I’ll admit I was apprehensive when I first read about SlutWalk, a global phenomenon that originated in Toronto less than two months ago. I was unsure of its ultimate aims. Was it about labelling people “sluts” and behaving accordingly? Or was it something else?
Update 12/06/11: Online magazine The Scavenger kindly published this blog post in their latest edition.
My own research led me to conclude that the real aim of SlutWalk was to help change cultural attitudes towards sexual assault and its survivors. Regardless of what we’re calling it, that’s a cause I can get behind—so I gathered up my housemates (male and female) and off we went to SlutWalk.
Still, some commentators (such as Gail Dines, and Melinda Tankard Reist and Tory Shepherd—who makes some better comments here—at The Punch) have questioned the name of the movement; they challenge whether associating themselves with this event is likely to do more damage than good. Many women don’t want to reclaim the word ‘slut’, fearing that to do so would give men even more license to objectify them—to view them as sex toys.
These are certainly fair concerns, but I think they misunderstand SlutWalk’s aims. The trouble, as I see it, is that they are not the only ones for whom this is unclear: I’ve read numerous posts regarding SlutWalk from men who would’ve liked to come along to claim one or two participants at the rally. After all, if they’re all sluts, won’t it be easy pickings?
Well, let’s look at sluttery in more detail.
What is a slut?
Typically, a slut is a woman who is sexually promiscuous and/or who dresses in a manner that isn’t modest. Oxford English Dictionary gives a number of definitions. Examples of usage of the most common—“a woman of a low or loose character; a bold or impudent girl; a hussy, jade”—date back to 1450. Another definition, dating back to the early 1400s, is “a woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance; a foul slattern.”
These days, most women have been called a slut at some stage—sometimes by their parents, their peers, their boyfriends, bullies, siblings. We are called sluts for dressing “immodestly” or “untidily”—perhaps exposing cleavage or leg, wearing skirts instead of pants, wearing pants instead of skirts (unfeminine), or choosing tailored or figure-hugging clothes. Only a few decades ago, we might have been called sluts for not wearing pantyhose or forgetting our gloves. Furthermore, we are called sluts for being sexual and enjoying it (or, alas, for having sex and not enjoying it), regardless of whether with one person or multiple people, at a young age, later in life, with protection, outside of marriage, with men, with women, or both.
Any excuse can be found to call someone a slut or treat them like one. My housemate proved this on the way to SlutWalk: like me, she wore what she felt comfortable in—a fairly conservative dress, exposing none of the “three Bs” we weren’t allowed to show at school dances: boobs, bum, belly. The flowing skirt came down to the knee. Yet, on the way, one group of men honked their horn and yelled obscenities from their car as she walked along the road in broad daylight. Next, an older man on the bus made advances and followed her off (she called me to come and rescue her). She couldn’t help but ask, “Is it because I’m wearing a dress? Do I look like a slut?”
Thus it seems “slut” is an already-empty word that signifies an excuse to approach, harass or belittle a woman.
Why reclaim “slut”?
Given its connotations, I understand the hesitation to reclaim “slut.” In fact, I think hesitation is wise—this is something we need to consider in detail. But I also understand the desire to take the sting out of it; after all, it’s essential that we reframe the qualities and activities associated with sluttery and remove the stigma.
Whatever you want to call it, there’s nothing inherently wrong with wearing low-cut tops, skirts, pants, pantyhose, no pantyhose, and so on (I’ll leave good and bad taste to the fashion experts); it’s up to the looker to decide how to look. And there’s nothing wrong with of-age persons enjoying safe, consensual sex.
Is maintaining “slut” as a “bad word” contributing to slut shaming? Or would it be better to eradicate the word entirely—or strip it of its negative connotations, imbuing it with positive ones? With such a wide definition, all women (and men) might be called sluts. Is it better to say, “No, I’m not a slut—the way I behave is fine?” or “So what if I am a slut? It’s none of your business”?
I don’t have an answer to those questions, and would welcome discussion. If everyone can agree on what the reclamation signifies (that is, not that women may be treated according to the OED definition), reclaiming “slut” is perhaps one way to start breaking down the cultural attitudes that lead to slut shaming.
Slut shaming and rape apology
Sexual assault and rape are unlike any other crimes, because we treat them differently. The law holds thieves and murderers accountable for their actions, but when someone is sexually assaulted, often we look to the victim (female or male) to find out why it happened. Friends, family members, partners, counsellors, police officers might (and you can guarantee at least some will) ask:
- What were you wearing?
