I proudly wear the label ‘slut’. More than that! It turns me on. But when it comes to SlutWalk, I have to raise issue along with my ascending eyebrow.
My contention is not with the act itself – I am all for reclaiming the word slut, and marching through the streets with my fellow sluts just sounds like a fun version of the countless climate change marches I’ve been on. No, my contention stems from the origins of SlutWalk and I have to say, it confounds me that the events which proceeded it led to these marches.
For those of you who don’t know about SlutWalk or how it started, here’s a little recap – courtesy of the slightly grammar-error prone, but basically reliable BBC News website:
“Police Constable Michael Sanguinetti had been giving a talk on health and safety to a group of students at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto when he made the now infamous remarks.
““You know, I think we’re beating around the bush here,” he reportedly told them. “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 has since apologised for his remarks and has been disciplined by the Toronto police, but remains on duty.
“Some 3,000 people took part in the first “SlutWalk” in Toronto last month. The SlutWalk Toronto website said the aim of the movement is to “re-appropriate” the word slut.
““Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless if we participate in sex for pleasure or work,” it says.
“The rallies typically end with speakers and workshops on stopping sexual violence and calling on law enforcement agencies not to blame victims after sexual assaults, AP says.”
Where do I begin?
First of all, Police Constable Michael Sanguinetti. Personally I don’t think he did or said anything wrong; true there isn’t conclusive evidence to support the idea that women who dress provocatively are at higher risk of sexual assault (or if there is, I have yet to find it), but speaking from personal experience and that of close friends, when we’re out clubbing, or bar hopping, the shorter our skirts, the lower our necklines, the more sexual attention we get. In fact, that’s why we wear those clothes; I do not put on my silk red dress in the hope of blending into the crowd and being ignored. In the course of one evening (when were dressed in particularly revealing clothes), my friends and I were wolf-whistled at, begged for numbers, groped, and almost dragged into a van by an amorous magician. Furthermore, I have three close friends (and more acquaintances, whose stories I know in less detail) who are victims of serious sexual assault, all of whom were raped by men they met in bars and had been flirting with on a night when they were particularly provocatively dressed. I am not blaming these girls for what happened to them – sexual assault, under any circumstance is inexcusable and the perpetrator is always in the wrong – and I feel very strongly that they should all find justice in court (something they all strove for, but were not all given). All I’m saying is, when I went out in my cardigan, I didn’t get so much as a sideways glance.
But the thing about the whole SlutWalk movement that really makes me grind my teeth is everyone’s refusal to acknowledge that there very well may be some small degree of risk involved in dressing provocatively. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it; many skiers and mountain-climbers and white water rafters are at risk of dying doing the thing they love, but it doesn’t mean they don’t do it. They assess the risk, and decide that it’s worth it. If what you love is to dress like a slut – and I use the word ‘slut’ in the most sex positive way possible – then do it! But no matter how entitled women are to dress as they please, no matter how wrong it is that women (and men actually, but that may be a different issue) are still sexually assaulted, no matter how we try to reclaim the word by marching through the streets, if the risk is there, I don’t see how SlutWalk is going to change it. Excuse me for the crude wording but rapists the World over are not going to see SlutWalk and suddenly have epiphanies about female sexual empowerment.
I agree, wholeheartedly, with the SlutWalk movement when it says “Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless if we participate in sex for pleasure or work.” Sadly, ‘should not’ and ‘might’ are not mutually exclusive in this context. “Being in charge of our sexual lives SHOULD NOT mean […] opening ourselves to […] violence”, but unfortunately it might. And, bearing that in mind, I do not understand how penalising a Policeman who told the truth as he saw it – what happened to freedom of speech? – and founding a movement that reclaims the word ‘slut’, is an answer to some ill-advised comments on how women dress.
If SlutWalk is in fact a movement against (sexual) violence towards women (and men?) and about “law enforcement agencies [blaming] victims after sexual assaults” then it is doing a tremendously bad job of headlining those facts; those are real problems which require real support, and very little of what I’ve seen or read of SlutWalk highlights those issues. In fact I had to dig for them. It was presented to me, and continues to appear as a movement encouraging women to reclaim the word ‘slut’. In my most cynical moments I have looked at the movement and considered it to be nothing more than an overreaction by modern feminists who have tagged on the ideas of being against sexual assault and victim blaming in order to give themselves credibility.
I did, however, come across another view, one which I can better understand and side with, one that doesn’t up the stakes with talk of battling sexual assault, but goes to the heart of what I think, behind all the bells and whistles, SlutWalk should actually be about. Sadie Smythe puts it forth as a way to reclaim the word ‘slut’ in a society where women regularly insult each other by using labels such as ‘slut’, ‘tramp’ and ‘whore’ derogatorily. In comparison to sexual abuse it’s a small issue, but one worth fighting, if not for adults – who hopefully can hold their own – then for teenage girls. (See ‘Easy A’. No, really, see it. It’s good.)
Overall I just feel that the pieces of SlutWalk don’t really add up. Reclaiming the word ‘slut’ seems like an irrational response to the badly chosen advice of a Policeman, and I still don’t understand how reclaiming this term is a way of fighting sexual violence. Furthermore, denying the very real possibility that the way you dress may effect the way you are treated, to me, seems like incredible naïvety. If you are taking/have taken part in SlutWalk purely as a way to reclaim the word, as Sadie is, then I wish you well with that. If, however, you are marching as a woman against sexual violence and a problematic victimising culture, may I suggest donating money or volunteering for one of the organisations listed in this article from Fandom for Sexual Assault Awareness.
SlutWalk is full of good intentions, but through my glasses, it’s all a little out of perspective.