Friday, 10 June 2011

In Defence of Slutwalk

Since the announcement of the London Slutwalk I've seen a lot of criticism of the idea and, especially, the name of the event. These have come from the usual corners - right-wing and old-school commentators - but also, in a large part, from feminists. The degree of negative response from feminists has surprised and disappointed me. This is my last-ditch attempt to convince you that, if you care at all about women, if you care at all about stopping rape, you should join me tomorrow afternoon and (slut)walk along with the other thousands who will attend.

I suppose I must start with the name.

I can't remember any other occasion when the name of an event, institution, or organisation has been analysed as closely as this one - certainly no other occasion on which disagreeing with the name was considered a sufficient condition for boycotting it altogether. I see no more sense in refusing to attend Slutwalk because it contains "slut" and you dislike the word than in refusing, for example, to read The F Word because it intimates a swear word and you dislike swearing. But there it is: for a lot of people, the name is important. I happen to think it is a fantastic name.

Let's talk about sluts. "Slut" is an imaginary concept, not one based in reality. It does not refer to any one single kind of person or any single kind of behaviour. You can qualify as a slut by doing just about anything.

You cheated on your husband? Slut. You slept with a married man? Slut. You've slept with "too many" men, where "too many" is defined by the subjective terms of someone else? Slut, obviously. You slept with the wrong guy - someone's ex, someone's brother, someone's friend they fancied even though you didn't know that? Slut. You've kissed a lot of guys? Slut. You flirt with a lot of guys? Slut. You choose to dance in a particular way? Slut. You choose to wear certain items of clothing? Slut.

I'm reminded of the scene at the start of High Fidelity, where John Cusak's character is a child with his first girlfriend. She dumps him the next week for someone else. He's out with a friend and they both see her kissing her new boyfriend on the benches, and what does his buddy say to try to make him feel better?


So that's the base line we're talking about. If you kiss one guy, and then later on you kiss another guy, someone can and will call you a slut. So please, for the love of all that is holy, can we stop talking like there is such a thing as a slut and that this is a very bad thing? If anyone's a slut, everyone is a slut. That's how low the bar is set: so low that everyone qualifies.

That, to me, is what the name "Slutwalk" captures. You want to call some women sluts because they dress in a certain way? You have to answer to all of us. If she's a slut, we're all sluts, and you'd better watch out because the sluts are organising.

Can this reasonably be called "reclaiming" the word "slut"? Maybe. The power of reclaiming, in my opinion, is that it means someone insults you and you defeat them by refusing to take it as an insult. The exchange would be:
"You're a slut."
"Sure I am, what's your point?"

Now I agree to a certain extent with the writers and commentators who see "slut" as being too hateful to reclaim. I myself can't imagine being called a slut and hearing it neutrally, rather than loaded with bile. My response, as above, would not be "sure I am" but "well, if I am, we all are, including you" - which is rather different. The idea that Slutwalk is about reclaiming "slut" is, in my opinion, simply wrong, and I've found it frustrating that so many people have decided not to go on the basis that they don't want to support that agenda.

Pulling in the same direction

The name has been a major focal point for feminist criticism of Slutwalk, and there has been a lot of feminist criticism: I've seen articles and blog posts aplenty by women explaining why they won't be attending Slutwalk, even though (of course) they agree that no woman is to blame for her rape regardless of what she wears. I despair at this. Here's my take:

If we all want the same thing, we need to work together.

If you and I agree that we need to combat victim-blaming, that "dressing like sluts" has nothing to do with the reality of rape, that we need to protect survivors, not abusers, then we are pulling in the same direction and we need to support each other on that basis. Maybe we don't agree 100% on every issue. Maybe there are legitimate debates to be had over one aspect or another. But if we share the same end goal, we should not be deliberately dividing ourselves from one another. The only people who should be railing against Slutwalk are the people who do not share its aims. Its primary aim is to combat victim-blaming culture. If you're on board with that, you should be there with us in London tomorrow.

The trouble with us 21st century feminists is we're all so keen to pick at one another. There's so much fighting within the movement we never join together as a movement. And I'm worried if this trend continues there'll soon be no movement left to speak of. Critique is good. Debate is good. But when we're all pulling in the same direction, we need to be working together.

The comments that started it all

To move on, one of the more common criticisms of Slutwalk I've heard from non-feminists is that it is a disproportionate response to a very minor incident. The incident, as reported, is that a police officer said the following while addressing a university:
"I've been told I'm not supposed to say this - however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised."
One police officer saying one stupid, wrong thing has sparked a worldwide movement. Is that disproportionate? It's not, because his views are replicated across Western society. You know how I know that? By the overwhelming number of people whose response to Slutwalk has been to say "obviously rape is the rapist's fault, but..."