- Did you lead him/her on?
- What did you think would happen if you went to place X under Y circumstances?
- Did you fight him/her off properly?
- But you’re not a virgin anyway.
- But you’ve said yes to sex with that person before.
- You should have known.
- Well, men (if it was a man) aren’t to be trusted.
- If you don’t go to the police, you must be lying.
- You’re not acting like a real rape victim would; you just regret the sex.
It happens in Australia. Remember footballer Spida Everitt’s comments last year about what a girl should expect when she goes home with a guy? Recall Kerri-Anne Kennerly’s comment around the same time about “stray” women? In court last week, a sex offender (fortunately convicted) argued that he was aroused and provoked by the way Australian women dress. And have a look at this Australian educational video warning against sexting, which places all responsibility—and shame—onto the photographed girl.
But it also happens all around the world. In the news today, female protesters in Egypt have been arrested and subjected to “virginity tests.” The reason given by a senior Egyptian general was as follows: “We didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren’t virgins in the first place,” the general said. “None of them were (virgins).” That is to say, because they weren’t virgins (of course, there is no medical way to determine virginity), they can’t have been raped—they were already despoiled.
In short, there are men and women from all cultures and of all ages who believe that rape victims incite, provoke or even invite their own sexual assault. This logic is faulty; it suggests that those who assault and/or rape don’t have control over their own actions. Statistics show that those who rape are overwhelmingly men; are we to accept the sexist assumption that men have no capacity to control their impulses, and violent impulses at that? Are we also to accept that men are more manipulative, less compassionate than women?
We can’t tar all men (just as we can’t all women) with the same brush. I love and respect the men in my life, and it would be doing them an injustice to say tell them they have less impulse control than I do. The men (and women) who do rape, however, must be held accountable for their own actions. Anything less denigrates both men (and their “uncontrollable lusts”) and women (with their “irresistible desirability”). Sexual assault, however and wherever it’s committed, is inexcusable. “But she was just a slut” is definitely not an excuse.
The best way, I feel, to help fight a culture that condones sexual assault is to change the way we think about the victims and survivors of rape. Let’s teach our sons, daughters, students and peers about sexual boundaries and what it means to give informed, enthusiastic consent and graciously accept non-consent. Let’s teach them to be assertive about sexual health and safety—as well as social safety and comfort (put so well by Phaedra Starling in Schrödinger’s Rapist). Let’s teach them to blame the perpetrator, not the victim—and maybe then, with less fear and doubt, more victims will be able to report assault to police. Let’s teach them that there’s no “right” or “normal” way to respond to trauma. And let’s be there for them—without blaming, without slut shaming—if they ever fear or experience sexual assault.
To wrap up this epic blog post (and many thanks if you got this far), I’d like to write about how I felt at SlutWalk. As I said 1000 words ago, I wasn’t sure up until the last minute whether I should attend, but I decided I would make the rally an empowering experience for me. After all, I had the support of my partner, my housemates, old friends and new.
There were about 400 people at SlutWalk Brisbane, and I was really surprised—and delighted—by how many men were in attendance. There were people wearing conservative clothes, costumes, naughty clothes, nearly no clothes, and people cross-dressing. Police were there to clear the way for our march and keep us safe—I for one was grateful for QPS’s support. It felt fantastic—and fantastically safe—to be surrounded by people who feel the same way I do about consent and sex. The vibe was warm and friendly. There were a lot of smiles, and more than a few people with tears in their eyes. How good, after all, to have hundreds of people around you saying, “It is not and was not your fault.”
Whether or not SlutWalk’s moniker is contentious, it achieved its goals for me—and I’m very glad of that. Whether or not it helps to change cultural attitudes toward sexual assault—that rape is inevitable or excusable—is yet to be seen, but I have high hopes. After all, SlutWalk’s controversy has gotten everyone talking. Talking about consent is a great first step towards building a society where one can choose to come home at 3 am, whether for sex, cuddles or a cup of Milo, without anyone else deciding for them or judging their decisions.
Check out Ms Naughty’s video of SlutWalk Brisbane here. Thank you to the kind souls who let me use their photos: EJ Mina Photography, Sarah Meggitt Photography, and Matt McKillop. If you’re pictured here and would prefer not to be, just let me know and I’ll remove the photo.