To say everyone is talking about it would be an understatement. It’s the biggest comment thread on the Bristol Feminist Network I’ve ever seen. Media outlets from the Daily Mail to the Guardian to the BBC to Newsnight and beyond have been covering it. About to embark on my third round of organising Reclaim the Night, I can only gasp in wonder at how a march that ostensibly is saying what RTN has said before has won so much press attention. Whatever your thoughts on Slutwalk, you have to admit, they know how to get noticed.
And it has caused big debate. I am still unsure exactly what it is I feel about it all. So please allow this blogpost to meander slightly as I try to explain my confusion that in some ways supports the aims to raise awareness of why victim blaming is wrong, and in other ways questions the language and reception that Slutwalk has received.
This is just my opinion. I know many, many women feel differently and completely support Slutwalk and I respect the reasons they give for this. I ask that you respect my concerns, wonderings and questions as my personal opinion, just as I respect the opinions of others who think differently.
So, in case you didn’t know, Slutwalk was kicked off in Toronto after a police officer said that if women didn’t want to be attacked, they should avoid looking like ‘sluts’. This attitude won’t come as a surprise to many women. Blaming the victim for wearing a short skirt, a low cut top, skinny jeans, being drunk, knowing the rapist, being outdoors, being indoors, being ‘sexually active’, taking drugs – if there’s a way to shift the blame from the rapist and onto the victim, then it will be found, spoken out loud and used to shame the victim, reducing conviction rates and encouraging rape myths.
This is one of the many reasons that women march at Reclaim the Night, an openly feminist march that says that victims and survivors of rape, sexual assault and violence should never be blamed. We shout ‘whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and NO means NO!’. We demand the right to freedom of movement, the freedom to go where we want, wear what we want, sleep with who we want etc without the fear of rape and sexual violence permeating our world. It is a march, for me, of strength, of sisterhood, of feminism.
Where the aims of Slutwalk are to fight victim blaming and challenge rape myths, I can clearly support them. Sexual assault and rape is only and always the fault of the attacker. The idea that if a woman ‘dresses provocatively’ then she is attracting rape is still terrifyingly prevalent and rather than be embarrassed about saying such women-hating, ignorant nonsense, people are happy to go on Radio 2 and say:
‘"If you dressed as a pork-chop to feed lions, you'd get eaten,"
And here’s some choice quotes from the Daily Mail website:
‘They would be lucky if any man decided that these women were worthy. Tree hugging, ugly feminists - nothing worse.’
‘Attractive girls dont need to wear such revealing outfits to be noticed.’
‘women must take some responsibility for their own actions, and I'm sorry, but going out in your underwear with parts of your body that should remain covered up on show is only asking for trouble....FACT, like it or not!’
‘Booking the day off work for this I cant wait to see loads of nearly naked women walk past me hehe’
‘if women demand respect from men, women should show more respect to men and act and dress more modestly.’
‘I never understood how women can demand respect and not to be treated like sex toys from men and yet they flaunt their sexually in front of men, and don't expect any kind of reaction.’
‘Of course outfits like this are invitations. It is twisted and evil to say otherwise.’
Victim-blaming is so pervasive, that even feminists have fallen into its ugly trap, with Naomi Wolf defending Julian Assange and blaming his accusers. And with a pernicious right wing press keen to label women as liars, it is vital that we fight back and shout out that we are never to blame for the violence committed against us.
But Slutwalk isn’t as simple as that, and that is for many reasons, not least the use of the word Slut which I will come to later.
Firstly, as pointed out by http://www.feminisms.org/2585/were-sluts-not-feminists-wherein-my-relationship-with-slutwalk-gets-rocky/, is the lack of conversations around actual feminism happening, especially in Toronto. The post argues that there is kind of an elephant in the room when it comes to talking about violence against women and girls as a gendered issue and discussion about feminism seems strangely absent. I’m not going to reconstruct her entire argument here, although I urge you to read it, but to me violence against women is a feminist issue, and victim blaming plays into the oppression and silencing of women, and ignoring that this is gendered problem suggests a real confusion about what the aims of the event are. The post writer found a lot of anti-feminist language being employed by the walkers, who distanced themselves from the ‘not fun’ radical feminists (you know, the man hating, bad shoe wearing lot :-/ ) in a way that, for me, uncomfortably re-packages feminism as something that should always and only be fun and sexy, and not threatening.
This feeds into much bigger issues about what Nina Power called Feminism TM, that proposes feminism as fun and sexy and all about what the individual wants. The idea that it is MY choice and I made this choice as a WOMAN so therefore it is a FEMINIST choice. Through this, a glass of pinot, getting a lap dance, watching porn, eating chocolate and buying clothes from Primark are all justified as feminist choices, in the sparkly and friendly world of individualist feminism. It is cute and sexy and it certainly isn’t scary, unlike those angry women who, you know, don’t shave. The problems with this kind of attitude mainly manifest themselves in a disregard for sisterhood, as it proposes that an individual choice that might harm another trumps working for a communal, greater good.
It’s not that feminism shouldn’t be fun. Feminism can be loads of fun, and involves a lot of love and laughter. But feminism can also be scary and challenging and angry and ugly and painful because it is about overthrowing the status quo and saying no to oppression and insisting that the current, patriarchal system that keeps a few people very happy and very powerful needs to end. And it is upsetting and ugly and scary because a lot of feminist issues ARE these things – violence, poverty, oppression. Not saying that or feeling embarrassed about pointing this out and making a feminist statement is not cool.
