I was visiting friends a few weeks ago, and it turned out that I’d be there for the Manchester Slutwalk. They were going, with some other people, so I decided to join them.
(I even made a placard).
If you’ve had your feminist-news antennae switched on lately, you probably know what Slutwalk is (Wikipedia article here if you need to refresh your memory). It arose from an incident in Toronto in January 2011, when a police officer, talking to a group of university undergraduates about crime prevention, voiced his opinion that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”.
Some quality victim-blaming, there, and particularly outrageous coming from a representative of the police.
SlutWalk Toronto began in response to that statement – and, more broadly, to the phenomenon of holding people who are sexually assaulted or raped responsible for the crimes committed against them.
The first march happened in early April. Since then, the idea has spread rapidly, with Slutwalks taking place in dozens of cities worldwide (concentrated in the Global North, unsurprisingly).
In Which I Walk Sluttily
The Manchester Slutwalk took place on June 11th. I arrived at my friends’ house in the early evening, fresh off the ferry and train, and after something to eat I went upstairs to slip into something less comfortable. I’d brought a range of options with me, so I was able to calibrate my (socially perceived) slut-o-meter with that of my hostesses.
They had gone for the classy end of the spectrum, so I ended up wearing a white basque over a sheer white shirt and red trousers – almost ordinary, with just a hint of bedroom. Then of course it was too cold to take my coat off, which further chastened my look. Some of the less modest marchers must have been frozen, god love them.
I’m partial to a good protest march – and in the event, this was a very good one. The atmosphere was pleasant, there was a satisfying gender mix (though not so much with the racial mix – see below), and everything seemed good-natured and relaxed. Outfits ranged from completely unremarkable to somewhat edgy; I didn’t see anything that crossed my personal line into “shocking” or “extreme”. Placards were forthright, witty, moving, weird; chants were pithy and mature.
(OK, mostly mature. The one that went “Whose tits? My tits! Whose mouth? My mouth! Whose arse? MY ARSE!” got a bit giddy at times. All to the good, I felt.)
In our little group of marchers, the sign that got the most positive response was a plain A3 printout of the statement “Buffy wouldn’t stand for this shit”. Well, quite.
Some time in the second half of the march, I had an encounter that I could hardly have scripted better, so neatly did it illustrate the point of the exercise. We were walking past a large pub, and I was at the edge of the stream of marchers, when I was accosted by three very drunk young men.
“We’ve just heard!” slurred one, emphatically. “We’ve just heard what this is all about – it’s terrible, isn’t it – really terrible.” He reached out a pink hand and plucked my sign from my grasp. I got a faceful of beer breath. “‘S awful, we’ve got to protest!” (I paraphrase, but this was the gist.)
We walked along together for a few metres, until I realised that I was smiling and making vaguely welcoming noises, whereas in fact, I wanted my sign back now, thank you very much, and actually, what exactly did this person think he was doing, taking it out of my hand like that, without so much as a by-your-leave? Had I, as it were, consented? I thought not.
So I took it back again – without fuss – I think I may even have smiled and said “thank you” (fanatically reinforced cultural tropes die hard, as Fugitivus so eloquently elucidates) – and went back to my group, leaving the trio of sozzled youths to try their approach on someone else.
Way to miss the point, lads.
All in all, though, a highly enjoyable experience. Mind you, it was a very long walk! (I really felt for those who had opted for high heels.) Our group of seven people bailed just before the end of the route, being mere minutes from a good Indian restaurant, where we rested and feasted and laughed our way through the remainder of the evening.
In Which I Ponder the Politics
It won’t astonish you when I say that the Slutwalk phenomenon has generated controversy – among feminist/womanist-aligned commentators as well as among those faithful to the kyriarchy.
Before going to Manchester I did a small amount of reading around – no concerted research, just the links I happened to follow. I came away with three basic impressions:
1. The Slutwalk “movement”, as such, is rooted in privilege. White privilege, class privilege, global economic privilege: this started with college students in a rich country, and it bears the stamp of their experience.