I've seen time and again this response - believed to be a moderate, sensible, realistic point of view by the person expressing it - that women need to accept that the way they dress and the way they behave has an impact on the likelihood of them getting raped. That dressing modestly and avoiding excess alcohol are simply sensible anti-rape precautions to take, like locking your door at night. This is what victim-blaming looks like, and it is a source of anger on two levels: because it's fucked up, and because it's factually wrong.

It's fucked up to tell someone who has been raped that it was her fault. It's fucked up to point to her behaviour and use it to justify a rapist raping her. It's fucked up to be on the side of the rapist. If you can't agree with that, I have no hope for you.

It is also factually wrong to suggest that the clothes a woman wears have a direct impact on the likelihood of her getting raped. The vast majority - at least 85% - of women who are raped know their attackers. Rapists are boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, friends, family members, trusted adults. Overwhelmingly they are not evil men lurking in dark alleys waiting to jump out at a scantily-clad woman. Statistically, the biggest risk factor for a woman in terms of experiencing male violence is being in an intimate relationship with a man. Yet people are so desperate to pretend that what a woman wears has a serious impact on rapists. Trust me, it doesn't.

Fundamental misunderstandings

Blaming "sluts" for getting raped demonstrates a basic lack of knowledge about how the vast majority of rapes happen. The general public have in their minds only a few pictures of what rape can be. One is the - as Ken Clarke would call it - "classic" rape scenario where a man jumps out at his unsuspecting victim from behind a bush at night. One is the "date rape" scenario, where a woman is plied with drink until her defences are sufficiently down that she cannot resist her attacker. There is very little awareness and understanding of the kind of rape that makes up many women's realities: a trusted partner or friend abuses that trust in the worst possible way.

The same fundamental misunderstanding underpins Nadine Dorries' plans for sex education to compulsorily include teaching girls to say "no". This is a pointless endeavour unless you are simultaneously teaching boys to listen to "no" - to care when they hear it. For many boys and men, violent sex is considered normal, sexy even. There are too many accidental rapists who don't even understand that they're doing something wrong, who think that that is just what sex is like. If you want to reform sex education in this country, you should probably start with that.

Sex-positive feminism vs. sexy feminism

One way in which feminists have endeavoured to address the problem of the accidental rapist is by promoting enthusiastic consent: emphasising "yes means yes" over "no means no". For these feminists, sex itself is no bad thing and we should all be free to participate in as much healthy, consensual sex as we want without being condemned for it. That's your basic definition of a sex-positive feminist. Here lies one of the chasms of division within the feminist movement - for many feminists, sex-positive feminism is interpreted as encouraging promiscuousness and sexual objectification of women, thereby furthering patriarchy. Some of the many criticisms of Slutwalk I read picked up on this aspect - the feminists of Slutwalk were decried as part of a movement to make feminism cool and sexy, stripping the label "feminist" of substance.

There's a separate post on sex-positive feminism that I'm meaning to write, but for now I just want to say that I don't think there's anything feminist about seeing sex negatively by default. Judging and labelling women who have sex (however much of it they have) should be left to misogynists. Saying that women should be entitled to wear whatever they want without having to bear in mind the preferences of any rapists they might come across is not the same as "making feminism all about shoes" (not a direct quote, but a paraphrase of something I've seen thrown around quite a lot).

Exclusion and privilege in the Slutwalk movement

Another criticism of Slutwalk that's resurfaced in a number of places refers to the fact that its organisers and participants appear to be overwhelmingly the white, middle-class feminists who are well known for dominating feminist discourse throughout history. This is a valid complaint: wherever a feminist group or organisation seems to exclude any marginalised group we have to take that seriously and consider where we are going wrong. I cannot speak for anyone else and postulate the reason why the movement seems to have lacked support from black and minority women (and I really hope this is not the case at Slutwalk London tomorrow), but I will counter the suggestion that it lies in the very purpose of Slutwalk. Rape is not a white girl problem, and neither is victim-blaming. Where the aim of Slutwalk is properly understood as combating victim-blaming, there is no reason to suggest that race or class need play even the tiniest role in deciding whether it's for you or not. This is for all of us. This is something we need to unite for and band together over, so that we can deliver the message in the loudest possible voice: we will not tolerate a victim-blaming culture. Feminists need to unite or die, and if we can't unite over this, the uncontroversial statement that the only person who should be blamed for rape is a rapist, then frankly, we're screwed. And I don't mean that in a sex-positive way.

1 comment:

  1. I'll be there tomorrow. I was coming anyway but this has calmed my fears over what am I really marching for? What if SlutWalk doesn't actually stand for what I think (a misconstrued worry due to the multi-media interpretation of the walk)
    Thank you