Slutwalk: why can’t it be better than this?

You’re not allowed to rape sluts either!

The sentiment that whatever we wear and wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no is what got me Slutwalking earlier this year. Those campaigning to “reclaim” the word “slut”? I didn’t totally hate the idea, but it wasn’t one that particularly inspired me, because I’m skeptical regarding reclamation of marginalising slurs in concept and feel it’s of limited utility compared to actively challenging prejudices more radically.

I do not dig seeing signs like that held up by Erin Clark and Kelly Hannah Peterlinz at Slutwalk NYC that said “Woman Is the Nigger of the World”

As the priority of Slutwalk organisers worldwide appears to keep on shifting, on their websites and press releases, to emphasising reclamation of a word above and beyond protesting against the persistence of the rape myths and victim-blaming linked to that word, I find myself less and less interested in marching next time, especially if it means that some White marchers might insist on holding up banners celebrating another attempt at word reclamation which many social justice advocates feel John Lennon and Yoko Ono got badly wrong over 40 years ago.

crunktastic at The Crunk Feminist Collective writes:

I want to be in solidarity with Slutwalk. I really do. But my knees are getting weak. It’s inspiring to see women coming together to protest the all-too-real threat and reality of rape and to reclaim our right to define and exercise our respective sexualities outside the context of patriarchy. I dig all that. But I do not dig seeing signs like that held up by Erin Clark and Kelly Hannah Peterlinz at Slutwalk NYC that said “Woman Is the Nigger of the World.”

I do not dig debating with young white feminists late into the night about white privilege and having other Black women in the thread have to call out the supposed anti-racist feminists for not speaking up, for yet again forcing Black women to do the exhausting work of teaching. I do not dig being told on the interwebs, –tumblr, other blogs, the Slutwalk NYC FB page–that Black women are being hyper-sensitive and divisive. I do not dig being intellectually insulted with the assertion that I simply didn’t understand “Yoko and John’s intent.” As if.

Karnythia at The Angry Black Woman writes that it needs to be acknowledged that women like me are never going to be insulted using that word, and therefore we just shouldn’t act as if it’s ours to embrace:.

So, when people claim that Woman is The Nigger of The World? I want them to remember that not every woman is going to be called a nigger. Trust me, if I could give that word up I would, I certainly don’t want it. But I can’t, and I refuse to pretend that what happened to me could happen to a white woman.

There’s so many reasons why Slutwalks already feel exclusionary to many women. Insensitive stunts like this just don’t help.

Categories: ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, language, social justice

Tags: , , , ,

10 replies

  1. At least part of the reason why I find myself getting irritated with things like SlutWalk is because it started out as re-inventing the wheel (and incidentally, they’re re-inventing a chartreuse, seven-sided wheel) by covering territory which was tackled by “Reclaim The Night” marches in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s this very same historical blindness which makes me angry about it. It’s the realisation that all that hard work, all those efforts made twenty and thirty years ago need to be repeated again, at 101-level, over and over and over again, because clearly we weren’t loud enough and aggressive enough the first twenty, thirty, forty times. The whole thing starts to be the feminist equivalent of painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge (or more accurately, sweeping the kitchen floor).
    This is just compounded when something like SlutWalk comes along and is presented as a “radical” “new” idea (when actually, it’s another iteration of an older one). It’s compounded when the same damn problems which afflicted feminism in the 1970s and 1980s (specifically, lack of awareness of intersectional issues and a lack of willingness to tackle these) are presented as “new” and “radical” issues to be confronted in the modern version of feminism (which itself is given a new, improved name, because “feminism” is burned out and old fashioned and we’re all post-feminist now, right?).
    And people wonder why activist burnout happens… In my case, it’s because I already lived through the 1980s back when I was in my teens, and I don’t have the physical or mental enthusiasm to live through them again now I’m in my forties.
    (Incidentally, I also don’t feel that “reclaiming” the word “slut” is a particularly Good Thing. The word has been intended as a slur (“a slovenly or promiscuous woman” is the Concise OED definition) since first it entered the English language as part of Middle English. There is no feasible positive meaning of the word to be “reclaimed” – instead of encouraging its retention, we should be urging it be dropped from the language altogether.)

  2. Megpie71, I think the idea is a protest against making promiscuity slur-worthy. And/or the idea that a woman who was raped must be a slut and the subsequent rape-apologist search for what she did to indicate she’s a slut.
    But the slutwalks seem to be all over the map in what they’re trying to do. And the Lennon/Ono phrase, however well-meant originally, is ghastly, and using it today is breathtakingly ignorant and hurtful.

