International SlutWalks have received an enormous amount of media attention and polarised feminist and non-feminist critique. The marches have either been characterised as feminist triumphs or failures, and the ideas underpinning them as either significant or less than worthless for women. Women who work in organisations like the Centre Against Sexual Assault and Project Respect have expressed many differing views on the marches, all of them strongly held. Why have we latched onto this movement with such force? What have we really been saying in our responses to the marches about women’s sexual autonomy and the nature of rape? Have we really been talking the walk?
It’s so hard to really discover what we desire. Most of us learn so early that our desires are either shameful or less important than pleasing others. We learn this as children and it is reinforced in our schools, media and wider culture.
Particularly as women, we are taught to take pleasure in the desire of others and in making ourselves desirable rather than discovering what it is we really want. This leaves us in a terrible position when it comes to owning our own sexuality. That there is still a concerted effort to hold women responsible for rape only adds fear and anger to the mix. Unravelling our own pleasure and the ownership of our own sexuality and autonomy is complicated and requires courage and dedication. So of course SlutWalk will strike many of us as simplistic and problematic. But sometimes when we begin to reclaim ourselves we do it simply and bluntly and with passionate anger. Subtlety comes later.
There has been an enormous amount of critical discussion about SlutWalk and a lot of talk about how the marches serve to obscure the fact that most sexual assault is perpetrated by those who are closest to us. But I think we may be forgetting how scared many of us continue to be on the street at night. We may be forgetting that part of the joy of a march is feeling sometimes for the first time that the world is ours.
For a few years in the mid 80s I worked as a DJ in women’s clubs. The best night of the year was after the Take Back the Night march. Women would pour in, all ages, all sizes, all colours, in groups or alone. All of them on fire with the incredible pleasure of taking over the streets for the night. There was a moving current of sexual energy to those nights, born of the sense of freedom and entitlement and born also of transgression. The dance floor was always packed. It was a dream gig. I would walk back home through the leaves at about four in the morning and there were women everywhere, in all the places we were never meant to be at night.
The responses to those early Take Back The Night marches were never guarded, so I’ve been amazed by the carefulness of some of the reactions to the SlutWalk marches worldwide, both critical and celebratory. It’s as if we’re afraid really to wade into the difficult territory of what it means to us to dress in clothes that have been labelled as sexually provocative. We read an enormous amount of justification and fear of both prudery and flippancy in the wave of reflections on the issue. And there is fear of dividing a movement that is perceived as fragile. We are taking incredible care about how we speak about this issue — which points to a fundamental sense that we are in the territory of the unsayable, and that to risk speaking clearly is a big risk indeed.
On one of the walks, someone held up a sign that said "Men and children don’t have tits but they get raped too". This is of course true. And it is also true that they don’t often get told they invite this assault as women so consistently do. Somewhere in the subtext of the criticism of SlutWalk, there is a sense of confusion about responsibility and safety, morality and ethics.
There are a number of mixed messages in our reactions to this phenomenon; we are not responsible for the sexual reactions of others, but we should dress more carefully to be safe. We are not saying that displays of the body in stereotypically sexualised ways are wrong, but we should have more respect for ourselves. We are left in damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t territory. What is it we’re so afraid to say?
Part of the complexity of this issue is that for most women, not only has the responsibility for the sexual responses of men been placed squarely at our feet, but that we also we continue to be confused about how to be physically and sexually safe. This misplaced blame continues, particularly when we are teaching young women about safety.
As an example of this, last year in my daughter’s homeroom class a conversation about revealing clothing with a teacher she respected and loved turned into an experience of blame and humiliation. First, the teacher told her that her clothes, which revealed part of her breasts, were distracting for the boys in the class. At this point, hoping to get the idea across and have an enlightening discussion, the teacher asked the boys to comment about how they felt about what my daughter wore to school.
They didn’t hold back in describing their detached sexual responses to her. Some of her friends tried to step in to support her, but they didn’t really have the language to talk about these issues, and the damage was done. She was subjected to the objectification of the boys in her class and she was handed the responsibility for provoking it. This is the ideology that supports rape. This is the essence of being branded a slut. I didn’t know whether to weep or pick up a blunt instrument. I still don’t.
I think it is situations like this one, which most of us have either lived or witnessed, that are driving what is a largely reactive discourse about SlutWalk. So few of us are being open about our own realities about sexual autonomy and rape. These experiences are so easily co-opted by the cultural domination of sexuality by objectification and violence, that emerging conversations about women’s sexual expression are often taken on by women like Lydia Lunch or Germaine Greer, who are willing to bear being vilified and misunderstood in order to voice a complex and paradoxical view of sex. Authentic sexuality involves a deep connection to self and an opening to the other. By its very nature it is unmarketable and cannot be labelled.
So taking back a negative label is never as powerful as finding one that fits better. While it’s true that many women have trouble with the idea of reclaiming the word "slut" because they aren’t comfortable with so-called sexual promiscuity, it’s also true that slut is an incredibly limiting label — even if we can take the sting out of it. And there’s only so much that tiny hotpants can say. Both the word and the associated clothing and behaviour are shorthand messages in an arena where what most of us really want is a novel of possibilities.
And more importantly, we want an end to rape and an end to any discussion of rape that falsely connects it with sexual attraction rather than hatred and domination. What we may need instead, are new words for rape. Rather than seeing SlutWalk as a definitive response to sexual violence, maybe we can see it as the beginning of a new kind of discussion about women’s ownership of their sexuality and a rejection of responsibility for sexual assault. It is just the awkward beginning of a conversation we’ve been too careful to have.
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