I imagine you are already aware of the current phenomenon known as Slutwalk, but if not, allow me to give you a little summary.
In January this year, a Toronto police officer advised a group of students that to evade rape, they should “avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.”
The students in question were so enraged, that they staged a protest, taking to the city’s streets in ‘slutty’ outfits. What then followed was a wave of ‘Slutwalks’ across North America, Australia, and most recently, the UK. Performed not only in solidarity with the original cause, but also in protest against the usage of the term ‘slut’, and the pervading mentality that shames and blames rape victims.
This story caught my attention from the outset for a variety of reasons: the excitement of seeing women self-organise out of anger and frustration, the seemingly organic manner in which Slutwalk caught the imagination of women across different nationalities, and, of course, the implicit possibility that perhaps, just perhaps, feminism hadn’t become a totally irrelevant political stance – that women could still pool their creative energies and react with palpable ferocity against oppression.
Perhaps for me, my own yearning for second wave sisterhood danced before my eyes. But as I read more blog posts and articles, saw more photos, watched more videos, I started to wonder, what is Slutwalk actually challenging?
This thought crystallised in my mind while reading an article by The Daily Mail, which initially supported Slut Walk. To the right of the articles headline, which read “Yes means yes and no means no! Scantily-clad protestors join in ‘Slut Walk’ to end rape victim blaming”, are the Daily Mail’s other ‘Femail’ articles. The one that caught my eye detailed how a particular exotic fruit had the same shape and level of ripeness as Pippa Middleton’s bum (including, of course, a photo of said bum, as Pippa leant over).
The juxtaposition of the two, seemingly incompatible, articles astonished me at first, before I realised how, ultimately, they reflected each other. The reason Slutwalk has received so much wide spread coverage is that it enables the media to apparently support women’s struggle against rape in a manner that belies any other wider cultural context or sense of responsibility. Much like the common-sensical notion that rapists are an abomination to society, aberrations as opposed to fathers, brothers, workers and leaders, Slutwalk manages to keep its rebellion well within the confines of capitalist ideology.
To my mind, Slutwalk seems to adhere to a major philosophical point, one that also informed Third Wave Feminism. Namely that feminism is primarily about choice: the choice to wear heels and lipstick, the choice to be the primary bread winner, the choice to stay home and raise children. Under this approach, all female choices become by their nature feminist, with the only necessary premise being that they are chosen by a woman. And so, Slutwalk cries out, ‘We CHOOSE to dress as sluts! The choice is ours and we are empowered by it!’
Of course, the major flaw of this perspective is that you are choosing between options that have been preordained for you, choices between limited and limiting social identities. The manner in which ‘sluttiness’ is performed within these walks is a sad echo of how we are taught to exhibit our sexuality.
Confined between virgin or whore, we seize upon ‘Whore’ because it is a marginally broader role to occupy than ‘Madonna’. But that doesn’t prevent it from being an expression of our own constraints. Of course we should be able to dress how we want without the fear of sexual abuse, but why should we settle for the binary position of slut when it is fundamentally just another female archetype?
I understand that reclaiming words can be an empowering experience within marginalised communities. However, Slutwalk goes beyond the reclamation of a word, becoming the embracement of an age-old masculine projection of what it is to be a sexual woman.
Titillating, playful, a bit ‘girl power’-esque, Slutwalk is a true product of feminism’s desire to go mainstream.
Not that there is essentially anything wrong with trying to extract feminism from its own ghettoization. Feminism should – no, must – be aware of its own sub-cultural nature, its tendency towards ‘more feminist than thou’ attitudes, and its history of a white, middle class focus. The problems come when, in reaction to our failings, we climb into bed with the powers that directly contribute to our own oppression.
The media can be used and manipulated successfully to express ideas and actions that run contrary to its own interests. But it’s a dangerous game. By simplifying its message to one of ‘slutty and proud’, to gain media attention, Slut Walk has ultimately done itself a disservice.
The original, impressive act of women reacting against a powerful sexist attitude has become lost. At the best, articles supported the idea that women should not be blamed for their own rape, regardless of their attire. At the worst, it became an excuse to show angry girls in hot pants using a provocative word: the act of ogling female flesh done under the guise of documentation, and in some cases, reason enough to wheel out ‘political correctness gone mad!’ or ‘Those pesky feminists!’.
Press reaction has been huge, criticism and support coming from a variety of sources. But the unifying message behind all responses being of course rape is bad ladies. Irregardless of whether the press piece sees Slutwalk as demonstrative of the demise of womanhood, or a reassertion of feminist politics, it has been a spring board for media outlets to present themselves to women as representing their interests.
Simultaneously, the isolated nature of Slutwalks political scope, has allowed many media outlets to continue to perpetuate images and attitudes that contribute to a culture that fosters horrifying levels of sexual abuse against women. It doesn’t offer any sort of critique of a society that teaches men to be aggressors and conquerors, nor does it combat the images of dead-eyed, sticky-mouthed women that are supposed to represent the female experiences of desire. We are left with empty readings of rape, and ultimately irrelevant ponderings surrounding the semantics of ‘slut’.
Yet the Slutwalk train speeds on, with new protests springing up all the time, the latest across South America and India. For all its faults, Slutwalk has caught the imagination of women on a global scale, and it has shown that we will fight for our voices to be heard.
These calls for freedom from violence are real, and they are here. Whether Slutwalk indicates the shaky firsts steps of an emerging movement built from these voices, or a one-off parade of sensationalism, is yet to be seen.