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The Science of “Slut”

If you’re a fellow feminist then you’ve surely heard of Slutwalk, an organized march first held in Toronto after a local policeman told local university students not to dress like a slut to avoid being sexually assaulted. This view is hardly new, but the reaction to it was: women – and men – taking to the streets under the banner of the word that defines all that’s wrong with society’s attitude to female sexuality. The idea has since spread across the world, and came to Australia in force this month, with marches scheduled in most capital cities.

I’ve been thinking about it constantly since I heard about it, and like many people have had initial enthusiasm tempered by deeper consideration of the issues involved – something acknowledged by Slutwalk’s Canadian founders. We live in the 21st century and instant, wide-reaching communications makes organising an event like this a much simpler affair than it would have been even a decade ago; recruiting people to march for a cause can be easy, especially when you tap into genuine anger about an injustice. I support Slutwalk’s essential messages: women dressing provocatively do not share any blame for being raped, and no woman deserved to be shamed for expressing her sexuality. But there’s a lot more to unpack, and as the days have stretched between announcement and event – it’s on in Melbourne this weekend, May 28 – I’ve been reading a lot of critical discussions of it. Here I try to unpack my thoughts, and I welcome yours in return.

One quick note: some people have tried to distance Slutwalk from feminism. I’ve no idea why, aside from the stigma still attached to the word. But why specifically distance yourself? Push the message, and when people ask “is this feminism?”, give the honest answer: it’s a feminism. The issues at stake are certainly feminist ones.

“Slut” has a whole bunch of meanings, but all of them are negative. Had sex with lots of men? You’re a slut. Had sex with one man, but not another? You’re a slut. Dress sexily, but don’t want to have sex at all? You’re a slut. More than that, though, it’s used as a general pejorative term for any woman – and most women, regardless of their dress or behaviour, have been called a slut some time – as evidenced by the collection of stories quickly amassed by Clementine Ford for an article she wrote about the Slutwalk. But some participants say they want to “reclaim” the word slut, for themselves – and will dress “like sluts” to do so.

So what are the self-proclaimed “sluts” trying to reclaim? Is this another instance of “raunch culture” replacing truly progressive attitudes of female sexuality? I don’t think so, but then of what use is the word “slut” in a world where female sexuality is not separated or dictated by our culture? If there is no pressure from media imagery to be a cliched, porn-derived version of sexy, no accompanying shame and disapproval of women who dare to enjoy sex, no constant comparison of the sexuality of men and women, then who needs the word slut? The whole point is that we shouldn’t judge anyone – I’m being inclusive here, but of course it’s nearly always women who are so judged – by the number of sexual partners they have or haven’t had, by how often they do or don’t have sex, by how they dress. Those so-called “moral” standards are imposed by “traditional values”, often religious in origin, about what constitutes “correct” behaviour. But they’re prescriptive, and usually based on a very outdated understanding of human sexuality. Maybe not having sex before marriage works for some people, but to apply that kind of standard to everyone, no matter their background, desires or situation, is absurd.

All the Slutwalk pictures you’re likely to see in the media will be of those who choose to wear revealing or traditionally sexual outfits, though I should mention that for Melbourne’s Slutwalk there’s no dress code; indeed, it’s a pretty bitter Winter here, so most people will probably be rugged up. There’s something to be said for bringing media attention to bear on an issue, even if it means using provocative language; Reclaim the Night, a similar annual event started ine 1970s, receives very little media attention these days. That might be as much to do with our 24 hour news cycle preferring new news to old news as it is with a “sexy” image, but there’s no denying it’s worked; Melanie Klein examines the strategy behind the name, and addresses criticism of Slutwalk – including her own – in her excellent piece in Ms. Magazine. She quotes several of the other articles I mention here, but importantly Jennifer L Pozner, from Women in Media and News, who considers Slutwalk an “effective media tool” and a “well-messaged media stunt”.

All Slutwalkers want to see an end to victim blaming, and to slut shaming, the practice attacking women for displaying their sexuality. And this has had a huge response – at least, say its detractors, among young privileged white people. (See Ernesto Aguilar at People of Colour Organise!) Participants want to defend their right to wear what they like without being made to feel ashamed, and to “be a slut” if they want, but they have incredible freedom already – including the privileged freedom to assume these values and ideas will be applicable to other cultures as well. Feminism must be inclusive – but I think that means we have to fight slut-shaming in first world Western society, and also female circumcision in Africa, sex trafficking in Asia, and all the injustices against women everywhere. Of course white women in Toronto will march for their own freedoms; I hope that doesn’t mean they don’t value or consider the freedoms of others. Hopefully, even though a movement starts with privilege, there’s no reason it can’t spread and grow to encompass diverse backgrounds and situations – or that it will suit every culture and society. Slutwalk clearly isn’t for everyone, and indeed not everyone marching for it feels the same about it, but hopefully we can agree on a unified message.

Another criticism is about the attitude to which Slutwalk is responding. There’s no denying that victim-blaming and slut-shaming are destructive behaviours; it’s a positive move to speak out publically against them. But it’s not just victim-blaming of which the Toronto policeman was guilty; he was also perpetuating a myth about sexual assault. If you really believe that “dressing like a slut” makes you a target for rape, then presumably you believe that rape is something that happens to women walking alone at night through dark alleys. That does, sadly, happen, but more than half the (reported) sexual assaults in Australia are perpetuated by people who know the victim: co-workers, family members, boyfriends and spouses. Kimberley Ramplin has a good coverage of the stats on her blog The Referral in part one of her critique of Slutwalk, “Not In My Name“. (Trigger warning: in part two she discusses her own experience of being raped by a family member.)

Ramplin contends that Slutwalk is complicit in perpetuating this stereotype, though my experience has been the opposite – it’s part of the refutation that slut-shaming has any basis in safety to say that the scenario imagined by shamers is a minority of rape cases. Hopefully some of the placards will reflect this, as well as the fact that a disproportionate number of sexual assault victims are very young – in more than 40% of reported assaults the victim was under 14. The proportion of sexual assault victims who are male – between 9 and 16%, depending on study and year – is small by comparison, but also evidence that slut-shaming and victim blaming – activities only ever directed at women – are not the solution to ending sexual violence.

There’s more, of course – much, much more. But I already feel nervous enough putting all these thoughts out there. I’m a feminist, sure, but I’m also a man, and while of course men can be – must be – feminists, it’s an area which more than any other makes me question the value of my voice – which is, after all, yet another one that’s middle class, white, young and male. If it matters to you, I’m primarily influenced in theory by bell hooks, though I need to read much more widely; in practice I’m primarily influenced by the women in whose lives I’m fortunate enough to share.

Anyway, whether you’re marching in Slutwalk, violently opposed to it, or struggling to analyze what it means, I hope my thoughts have helped you with yours. I hope the discussion – about the word, about victim-blaming and slut shaming, about feminism and privilege and raunch culture and differences in feminist attitudes – continues long after the placards have been recycled into firelighters. And I hope you’ll share with me what you think.

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The Science of “Slut” by Ben McKenzie, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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