Aug 01 2011

SlutWalk, Take Back The Night and Evolution’s Future Sluts


Some people will bristle when I say SlutWalk represents a significant tipping point in cultural evolution. Yes: I think scantily clad girls marching in the streets around the world are agents of change for our species. Maybe that’s why its critics are panicking and handwringing as if Invaders From Mars have come out of a time machine from the future in heels and hose, reminding everyone that their face is up here.

SlutWalk is a protest event that had an international identity within a few months. SlutWalk started in April 2011, and has now become an organized phenomenon of rallies (satellites) around the world, including Canada, the United States, Australia, Argentina, the UK, Sweden, Germany, Mexico, Hong Kong and many more countries. In any given SlutWalk, women of all identities and orientations march for the right to dress as they like while having their boundaries respected.

The first SlutWalk was sparked when Constable Michael Sanguinetti, a Toronto Police officer, publicly suggested that to remain safe, “women should avoid dressing like sluts.” To which several women of Toronto replied with a very organized fuck you in the form of a physical take-to-the-streets protest.

“SlutWalk started because a few people were angry at the status quo, we were angry at the Toronto Police, because we were too tired of seeing sexual assault overlooked by many, because we demand better for the survivors of sexual assault, for those damaged by blaming and shaming language, and for the respect that everyone deserves and should be given.”

To SlutWalk’s detractors — almost all of which are exclusively female and feminist-identified — the SlutWalk rallies are doing more harm to women and society than good. In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, one self-identified traditional feminist declared “Ladies, We Have A Problem” and bracketed the sentiment with a URL string that reads “clumsy-young-feminists.html.” Ouch.

In the op-ed, author Rebecca Traister claims that she “wanted to love SlutWalks.” Except that, she explained, women protesting in demand of sexual safety being scantily clad while doing so was simply “confusing,” and dressing slutty made them look as if, well, as if they were asking for it. She also presumes that all women in SlutWalks dress like sluts. (They don’t.)

To Traister and many other women that have come out against SlutWalks, the participants came off more like girls-gone-wild at Halloween than women who should be taken seriously about sexual safety.

Like fellow feminist SlutWalk critic (and noted UK anti-porn activist) Gail Dines, Traister’s brand of feminism was stated as at minimum two decades old — and in my opinion, badly in need of a software update. Along with other critics, these two ladycritics opine that the sexual flashiness in SlutWalks are a kind of capitulation that make the participants vulnerable to attacks of all kinds. These older, serious-faced feminists write SlutWalk off as an amateur act of attention getting. Dine has made it clear that in her academic opinion, SlutWalk is harmful

It’s one thing to call the critics dated, but I’ll posit as fact that anyone saying SlutWalkers are out for attention and harming women in the process, absolutely does not understand SlutWalk.

Basically, they don’t get it.

As with Constable Sanguinetti, they’re guilty of slut-shaming and slut-blaming. In essence, SlutWalk was organized to make a statement about female sexual agency, and what happens when you take it away by telling us that sexualizing our already-sexualized-by-culture bodies is our tacit display of telling the world we desire nonconsensual sexual violence.

It’s a mindfuck to wade into that mess, meaning the whole “asking for it” ideology. Being a target is being female, no matter what we wear. And slut-shaming, a relatively new name for an old concept, is the acceptable way of shaming a woman for exploring, owning and expressing her sexuality in whatever way she sees best, most enjoyable, or even most empowering.

Same goes for slut-blaming. Methinks the ladies (and constables) are confusing sluts with victims. I don’t know about you, but I hear a lot of “good girls don’t like sex… too much” in all this anti-SlutWalk hyperbole. For SlutWalkers, sexuality —especially as expressed in ultra-feminine iconography — does not equal violence, victimhood or exploitation. Dressing sexually or behaving “slutty” does not mean a woman is automatically a victim, or just a victim-to-be, a sort-of victim-in-waiting — which sounds a lot to me like 1950s stereotypes where single women are labeled “pre-marriage.’

In fact, most of the people loudly and proudly proclaiming sluthood as powerful see Old Feminism as exactly that: sexual shaming and repression.

But most old-guard feminists that have spoken out against SlutWalks categorize the women in them as young and foolish, with the critics feeling it’s their duty to publicly tell the global movement how wrong they are. Clearly, they know better.

There’s nothing more conspicuous than someone telling a woman what she should and should not do with her body. And of this, today’s outspoken Old Guard feminists are also guilty. Of course they’re coming up against women that are not as clumsy, young and foolish as they think. SlutWalkers know very well that this very act of talking proscriptively about women’s bodies is just as sexist a thing to do as the guy who feels it’s his duty and right to tell us we have “nice tits.”

Perhaps it’s because — to Old Guard feminists — the consequences of “being a slut” are a direct result of women “acting like sluts.”

The mistake being made is in thinking that SlutWalks are the new Take Back The Night. Sorry, sister. There’s a big difference, and it’s all in the… pornography.

Historically speaking, Take Back The Night was a protest similar to SlutWalks in that it was an angry assembly of women that demanded to be heard on issues of female sexual safety and personal agency. The first of such nighttime marches was in direct response to an act of violence in Philadelphia, 1975, where a woman was murdered. An awareness shift was needed: women were compelled to confront Philly’s neighborhoods about issues surrounding the safety of women in their communities. So they took to the streets and marched.

