Tuesday, April 5, 2011

SlutWalks and Discussion

One thing that can be said about the Toronto and London “Slutwalks,” whether you agree with the name or not, is that they have (for the most part) encouraged constructive and critical dialogue about victim-blaming and rape culture. The term “slut” in these important activist marches, however, has also divided the feminist organizations that seek to do essentially the same thing – end patriarchy and, with this, women abuse. While I intend to address this division and the importance of alliances in a future post, for the moment I wish to address this word.

I also wish to begin by stating I support the goals to end rape culture and victim-blaming/shaming. I support my friends who are participating in these walks but I also support my friends who have concerns with this.

Taken from the Toronto Slutwalk website:

"Historically, the term ‘slut’ has carried a predominantly negative connotation. Aimed at those who are sexually promiscuous, be it for work or pleasure, it has primarily been women who have suffered under the burden of this label. And whether dished out as a serious indictment of one’s character or merely as a flippant insult, the intent behind the word is always to wound, so we’re taking it back. “Slut” is being re-appropriated."

The use of this term was also taken from the Toronto police officer telling women to not “dress like sluts” if they wish to avoid being raped. One of the many slogans being thrown around with these marches is the idea of changing the culture from one that teaches women “how not to get raped,” to one that tells men “not to rape.” By telling women not to act or dress like sluts, the police officer and even those people with the best intentions who care for their female friends are buying into this idea that the victim somehow asks to be raped. It places the responsibility in the woman’s hands rather than the person who actually rapes her – as if he could not control himself because of how she was dressed. Inquiring into a woman’s sexual history in a court case also perpetuates this idea. I have been part of and also witnessed some great discussions about this issue in response to these walks.

What about the word though? Can the word “slut” actually be re-appropriated? Does a word currently exist that is sex-positive for women who actually enjoy sex? Part of the issue is gendered assumptions about sex. It is assumed by many (and replayed throughout popular television series) that women do not enjoy sex, whereas men always want sex. This is why women are told not to dress like “sluts” because it is assumed that men already want sex, so that very little – such as a short skirt – is enough to encourage rape. To be a “man” carries the assumption that you enjoy sex and always want it. To be a “woman,” however, means to hate sex or not care much for it. This is why there are terms like “slut” or “whore” used to describe women who do have sex. Women have even been pathologized for enjoying sex, and were (and sometimes still are) labeled nymphomanias. These assumptions are harmful to both men and women. This is clearly harmful to women, and to men this is insulting. To assume that a man cannot stop himself from raping a woman dressed "like a slut" is more than slightly problematic.

I am not sure the word “slut” can actually be re-appropriated but I do understand why this is the word that has been currently taken up by activists. As I mentioned, there has been some important discussions that have sprung out of these walks and I hope that this is seen as participating in the discussion, rather than an attempt to find a final conclusion. I also recognize that words such as “manwhore” and even “slut” are applied to men at times, but I have a tough time seeing them as carrying the same negative connotations as when they are applied to women. Does anyone else have anything to add to this conversation? Is there a sex-positive word for women who enjoy sex? Would there be a way to re-appropriate the term “woman” in a sense that recognizes that women can also enjoy sex?