Looking at the arguments surrounding Slutwalk

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Slutwalk: everyone's talking about it. And I'm not just saying that - every time I read my timeline on Twitter there's another news story, another planned march, another blog post debating the movement which has taken several nations by storm.

What started out as outrage at a remark made by a police officer back in January has resulted in over 3,000 marching on Toronto last month and around 2,000 marching on Boston last weekend. Upwards of 5,000 people currently plan to attend the London march, to be held on June 11th. And there are more marches planned - from Argentina to Australia, the Netherlands to New Zealand.

Toronto police constable Michael Sanguinetti got a lot more than he bargained for when he told a group of Osgoode Hall Law School students:

"I've been told I'm not supposed to say this - however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised."

He later apologised, but the damage was done. United in anger at a persisting, damaging culture of victim-blaming and police forces refusing to take allegations seriously, thousands of women marched to Toronto's police headquarters on April 3rd. Their goal: to raise awareness about sexual violence and to shift police, media and public focus on to its perpetrators, not its victims.

Cue celebratory blog posts, excitement that thousands of women feel moved to march against deplorable attitudes and praise that the Slutwalkers are invoking the spirit of riot grrrl.

"...it harks back to the dawn of the 1990s when musician Kathleen Hanna, unwilling figurehead for the riot grrrl movement and lead singer for Bikini Kill, went on stage with the word "slut" scrawled across her body. In doing this, she made a visceral, powerful statement about her sexuality. Her message was not 'yes, I am a slut'. It was this: 'by reclaiming the derogatory terms that you use to silence my sexual expression, I dilute your power'," wrote Ray Filar in the Guardian this week.

But nothing is ever simple and the Slutwalk movement has found itself coming in for plenty of criticism too. Filar's column was a response to another Guardian comment piece by Gail Dines and Wendy J Murphy, in which they argued that a focus on reclaiming the word 'slut' is problematic.

"The term slut is so deeply rooted in the patriarchal "madonna/whore" view of women's sexuality that it is beyond redemption. The word is so saturated with the ideology that female sexual energy deserves punishment that trying to change its meaning is a waste of precious feminist resources," they wrote.

And they're not the only ones. Just today I've read several posts coming to the same conclusion: fighting against victim-blaming and rape culture: good. Using the word 'slut' to do so: bad. There's concern that it's going to be impossible to extricate the word from its unpleasant connotations and that this is going to be picked up on as yet another excuse for misogynists and victim-blamers alike to have a field day.

A BBC News piece discussing the power of the word, posted on Monday, has already attracted hundreds of comments and they range from the supportive to the predictable. Some people commented that any double standard surrounding men, women and sex is absolutely fine because 'that's just the way it is'.

It does make you wonder how effective any attempt at reclaiming the word is going to be if people refuse to look past its traditional use as a degrading insult and choose to hate on the Slutwalkers even more for the clothing choices many of them have made for the marches.

Some women participating have chosen to march wearing miniskirts, heels, bikinis and underwear in an attempt to get the message out that whatever they wear and whenever they wear it, it is not an invitation to sexual assault. This message is one which is crucial to Slutwalk, to Reclaim the Night, to all the charities out there working to change public perception of victims of harassment, assault and rape.

But it's becoming clear that some of Slutwalk's critics don't see it this way. One representative from a conservative group has spoken out to say that the marches have a 'negative connotation' and should be more 'family friendly'. Just yesterday some particularly winsome callers to a UK radio phone-in said that they believe women who dress in a certain way 'should face the consequences'.

"If you dressed as a pork-chop to feed lions, you'd get eaten," said one caller on the Jeremy Vine show.

There has been further criticism from the feminist camp at the way some people are treating and discussing the marches.

Meghan Murphy at Canadian website The F Word is happy that so many women are proclaiming they've 'had enough' of double standards and victim-blaming, but also has concerns about some of the sentiments expressed on the main Slutwalk Facebook group. by both men and women.

"...what I found, over and over again was, not only a refusal to align with feminism, but often, an outright aversion to it. I saw numerous attacks on radical feminism and radical feminists and I witnessed the reinforcement of negative and untrue stereotypes about feminism (you know the ones: man-hating, misandrist, no-fun, sex-negative, etc)," she said in a great post, published on Saturday.

One of Murphy's concerns is that she's seeing too much of the 'every choice I make is empowerful and has nothing to do with anyone else' school of thought surrounding discussions about women, equality and Slutwalk. It's certainly not good when debate starts going down this route and I would agree with her that we should be wary of it. The original aim and focus of the march shouldn't be diluted.

It's obvious that no-one's going to agree on the myriad issues surrounding Slutwalk. A good thing? A bad thing? Futile? Offensive? Revolutionary? You decide.

This post originally appeared at BitchBuzz. Image of Toronto Slutwalk via Anton Bielousov's Flickr.

1 comment:

lipsticklori said...

I agree that it's a very tricky subject, but the idea behind the walks is a cause worth supporting. Seeing as I said I was "hoping to be able to fully reclaim the word slut for the good of womankind some time in 2012" in my blurb on the About page of BitchBuzz, I think I probably ought to be there too!


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