Entries in sexuality (1)

Monday
May092011

Oh When the Sluts / Come Marching In

In Boston last weekend, this happened.  And I was there.

The Boston SlutWalk was a response to the Toronto SlutWalk, which in turn was a response to a member of the Toronto police, who at a workshop on security York University college said “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”.

People found that annoying for several obvious reasons:

  1. “Like sluts” is a surprisingly fickle term, and that bit of advice reduces rather easily to a claim that women should be inconspicuous or else.
  2. It’s stated in a way that’s overly simplistic: In fact, that advice would only apply to a small minority of rape or sexual assault cases (and even in the cases where it does apply, one wonders if there’s something self-fulfilling about law enforcement officers making statements like that, in terms of undermining legal deterrents).
  3. That sort of advice pushes focus away from solutions that discourage perpetrators in absolute terms (non-zero-sum solutions that make life harder for perpetrators if followed by anyone, instead of just making one person a less-obvious target as compared to someone else).
  4. Such advice is particularly troubling in the context of a crime where perpetrators do escape justice based on victim-blaming judges and juries, and particularly troubling coming-from law enforcement.

As always with such decentralized activism, the message of the march was a little incoherent.  However, the speech given by Jaclyn Friedman at the end of the march was an amazing and coherent piece of rhetoric, and you should read it here.  The key bit:

[…] make no mistake about it: we can be called sluts for nearly any reason at all. If we’re dancing. If we’re drinking. If we have ever in our lives enjoyed sex. If our clothes aren’t made of burlap. If we’re women of color, we’re assumed to be sluts before we do a single thing because we’re “exotic.” If we’re fat or disabled or otherwise considered undesirable, we’re assumed to be sluts who’ll fuck anyone who’ll deign to want us. If we’re queer boys or trans women, we’re called sluts in order to punish us for not fearing the feminine. If we’re queer women, especially femme ones, we’re called sluts because we’re obviously “up for anything,” as opposed to actually attracted to actual women. If we’re poor, we’re gold diggers who’ll use sex to get ahead. And god forbid we accuse someone of raping us – that’s the fast track to sluthood for sure, because it’s much easier to tell us what we did wrong to make someone to commit a felony violent crime against us than it is to deal with the actual felon.

There’s a word for all of this. And that word is bullshit. But there’s also a phrase for it: social license to operate. What that means is this: we know that a huge majority of rapes are perpetrated by a small minority of guys who do it again and again. You know why they’re able to rape an average of 6 times each? Because they have social license to operate. In other words: because we let them. Because as a society, we say “oh well, what did she expect would happen if she went back to his room? What did she expect would happen walking around by herself in that neighborhood? What did she expect would happen dressed like a slut?” [emphasis mine]

In other words, the question is what happens in the minds of bystanders, when they’re looking for a rationalization for not intervening in an ambiguous or sketchy situation?  What happens in the minds of jurors, when they’re looking for a reason not to convict?  Those may well be the same essentially-random people who see or hear about such “awareness-raising” activism.

Feminist blogger Hugo Schwyzer discusses the SlutWalk here and argues with some detractors who frame it as an effort to reclaim the word ‘slut’, and he makes an interesting point:

In their op-ed SlutWalk is Not Sexual Liberation, Dines and Murphy assert that

… the focus on “reclaiming” the word slut fails to address the real issue. The term slut is so deeply rooted in the patriarchal “madonna/whore” view of women’s sexuality that it is beyond redemption. The word is so saturated with the ideology that female sexual energy deserves punishment that trying to change its meaning is a waste of precious feminist resources.

[…]

What Dines and Murphy share with the Toronto cop is a sense that women are fools for demanding a level sexual playing field with men. Like so many of my colleagues on the “anti-porn” wing of feminism, Dines and Murphy tend to mistrust (or ignore) young women’s efforts to pursue pleasure. Their concerns about premature sexualization are legitimate, and I share them. But I think they seriously underestimate young women’s potential to negotiate their way from unwanted sexualization to healthy, empowered sexual agency. That kind of journey can’t take place alone, of course. And that’s part of what the SlutWalk movement is about: creating a safe space for women to come together in public defiance of those who would define their sexuality for them. [his emphasis removed, mine added]

I agree with Schwyzer.  Though I’d say that last bit doesn’t just apply to women.