  3. Megpie71, I’ve seen you bring this up elsewhere and it’s really troubling me. You wrote:
    “It’s this very same historical blindness which makes me angry about it.”
    Putting aside everything else – which I know is hard, because there is so much going on here – where are younger women supposed to get this education in feminist history? Are older women offering free and easy-to-access classes in it? Are they advertising it? Yes, there is Feminism 101 (created and maintained by tigtog), but its not meant to be Feminism: A History and talks about key concepts. It doesn’t talk about the history of Take Back the Night/Reclaim the Night or any other similar project (nor should it, that’s not its purpose.)
    “But just Google it!” You have to know that something is _there_ to look it up on the internet, and it also presumes that the person looking knows what to search for. What should I look for to find the history of Take Back the Night/Reclaim the Night? In online feminism, we use a lot of words that _mean things_, and searching for them brings up some interesting stuff, but if you’re coming from outside, you don’t know those words to look them up.
    (For example, if you’re not an historian and I tell you “We’re doing historiography today”, does that _mean_ anything to you? If I tell you “We’re looking at the history of history”, does that tell you to look up historiography? And history is _taught in schools_.)
    People aren’t born knowing this stuff, and for a variety of reasons it isn’t the stuff that we just pick up casually. Demanding that younger people know the history of the feminist movement before they do anything is frustrating to me because it assumes that it’s easy to do.
    If we want younger feminists to learn the history of the feminist movement, it we want them to know about things like SlutWalk and the significance of Ms Magazine and why bell hooks’ name is in all lower case… we have to _teach them_.
    I had more to say but I have to run. I’m sorry.

  4. You know how I found out about a lot of this stuff as an Australian kid? As someone who wasn’t actually involved in the forefront of the feminist movement (my parents may be many things, but a social radicals they most definitely ain’t)? As someone who has only ever attended one demonstration (incidentally, a Reclaim the Night march here in WA, a few years ago) in her life?
    I read about them.
    I picked up bits and pieces here and there – and oddly enough, a lot of the stuff I picked up was from magazines like “Better Homes and Gardens” or “Cleo” and “Cosmopolitan”, where it was all treated as a solved problem and wasn’t that great. I started integrating these bits and pieces into a larger context. I got interested in the subject (often through reading negative accounts in mainstream media) and started thinking “okay, so what actually happened?” I picked it up from reading the accounts of people who were actually there in the seventies (I was born in 1971, so I don’t really count myself as having experienced the big feminist events of the 1970s, because I was a kid) – people like Julie Burchill, or Cynthia Heimel. I educated myself.
    Nobody formally taught me about feminism growing up. Just like nobody formally taught me about the history of racism in either the USA or Australia, and nobody taught me about the history of the battle for non-heterosexual recognition. And nobody has formally taught me about the ongoing battle for disability rights, or the ongoing battle against Orientalism. If I wanted to learn about any of these things, I had to go out and find the information myself. So I did.
    It wasn’t handed to me on a plate. It wasn’t something I was taught in school. It was something I picked up primarily through the hard schools of “making a fool of myself in public” and “shut up and listen, damnit!”
    Okay, so I have my own rather idiosyncratic reasons for wanting to learn this stuff (I’m lazy, and I prefer not to be re-inventing the wheel, so I’ll tend to look for evidence that someone else hasn’t done something first; also, for various reasons, I’m not fond of looking like a fool in public) which aren’t precisely connected to the nature of active, movement feminism. And okay, I’d probably have learned it even if I wasn’t all that interested in the subject (which I wasn’t, at first – I’ve become more and more passionate about feminism as I get older). Yes, I realise that there are institutionalised forces at work here, forces which make it hard for feminism to maintain momentum even as an organised movement, much less as a disorganised, decentralised one. I realise that one of the most potent of these forces is the goldfish memory of the media, and thus of the general public, which tends to lead to a lot of people acting as though the world popped into existence holus-bolus a week ago last Tuesday, and that’s as far back as history goes. It’s the kyriarchy’s way of resetting the clock, winding back progress, keeping us all ignorant and compliant and oppressed.
    But even so. Even so. The information is out there. I’ve just had a quick look at the wikipedia entries both for “feminism” and “Take Back the Night” (aka Reclaim the Night). Both of those offer a quick summary of the terms, and a lot of references and places to look for further reading (wikipedia may not be all that brilliant on some things, but it’s certainly a good starting place – like any encyclopaedia).
    Yes, it would be a Good Thing if we could educate younger feminists in the history of what went before them. But there is nothing stopping them from educating themselves. The education these days is even easier to find than it was in my twenties . Further: why are we supposed to be offering young white upper-middle-class US-based feminists slack we’re not offering any of the men who say they want to be allies? We insist our opponents educate themselves before engaging in debate – we should be honest enough to insist all of our erstwhile allies do the same, regardless of race, gender, or social status.
    If the young women who had carried the sign mentioned in the original post had bothered to do some research, or ask a few questions (“Would this offend anyone marching if I carried it?” would have been a good start) before they’d hared off and done it, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. There wouldn’t be feminists of colour, feminists of non-Western background, and feminists who empathise with them getting annoyed about it around the globe. They (and their defenders) wouldn’t have looked like fools and boors in public, and had to deal with the immense personal inconvenience of being told their privilege was showing.

