9 May 2011

The problem with calling it Slutwalk is....

...not that people are mobilising and getting angry in response to gross misogyny from a Toronto police officer...

...not that any genuine feminist actually believes there is such thing as a slut, or that any woman deserves to be labelled one...

...not that it's a depressing reminder that the need to march for women's right not to be raped still exists, 40 years on from Reclaim The Night Marches...

but simply this:

People Won't Get It.

Not only will they not 'get' the irony and anger contained within the message that, whether you dress like a 'slut' or an Amish schoolteacher, rape is always solely the rapist's fault, but they will actually be provided with more ammunition to criticise women's behaviour and lay the blame for rape at women's feet. See comments from the Facebook page for Slutwalk London for further proof:

A male commentator wonderfully misses the point by asserting - "A protest movement sparked by a Canadian police officer's advice to women to "avoid dressing like sluts" is coming to England.
And yet there's a woman holding a sign saying 'Slut Pride'. LOL!"

Another chap more sensitively ponders "Still don't really understand how dressing as "sluts" helps craft a safer society"

A charming troller wades in with the succinct "Shut up slut"- wonder how many hours it took to come up with that one?

And even a woman jumps in to defend the Toronto police officer with the assertion that "Just because they tell you not to dress provocatively, isn't blaming you for being raped. It's just not going to help matters really"

Although the above comments are all depressingly predictable in their ignorance and wilful missing of the point, the most telling one was probably by a potential attendee, who simply says, "I'm coming but I really don't like the name."

If even the people who are supporting your protest have misgivings about the way it is being deployed, I think that probably gives more pause for thought than the inane rantings of those who were doomed to deliberately misunderstand it in the first place. And therein lies the rub. Not only does the Slutwalk name present all manner of sexist idiots, misogynist trolls, and rape apologists with an open goal for continuing to make the "slut = deserving rape victim" connection, but it makes a great deal of sympathetic female supporters feel deeply uncomfortable about allying themselves with the terminology.

Isn't this the point though, one might ask, that the protest is as much about deconstructing the word, examining our use and perception of it, as it is getting through the message that "whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no"? I'm not so sure though. Having a dual aim to a protest which is going to run into trouble getting across the simplest message to a public which only deals in soundbites and journalese, seems to risk dangerously muddying the waters. I understand why 'Take Back The Night' may seem an outdated concept, when anyone who's done the slightest bit of reading knows that rape doesn't just take away women's autonomy at night, or even on the street, but in their homes, workplaces and social spaces. But when so many people still retain this idea that there's anything women can do to 'avoid' or 'reduce' an act that it is, by its own definition, forced and non-consensual, I think there is an argument for taking the marches and their messages back to basics. When educated, articulate people still believe that women need to execute "the sexual equivalent of locking your car, or not walking round a dangerous neighbourhood waving around £500 cash" to 'avoid rape', then I think protests and their messages have got to be as simple as possible.

This is where Slutwalk and its admirable aim just doesn't work for me. I know they're trying to reclaim a word that has been used to demoralise, debase and blame women for sexual violence. I know they're trying to get across the message that revealing clothing or its wearers' behaviour are never responsible for a man deciding to force his penis in to someone else's body without consent. But, there's just too much margin for confusion. Either we believe that there's no such thing as a slut, and that like words 'bitch', 'slag', 'whore', 'frigid', 'dyke' etc etc etc it's just another shorthand word for 'woman who does not behave as certain portions of society want her to'. Therefore we discard as just another unfortunate part of misogynist discourse. Or, we acknowledge the existence of the 'slutty woman' as a concept, but defend her right to be as promiscuous, revealingly clothed, and drunken as she wishes.

The problem is that society just isn't ready for either of these choices - the first because it is far too radical a mental leap for most people to make to realise that words are subjective, socially shaped, and ultimately meaningless without agreed participation, and thus decide to reject the concept of 'slut' altogether. And the second because we live in such a fucked-up, confused society that alternately treats women as nothing but their sexualised bodies, then punishes them if they appear to live into that description. As shown by the ignorant comments on the Facebook page, and even some of the more enlightened ones, the man or woman in the street aren't going to be enlightened about the power of the people to reshape language by seeing huge signs saying "Slut and proud". Like the first commentator, they are far more likely to misunderstand and mock.

The Slutwalk has an important motivation behind it - the need to show outrage in response to the horrendous comments made by a member of Canada's public services who is supposed to protect, rather than denigrate, the female members of his community. However, before its message can ever be truly appreciated, some mass re-education is required - otherwise our simplified, spoon-feeding media is just going to reduce it to being about the word 'Slut', and some pictures of scantily clad girls, and how is that any different from an average day in the British media?

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