just . . . silly, right? It’s silly, and we all know that.
But does that in turn mean that to be concerned about how women’s physical presentation has impacted rape legislation and concepts/realities of rape is only a “rich white woman’s problem?” Well, I’d argue that no, of course it doesn’t, and that no matter how many additional problems some women may face, or whether SlutWalk is the way their problems would best be addressed, the ISSUE UNDERLYING SLUTWALK is still pretty clearly and legitimately a feminist issue, and one that impacts a whole lot of women, of all races, classes and walks of life.
Okay, I’m going to give it a rest now. But I’ll tell you what, Laura, I really thank you for this. I didn’t really think that much about SlutWalk this time around, before your piece. I still maintain that it’s probably not my cup of tea to take to the streets. But I think that next year, I will probably find some concrete way to support it, even if I don’t march. I just like to see women who give a shit, period. I think there are too few around. I think all effort, even if limited, should be embraced, and limitations accepted as a given. Otherwise, it seems to me that the alternative could end up being paralysis.
Please don’t stop beating that dead horse! This is incredibly illuminating for me, since I’m not as aware of this history as I should be. Your points are incredibly salient, and I think, as we’ve been talking aloud, we more or less agree. Hell, I still get my hackles up when I remember that ghastly New York Times piece that happened to mention what a 10-year-old girl was wearing when she was savagely gang-raped, and that she “looked older” and “wore make-up.” The issues underlying SlutWalk are, of course, feminist concerns and need vigorous contention.
The dog is head-butting me and demanding an escort out to the facilities, but I just wanted to say, I found this sentiment incredibly powerful: “I mean, it isn’t remotely true that poor women, or women of color, don’t pay (and pay and pay) in the courts, in the schools, and on the streets, the same or even more dire consequences as a result of clothing choices that are labeled slutty or provocative when it comes to rape issues. What IS true is that they suffer from so many other horrible problems that, at times, being branded a slut–or even being date raped–can feel like the least of their fucking worries, and therefore it can seem like a very fancy luxury for a bunch of educated white chicks who like to deconstruct words to get all up in arms about terminology and put on their ho clothes and parade around with signs … You don’t see a lot of girls at Harvard and Stanford who look like they’re on an audition for Jersey Shore . . . and yet when real blue collar girls imitate these fashions, they’re not followed around with a camera, they’re just mocked and presumed to be skanks.” I usually hate it when people just say, “this” in response to a post, but that’s all I’ve really got.
There are, indeed, too few of us who really give a shit. Giving a shit really is a good thing. Sadly, sometimes it’s too uncomfortable for many people to even try, and I do give the SlutWalk organizers much credit for that. If anything, all of this discussion has prompted me to examine the ways I’m not as active as I could be.
And you’re welcome. It’s really been wonderful for me to engage with writers I admire; I sent your piece “We Are Complicit” to a lot of people I knew because it was positively vital. So, I guess what I’m saying is, thank you too.
Yes, I love how TNB has really become a place where these issues are being discussed by a vibrant group of people sharing ideas/experiences. I didn’t much expect TNB to shape up this way when I first joined up, but it’s been one of the many exciting and positive surprises of the site . . .
[…]Laura Bogart | Confessions of a Prude: Why I Can’t Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the SlutWalk | The Nervous Breakdown[…]…
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