Why SlutWalk raises hackles – and hopes

Globe and Mail
By Judith Timson
May. 12, 2011

The SlutWalk phenomenon has made me grumpy and it’s made me think, and it’s made me face some uncomfortable contradictions in the way I view women’s lives.

For one thing, I hate the word – it’s demeaning and defeating and I don’t think it ought to be “reclaimed” the way “bitch” was, so it can eventually make its pop-cult way onto Hallmark greeting cards. Next thing you know it will be the “c” word.

But whatever you may think of SlutWalk (and part of the genius of its organizers has been figuring out that “slut” is a search-engine optimizer), one strongly positive thing has emerged from it: a new, energetic cohort of young and feisty feminists are on the move. They’ve used social media to mobilize in a hell of a hurry (the longest part was probably wondering what to wear). And they’ve figured out a way to be front and centre in the public conversation.

SlutWalk started, of course, with poor Michael Sanguinetti, the Toronto cop who now goes down in the annals of feminist history (“Daddy, tell me again how you ended up in the Ms. Magazine Hall of Shame?”) because he suggested that women could avoid being raped if they stopped “dressing like sluts.”

Faster than you could tweet “wearing this dress doesn’t mean yes,” a movement was born, with young women, some dressed in lace bustiers, tight skirts and fishnets, taking to the streets, first in Toronto, and now all over the United States and in the U.K., loudly protesting this blame-the-victim attitude.

Their stated goal – apart from having a whacking good time, which is also what street level activism is about – was to reclaim the word “slut” for themselves.

“Well hello, you beautiful sluts!” shouted one speaker, at the SlutWalk in Boston. She told the crowd that if you ask 10 people what the word slut means “you get 10 different definitions. Is a slut a girl who has sex too young? With too many partners? With too little commitment? Who enjoys herself too much?”

And then she concluded, “A slut is someone, usually a woman, who’s stepped outside of the very narrow lane that good girls are supposed to stay within. Sluts are loud. We’re messy. We don’t behave. In fact, the original definition of ‘slut’ meant ‘untidy woman.’ But since we live in a world that relies on women to be tidy in all ways, to be quiet and obedient and agreeable and available (but never aggressive), those of us who colour outside of the lines get called sluts. And that word is meant to keep us in line.”

Reading those words, I felt like I was in a time warp. They could have come from any feminist demonstration in the seventies. So it’s tempting for older feminists to either be patronizing (been there, done that) or dismissive, saying loftily the world is a different place now, we have so much more equality and power, so girls, put your minds to something more serious.

For instance, the latest statistics show that in Congo, four women are raped every five minutes. Something called SlutWalk is nothing but a cruel irony for those women.

And yet the real reason underlying Slut Walk couldn’t be more serious. Rape, as we are all supposed to know by now, but somehow still forget, is a crime of opportunity; it’s a crime of power. Disabled women are raped at an alarming rate, and not many of them were dressed in tight skirts when it happened.

After my mild irritation at the trivial nature of SlutWalk (as one commenter asked, “Is publicly calling yourself a slut and dressing provocatively really empowering?”), I brooded about how the movement was enmeshed in what has become the hypersexualization of all women, but especially young girls.

Any feminist mother of a teenage girl has at some point ruefully tossed her “free to be me” credentials in the trash can as she pleaded with her daughter to “cover up” and not leave the house looking like a hooker. And then waited anxiously for her to return safely.

So if we didn’t think dressing like that could put a young woman in a dangerous place, why did we beg them not to?

That is a contradiction I feel is not owned up to in the SlutWalk movement. Yes, women should be able to dress exactly how they please without becoming sexual targets. But dressing with your breasts cantilevered and hanging out has conveyed a sexual message for all of eternity.

The organizers of the Toronto SlutWalk have been thoughtful, open to dialogue, and masterful in getting the media attention they want – not to mention mobilizing women all over the map to take part.

Why is this good? As a friend of mine wrote to me, “It all ties in to the package of having some power over your destiny, and when the right to abortion starts to be eroded here, as it is in the U.S., they’ll have some practise taking on the establishment. The fights coming up will be harder, the stakes will be higher, but the seeds are sown in any kind of protest that says, ‘Hey, wait a minute, who are you to tell me what to do with my body?’”

So that is why SlutWalk thrills as well as chills me. At some point many more of us may need to join them on the streets. With or without our fishnets.