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SlutWalk tensions

SlutWalk has come and gone in Boston, but the larger movement surrounding SlutWalk continues to grow and move around the world. A lot of activists have shared a lot of thoughts on SlutWalk, both here and in other locations. Some really good critiques/rebuttals/general thoughts can be found here (second wave thoughts) and here (rebuttal) and here (critique of the racial politics at play in SlutWalk and here).

Harsha Walia's piece crossposted at Racialicious, in particular, helped me see some of the tensions organizing an event like SlutWalk. She writes:

"According to Nassim Elbardouh, a community organizer and Muslim woman who grew up in Saskatoon, 'Though I support the tremendous effort, I didn’t go to Slutwalk because rather than focusing on lack of consent in sexual assault, there seemed to be a message that I have heard since I was a young girl – that I am only a feminist under the White gaze if I dressed and behaved in certain exposing and forward ways. People need to realize that being ‘scantily clad’ is not the only patriarchal excuse that victimizes women (my emphasis). Sexual assaults against Muslim women are often minimized in our society because Muslim women are perceived as repressed, and therefore in need of sexual emancipation. I would much rather have attended a ‘Do Not Rape’ Walk.'"

We use the term 'slut' (culturally) as either cover, or a pretense; a 'go-ahead' to allow violence against women. Any woman who steps out of whatever narrow, ill-defined behavior she's supposed to know and respect can be branded a slut, and that gives a perpetrator the 'cover' he needs from the rest of the culture to get away with it (I think this type of cover is usually unique to men who perpetrators). No one believes a slut, or if they do, they don't care. Women can be branded sluts for virtually anything at all - the scantily clad white woman is one standard, but women can be branded as sluts for having casual sex, for not having casual sex, for being near boys, not being near boys, for being conventionally attractive, for having breasts.

When I talk about cover, what I really mean is socially justifiable pretense - a pretense that we all know is a pretense, but we let it slide all the same. It's the type of pretense we use when going through the motions. It's a formality at best, but a formality with power. To give a more limited, similar example: a state agency decides to hire for a new position. The directors of human resources know, and everyone else knows, that they are going to hire someone from inside the agency already; however, they are required by a law to post the position somewhere public. They put the job up on USAjobs for a hot second, get a bunch of resumes they never look inspect, and hire their inside candidate. No one would argue that this agency posted the job in a true effort to find a qualified employee; it was a 'cover your ass' move to protect the agency from some sort of outside, aggrieved party. The term slut functions as a similar sort of pretense: the parties directly involved (the survivor and the perpetrator) know that it was the perpetrator who committed the crime, but the perpetrator gets the benefit of being able to use the word 'slut' to convince other people - outside parties - that his actions were, if not justified, at least not that bad. Remember, if a woman is a 'slut,' it must mean she did something wrong, and probably deserves some kind of punishment.

So far, I've got no beef with SlutWalk's mission - depowering this word is a good thing. Calling out social hypocrisy is a good thing. Exposing social pretenses and making accountable perpetrators for their actions is also a good, good thing. There is a tension, though, between white activists and activists of color here, and I think it's one of focus and perspective.

Both sets of activists agree that violence against women is a bad, bad thing and needs to stop. The white activists, though, see the slut label pretense and want to smash through it by charging directly at it. Once we expose how much of a pretense the word slut is, maybe we can start to erode the social cover that rapists get for invoking it. Destroy the power of the word slut, destroy the ability of the culture to label women as 'OK to rape,' and rape will stop (or at least decrease). One of the ways of doing that is running directly AT the label, to make it look as ridiculous as a term as possible, and to destroy anyone's ability to reasonably use it to defend indefensible conduct. Hence, SlutWalk - an opportunity to put in a very visible, very physical form the idea that we can label anyone as a slut, and how ridiculous that is. De-power the word, or at least make it clear that we all know that it's a pretense, and maybe we can start to hit the actual cover rapists get for their actions.

The activists of color, though, (if I'm understanding things correctly) are responding with the historically correct assertion that, for women of color, society has never needed a pretense to do violence against them. If slut is a word we use to paint a target on white women to open them up to violence, just BEING a woman of color is also to be a target. Even if the word slut disappeared tomorrow, it wouldn't change a whole lot of the violence that women of color experience. No one believes a slut, but no one believes a black woman, either.

Activists of color are already walking a tightrope when it comes to fighting for sexual freedom and protection from assault. Damaging and very-alive stereotypes of women of color as exotic, over-sexed, and animalistic still control much of the media representation of women in those communities. It's telling that the coverage of SlutWalk, even the positive coverage, tends to have a lot of pictures of the conventionally attractive, young, female attendees who have interesting, but not particularly jarring tattoos, piercings, and hair color. I've yet to see a lot of coverage of the Boston SlutWalk that includes photos of the large gender non-conforming folks, of women in normal everyday jeans and t-shirts, or of any of the men (myself included). SlutWalk, if staged by activists of color, would not have received the type of media coverage it did. There's already a media narrative for women of color who proclaim their sexuality loudly and defiantly (trigger warning - this page describes some RACIST memorabilia - Even if they screamed at the top of their lungs that a women-of-color fronted SlutWalk was about ridding the world of sexual assault and exposing the ridiculousness of the term slut, the world would probably not have listened. It wouldn't, after all, be the first time the media ignored women of color.

And that's the second point of tension here. The media and the cultural at large has actually paid some attention to the various SlutWalks around the country. There's a very real danger that the only reason the media is doing so is because they know they'll get some good shots of taut, white female bodies. When Aura Blogando writes, "If SlutWalk has proven anything, it is that liberal white women are perfectly comfortable parading their privilege, absorbing every speck of airtime celebrating their audacity, and ignoring women of color," (emphasis mine) I think the point is a powerful one, even if I think it's also a bit misdirected. I don't think it's the organizers of SlutWalks themselves who are attempting to silence women of color - I think it's a much larger narrative that gives more weight to white words than everyone else's.

I think on balance that SlutWalk was a good thing, especially in Boston, but I also think there needs to be a back-end response or follow-up to really make the SlutWalk more than a one-time deal. Challenging the power of the word slut is one aspects in the fight against violence against women, but it's not the only one. Knowing that, for many women of color, slut is one of a million social justifications our racist, sexist society provides for hurting them might encourage the SlutWalk organizers to reach out more, to take the soap box they've just been given by nature of the media coverage SlutWalk has gotten, and give it to activists of color to explain to the world the violence their communities face. That sharing and organizing needs to be done at the same time as media reform work, so that activists of color no longer are ignored.

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Posted by Dave

Dave has volunteered with BARCC since 2007 and works in higher education administration. He also facilitates a men's pro-feminist group, is a STARZ member of Socializing for Justice, a Yelp Elite '10 member, and sits on the advisory council of the Boston Medical Center's domestic violence prevention board. He got involved with BARCC to further his understanding of feminism and gender justice, and also to get the chance to show his speaking skills far and wide. He lives in Allston, where the music is.


  1. I supposed to you that SlutWalk was a good thing and I really appreciate it. Whatever you posted here about this issue with other I like it. Thanks mate :)

  2. Thank you for so eloquently conveying what's really behind this discussion. I think the conversation about this issue thus far has been confused and damaging to many people involved, so it's more than refreshing to see it finally laid out in a sensible manner.

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