  5. Oh gosh, I knew I should have re-read that comment before I posted it. I’m sorry, I should have been way more clear to what I was responding to than I was.
    My response is to the idea that having a SlutWalk is a bad idea because it’s reinventing the wheel and claiming that all these young women should be aware of that. Any argument that says “But we couldn’t possibly know that using the n-word is wrong! We’re innocent!” is, of course, ridiculous.
    But I dislike the idea that young women need to both be aware of the history of Reclaim the Night/Take Back the Night and decide that those things represent what they think of when they think of being raped or abused. The original SlutWalk in Toronto was in reaction to a specific incident. Other groups have adopted that and have taken to the streets during the day to speak out. The Take Back the Night/Reclaim the Night events I’ve been to have been at night.
    I stopped walking in Take Back the Night specifically because I dislike the idea that I’m most at risk of being raped at night. It doesn’t represent what I want to highlight about issues around sexual assault/abuse and rape. These younger women may have their own reasons for not thinking they’re re-inventing the wheel. It may be because they are, in fact, not aware of TBTN (I heard of it for the first time in university) or its history. It may be because they don’t feel drawn to that message, but are tired of being told that if they’re slutty, they can be raped, especially in the US where abstinence only education tells them exactly that.
    There are tons of reasons to dislike the SlutWalk movement. I don’t like it, and this latest racist fuck-up followed by “But we couldn’t possibly know! Be nice to us!” is just fucking appalling. What I am disagreeing with is the insistence that women need to know the history of the feminist movement before they can have their own events. The history they need to know isn’t TBTN. It’s the history of racism and gender-essentialism and ignorance of the experiences of people with disabilities and the vast gulf of lived experiences based on class & money and geographic location and the way that certain aspects of the movement treat parenting that they need to know. But TBTN? No, not so much.
    I am terribly sorry that I came across as excusing their ignorance on race and their continued insistence that it didn’t matter. That was unacceptable on my part, and I will attempt to do better in the future to not be supporting something that disgusting.

  6. I stopped walking in Take Back the Night specifically because I dislike the idea that I’m most at risk of being raped at night.
    Do you mean that Take Back the Night implicitly concentrates too much on the stranger-as-rapist meme? That’s not a veiled disagreement, just a question as I’d never thought of it like that. Do the Slutwalks counter that meme, given that their founding publicity is about how women dress when they go out? Not that that would be required in order to validate them, also just a question.

  7. SunlessNick,
    I can’t speak for SlutWalk – the city I was living in until August didn’t have one before I moved, and the city I moved to already had theirs before I got here.
    In my experience, TBTN is pretty explicitly about pushing for women to be safe at night. It is also (in my experience) heavily focused on college age women, so there’s a lot of focus on “date” rapes and stranger rapes during which a woman had been drinking. Which is … well, I don’t want to say “awesome” because we’re talking about rape, but I’m so *glad* these things are talked about at TBTN and that part of their purpose has been to let college-aged women know that they have resources and being raped isn’t their fault. I wish the town I got my undergrad degree at had a TBTN because that is entirely a message I needed to hear then.
    In my opinion, SlutWalk in Toronto was pretty explicitly about calling out police officers who believe that women who dress “sluttily” get what they deserve if they’re raped. I feel that’s a supplementary message to the one that TBTN is advocating for, but I also have *been* to TBTN. People who haven’t been to it may think it’s entirely about “the night” and only focuses on violence.

  8. Thankyou, Anna.

  9. Another great post to those young White feminists who are apparently still defending the sign: They’re Going to Laugh at You: White Women, Betrayal, and the N-Word from Racialicious

    Stop confusing the fact that the n-word is still used by some black folks as license for you to use it. Many women including White feminists still use the word bitch, but I don’t see you abiding for one second any man thinking he can do the same. In fact, if a man who identified as a feminist and/or ally still had the audacity to roll up to Slut Walk with a sign that read Rape is for Pussies, all his professions to solidarity, insistence that we focus on the “real” issue and the like wouldn’t have zilch currency for you so don’t act brand new.
    And while we’re on the subject of Black folks who embrace the n-word, I don’t give a damn how many Black friends you have who don’t blink an eye or even think it’s cute when that word comes out of your mouth. You still don’t and never will have license to use that word. Accept that. If you can’t stop insisting that you be allowed to use the n-word on philosophical grounds, how ’bout you just let it go on the simple fact that you will never win this one. Trust me on that. If any woman of color – friend, comrade, stranger — tells you it is offensive to her, the only right answer of a true ally is to knock it off. This mounting any never mind excessive defense of the use of the n-word by you or any other White person then turning around and complaining that our expressing our hurt and anger is a distraction from the “real” issue at hand… how’s that working for you? It isn’t, and you know it.

    Read the whole post, especially for the visceral analogy to Carrie and the pig’s blood stunt.

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