My very ability to to identify myself as a “slut” or a “slut ally” safely, without unpleasant consequences, derives from my privilege. Slutwalk is irrelevant to vast numbers of women. I need hardly add that the scourge of rape culture falls disproportionately upon precisely those women who are not included in Slutwalk as it stands.
I urge you to read more about this issue, because it’s crucial to understanding the prevalence and reach of rape culture and the limitations of our attempts to address it.
Several women of color have written that the event is based in white culture, white problems, and white assumptions — for example, the idea that one can expect “safety” when dealing with law enforcement in the first place.
The history of genocide against Indigenous women, the enslavement of Black women, and the forced sterilization of poor women goes beyond their attire. It is a means of gender control that is embedded within the intersecting processes of racism and colonialism.
SlutWalk completely ignores the way institutional violence is leveled against women of color. The event highlights its origins from a privileged position of relative power, replete with an entitlement of assumed safety that women of color would never even dream of. We do not come from communities in which it feels at all harmless to call ourselves “sluts.” Aside from that, our skin color, not our style of dress, often signifies slut-hood to the white gaze.
2. Telling women how they should or shouldn’t dress is odious. This applies obviously to the Toronto cop’s statement in January, but also to the slant taken by several writers, which can be summarised as “he shouldn’t have said that, but a parade of provocatively dressed women just plays into the patriarchy’s hands”.
Marina S reminds us that it’s not that simple – for a start, the equation of “provocative” with “scant” is crudely Western-centric, and besides, as she says, “to put on display a body that deviates from the strict demands of the ideal is an extremely threatening act, because it re-appropriates the ownership of what is sexy from the mainstream to the individual”.
Women’s bodies and women’s dress are always under scrutiny and subject to judgement – we cannot escape that by trying to follow a particular set of rules, even those laid down by our own side.
3. I’m personally ambivalent about the notion of reclaiming “slut”. It’s a word laden with judgement: the basic meaning is an ineffective housekeeper, a woman who lets her husband’s or master’s property (including, by extension, her own body) get dirty. This further extends to sexual “dirtiness” – i.e. promiscuity – with connotations too icky to rehearse (Germaine Greer had an amusing summary in the Telegraph).
I wonder, with Greer, whether such an unmitigatedly pejorative term can be successfully reclaimed. I also feel uneasy, like Gail Dines writing in the Guardian, about how the whole thing meshes with the depressingly familiar false binary of Virgin/Whore: is there a way to say “I am a slut” without saying “I am buying into all that”?
And in the end, I marched anyway
I marched because I was visiting my friends that weekend, and it sounded like fun (it was, too). I marched because I like making noise on behalf of causes I believe in, and there hasn’t been enough opportunity for that in my life lately.
I marched because although Slutwalk must not be allowed to become a convenient stand-in for the complex fight to end rape culture, it is nevertheless an exercise that may raise the consciousness and prick the conscience of a useful number of (white and/or privileged) people.
I marched because although I’m not promiscuous these days, I was – very – when I was younger, and I in no way repudiate that part of myself.
I marched because I’ve been thinking recently about the times I’ve been raped, and how even if it had occurred to me then to go to the police, my sexual history would certainly have ensured that no case ever came to trial. I marched because it took me twelve years to realise that I was not, in fact, to blame for one incident in particular.
I marched because the idea that you’re entitled to judge me, on any level, based on how often, in what manner, or with whom I choose to have consensual sex – or to assert that my “No” means something different from anybody else’s – is as loathsome as it is ridiculous. I marched because I want to live in a world where such judgements are merely loathsome and ridiculous, as opposed to violent and dangerous, as they are now for millions of people.
Slutwalk isn’t the be-all and end-all, obviously. I work on the assumption that nothing is. But rape culture isn’t going to dismantle itself, and every little helps.