The marches were reproduced around the world as international interest grew (in first world countries, exclusively). Take Back The Night notably responded to instances where women were murdered and had been attacked in daylight, and Take Back The Night participants insisted that communities take action to make women in the communities safer. After a string of murders in the UK not long after the Philadelphia incident, British police had told women to stay indoors at night for their safety. It was not only impossible, but also unacceptable, and the first UK Take Back The Night took place.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Take Back The Night returned to the United States, but with an ideological sea change. The rally in San Francisco specifically focused itself as an anti-pornography demonstration, and equated pornography with violence against women. They marched in a district where sex workers lived and worked, confronting the workers and directing anger at porn theaters.

The then-new Take Back The Night feminist characterized every woman involved in pornography or sex work as a victim that required saving, and of course, needed education about her condition. This mission and viewpoint was a cornerstone of 1970s-‘80s feminism. It was when feminism and female anti-rape culture became defined as anti-porn culture. And in its sister’s hand was the gift of a new kind of slut-shaming.

Over the past 30 years, Take Back The Night has become a franchise. While it has distanced itself from outright anti-porn slut-shaming, it still has a strong anti-porn stance and the message hard-wired in its DNA.

SlutWalks, it should be noted, openly incorporates sex workers and women that perform in pornography as women equally deserving of respect, rather than victims in need of saving.

So it makes perfect sense that today’s feminists of a certain era are none too pleased with SlutWalks, and the SlutWalkers are acting like the Honey Badgers of feminism (they don’t give a shit). The Toronto police officer has long since apologized, and SlutWalks are happening in most major cities, including San Francisco.

But I’ll re-iterate that those saying that SlutWalkers harm women are missing the point entirely. Traister, like SlutWalk’s anti-porn Take Back The Night foremothers, infantilize “sluts” as women who are not making their own choices, but instead claim they are making choices dictated exclusively by the pressures of men. It’s a classic circular argument that places the responsibility for men who behave reprehensibly on the shoulders of women who self-identify as  — or would be labeled as — sluts.

Perhaps what critics like Traister don’t realize is that they’re in danger of being the token female being trotted out to stage an op-ed catfight for the frat boys — thus keeping us all about ten feet below equality’s glass ceiling. The old brand of feminism, or however you like to label it, is at least 30 years old now, and comes from an era when women could not be smart and sexy at the same time. She is stuck in a time when women that didn’t have a certain kind of sexuality were rubber stamped as victims, or about-to-be-victims. And by denying a woman’s right to be a slut, and most especially a safe slut, she’s still safeguarding the male privilege that got us all here in the first place.

And, yes: part of SlutWalk’s goal is also to redeem the word “slut.” Like other Old Guard feminists that have attacked SlutWalk for being “slutty” Traister didn’t bother to ask why they want to redeem the word (and the perception) of sluts.

What’s strange is that I didn’t intend this to be an article about feminism, and I don’t identify as a feminist. I don’t want to be confused with women like Traister and especially not Dines. It’s been energizing for me to watch SlutWalks blossom not just because I’m tired of women talking about porn and sex work without allowing the women who do these things to speak for themselves. It’s also because I’ve been in many environments where women are supposed to dress dowdy and avoid dressing sexy because it is too challenging.

To those that accuse women who dress sexy — or slutty — of being harmful, I full well demand that I be able to dress sexy and be taken seriously at the same time — whether I’m in the boardroom and sharing my ideas or on the street and maintaining my boundaries. Just because a woman is dressed in a way that is sexually inviting, it does not mean that you don’t have to listen to her.

I love SlutWalk’s high-heel feminists. They’re the true punks of feminism, the disruptors. They’re the ones with the brass ovaries enough to dress like sluts and tell the world to STFU about what they should, or shouldn’t do, with their sexiness. I also love that SlutWalks embrace sluts of all genders and identities. Critics need to stick that little nugget of queer, non-binary thinking from the future in their old feminist crack pipes and try to smoke it.

Mind you, not all SlutWalkers wear high heels, or even want to, but that’s part of the point. In fact, SlutWalk encourages women to wear their regular clothes – though fittingly, participants are wearing whatever they choose. A significant number of them are choosing to represent themselves as loud, proud sluts.

You see, SlutWalk is many things to many people.

SlutWalk represents a huge consciousness shift. In the historical context of Take Back The Night and the recent resurgence of old feminism’s new anti-porn crusades, SlutWalks are actually not just a trend. SlutWalks are a leap in cultural evolution. Detractors suggest that SlutWalk is simply a meme, replicating itself, while the fact remains that SlutWalks actually support a fundamental change in sexual evolutionary thinking that was already in place.

SlutWalk is a huge reclamation and restatement about boundaries and women’s bodies. Sex workers are broadcasting the message that just because the nature of the work is sex does not mean that their bodies are automatically available for anyone’s public debate, or worse. At the same time, all of the women in SlutWalks represent the idea that women can dress provocatively — and men still need to understand where the boundaries are.

And some of us are going to wear whatever we want to our own revolution — and our evolution — thank you very much.