I love how Slutwalk is trying to find a creative and empowering way to show off the message that victim blaming is unacceptable. I am just concerned from what I’ve read that the feminist, gender message is getting a little bit lost. Although, please do prove me wrong!
Of course, the feminist and gender message is not lost with Reclaim the Night.
There is still a view in the world that feminism is dour and dull and not fun and sexy and that we need to rebrand it to make it more palatable. My view is that feminism is fun, and hard work, and full of sisterhood and laughter, and tears, and anger, and upset and yes it can be sexy too. But I don’t want feminism to be solely re-branded as fun and sexy to make people like us more. Because there is NOTHING fun and sexy about violence against women, or poverty or oppression. And if we have to make it fun and sexy to get people to take these issues seriously, well, there’s a logic leap to me there. Do other human rights movements have to look sexy? Is it actually precisely because we are women, and women have to fit a mould of sexiness to be visible, that we are asked to make the fight for gender equality sexy? And by doing that, are we not actually playing into the hands of those who seek to oppress us, i.e. patriarchy?
I should caveat here that you don’t have to dress “sexy” to go on Slutwalk where the message is that women should be able to wear whatever they want (http://sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com/2010/06/be-free-to-wear-whatever-you-want.html). This is more a wider point about why I think rebranding feminism to make it attractive is a defeatist plan.
Ok, so the next big issue is the use of the word slut in the first place. Is Slutwalk about reclaiming it? Can it be reclaimed? Can language ever be reclaimed? It’s so tricky and complex. I personally revolt against the instruction/request to label myself a slut. I am a woman (hear me roar!). Not a slut or a bitch or a ho or a cunt or frigid but a WOMAN and a FEMINIST. But I can see the attraction of wanting to reclaim words that have been used against us. To take away the power they have to hurt us. My doubt lies in whether it actually works.
I’ve now read a few testimonials since this debate began from women who have had the word slut used against them within violent and abusive situations, and feel strongly that they don’t want to reclaim it. I personally feel that this has to be respected. Because if the whole point of Slutwalk is to make a stand against violence against women, and then ignores or rides over the thoughts and wishes of survivors and victims of violence, then that is problematic. As rmott62 says on her excellent blog: ‘this whole thing has made me very sick. Remember my sickness is part of being reminded again that I am sub-human by women privilege enough to reclaim the term Slut’. (http://rmott62.wordpress.com/2011/05/10/the-ultimate-slut/)
Because privilege is coming into play here. I doubt deliberately, but so often privilege isn’t exercised deliberately. Doesn’t mean we don’t question it.
The other issue with reclaiming the word slut is that you might reclaim it for yourself, but what about everyone else? For example, sometimes my mum uses the word ‘dyke’. I find the word offensive and jokily tell her off. But if a straight man or woman used it against her, then it would be really offensive/abusive/violent. And this is the root of the problem for me about reclaiming. Can it really stop the word being used to hurt you or attack you? I tried to reclaim the word cunt, but rather than seeing it used to describe strong, exciting, amazing women, it was still used to describe David Cameron. So was it reclaimed? Or was it just a word used to express hate, but used more commonly? Did it just become more acceptable to use cunt to hate people, without the feminist, reclaiming motivation?
The Daily Mail illustrated their article with images of women ‘scantily clad’ (as their headline termed it) on Slutwalk, whilst below the line commenters discussed whether the women were attractive, feminine, real ‘ladies’ and decided most of them didn’t have to worry about being raped. Ahh yes, that old chestnut, that rape is the ultimate compliment and about desire, rather than a crime about violence and power. The images made me stop in my tracks. Yes, the women looked angry, empowered and motivated. But the images were being used to objectify, criticise and narrow women’s identity to ‘hot’ or ‘not’ according to our current cultural (male defined) definition of attractiveness. The word slut was being used to insult the women. Men were chortling about the opportunity to go and gawp at women in their underwear.
Was this what we wanted? Obviously I’m not saying we should never take action in case the Daily Mail gets the wrong end of the stick, but it felt to me that the ease with which power was taken away signified that what was happening was an attempt to defeat patriarchy using the language and appearance of the oppressors, which patriarchy and the oppressors were then able to turn around to use against us.
One of the problems I have with raunch feminism and feminism TM (which I recognise Slutwalk might not be to many women and again, tell me if I’m wrong!) is that it seems to attempt to challenge sexism within the confines of patriarchal capitalism. So it becomes ‘porn is empowering’ or ‘my boob job is empowering’ or ‘my choice is empowering because it is my choice and I am a woman etc etc’. But actually, I believe as Audre Lorde said that ‘we can’t dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools’.
Obviously it’s great that these issues about victim blaming are getting publicity. And creative and dynamic ways to get these issues talked about are fantastic. But me? Well, I won’t be marching on Slutwalk. To me, Reclaim the Night is a march to combat victim blaming, raise awareness about violence against women and is inclusive to all (well, in Bristol it is!) whilst being avowedly, openly feminist and unafraid to tackle violence as a gendered issue. That is where I’ll be.
But this is just my long, rambling confused take on the situation. I appreciate that many women have very different thoughts to me about Slutwalk, which I completely respect. And once more, I think it is so important that these issues are being debated openly and excitedly, so that we are reaching more and more people with the message that rape is never a woman’s fault. Full stop.