SlutWalk: Empowering or just rebranding?

It’s all over the feminist internets…. So, let’s talk about SlutWalk.

SlutWalk, which originated in Toronto, was a march in April in response to the recommendation by police officers that if young women wanted to avoid sexual assault and harassment, they should avoid dressing like a “slut.” Oh boy. Sadly, this kind of misogynistic thinking — even amongst police and law makers, who should have training to know better — is all too common. Remember the “denim defense” rape case in Italy in which a woman’s rapist got off because the court ruled that the woman couldn’t have been raped because her jeans were so tight she would have had to help get them off? (Because rapists never ask a victim to do anything to help them, right?)

So, Toronto organizers got to work and had a very successful march in which thousands took it to the streets. Right on! Since then the SlutWalk campaign has gained a lot of steam and events are cropping up all over Canada and the U.S. And this is good. Right? Well…

Not everyone is happy about SlutWalk. The concept of SlutWalk has ignited some debate in feminist circles as well as in the mainstream media about whether or not the branding of SlutWalk is out of step with the central message behind it. The idea is that women are tired of being blamed for the sexual violence that happens to them. We’ve all heard the “she was asking for it” because she was [insert blaming reference of choice: drunk, a slut, dressed like a slut, out too late, out with a man….]. This is another reason why the Start by Believing campaign is so useful and important. But Start by Believing is about how we react when a survivor tells you they have been the victim of sexual violence. That’s the after. SlutWalk is about the moment.

But whether by design or because you can’t control something once you release it into the world, SlutWalk has tapped into very real rage about the slut-shaming that happens in women’s everyday lives. And I think that’s a good thing in many ways. The constructs of femininity, sexual worth, objectification, the male gaze… all these things create so much tension and layers of expectations on women every day. Not to mention the double-standards! You must look a certain way, act a certain way, to be a woman with positive worth in our society. This feeds in to a whole host of issues for many women as we struggle to be the impossible ideal — the perfectly molded Barbie, in the flesh.

But, of course, these deeply intrenched beauty standards also come laced with mixed messages. We must be sexy, but not slutty. We must be thin, but have big tits, hips an asses. We must always be ready for sex, but not have too much sex. Or have sex with the wrong people. Or want sex that is considered deviant. Or go places or do things that will entice men to want to sexually assault you, because then you were asking for it. Indeed, the common heterosexual ideal is that women must want the male attention, but then must be a tease and deny the act. Because that’s how you maintain your sexiness without becoming a slut! Right? Unless, you are seen drinking, wearing “slutty” clothing and/or flirting too much… or whatever other reason someone is branded a slut. And let’s face it, NONE of these standards apply to men. Ever.

Who wouldn’t get pissed trying to live under the weight of all these impossible ideals and double-standards? Hell, I’m pissed off just writing about it!

But a funny thing happened on the way to the marches … Some say SlutWalk has been co-opted by the mainstream message that in order to be a sexy woman you have to dress in the gender-normative sexy way: mini skirts, high heels, makeup, long hair, etc. So, this has turned SlutWalk, in the eyes of some, into nothing more than a parade that maintains the status quo: A fight for the right to continue dolling up to be the “perfect” societal ideal.

Organizers maintain that the concept of SlutWalk is intact and that all this talk about the idea of “slut” and how and who we label one, is the point. If we continue to label sexual violence victims sluts, then the dial never shifts. In many ways, this is a campaign to reclaim or at least to de-stigmatize the label. But I’m not convinced this is the feminist moment where we are going to reclaim “slut,” in the same way that the LGBT community has reclaimed the word “fag” or the African-American community has reclaimed … let’s say the “n-word.” (I’m pretty sure this white girl is still not allowed to say that word, even in this context.)

Because underneath it all, the question remains: Does anyone really want to be called a slut?

Even though this is not the 1950s anymore, I don’t know if it’s possible to reclaim “slut” in the context that the SlutWalk organizers are pushing. I like the theory. I like the idea that we can retire all these rules about women’s sexual identity and appetites. Because that’s the kernel here. When we slut-shame, society is really talking about its discomfort with a woman being a fully actualized, subjective (as in, the opposite of an object), sexual being. We’re talking about a woman’s worth NOT being tied to the number of partners a woman has, her sexual identity, or her sexual desires. And the word “slut” is the ultimate short-hand to not only label a woman as wayward from what is acceptable but to also remove her right to govern the permissions to her body. Labeling a woman as slut, automatically takes away her authority, her voice, her power and any claim to the victim status.

Maybe this is all too complex for one grassroots campaign or a few dozen marches to tackle. I think the debate and conversation are good. And maybe that’s the most valuable thing SlutWalk can do for all of us. I don’t feel comfortable calling SlutWalk wrong. But I’m also not going to lace up my marching shoes for it either.

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7 thoughts on “SlutWalk: Empowering or just rebranding?

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  5. Nice post. I guess the problem isn’t with the word ‘slut’ but the way ‘slut’ has become a bad thing.

    I love the part where you talk about the tightrope women are expected to walk. I guess what I’d really like is for women to be able to make stupid choices without facing more flak for it. If a guy sleeps with 10 women before finding the right partner, he was just ‘finding the right girl’. But a woman is labeled a slut.

    Clothes only have so much to do with perception. I come from India and have traveled quite a lot, and I’ve realised even in a simple jeans and t shirt, I get catcalls and I do not even have an awesome body worth mentioning.

    I guess it is the IDEA, started by stupid social clauses and then pushed by the media that a woman who dresses a particular way is just game that starts this whole thing. Then the male ego comes in and etc etc.

    I don’t know about the rest of the world but in India, I know the turnout will be awesome because, yes, we are sick of the hypocrisy but mostly, guys will just enjoy checking out women and go home after the rally without anyone really caring. We need something more proactive than marches.

    (I guess I did need to vent a bit 🙂

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