Wednesday, 14 September 2011

My view on SlutWalk



The SlutWalk movement began in Canada in 2011 and has rapidly spread across the world, I think it is brilliant. Co-founders Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis started the campaign after Constable Michael Sanguinetti told students at a crime prevention seminar that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized".

The idea that women that dress in a particular way are "asking to be raped" is as old as the hills and it is disgusting, not only because it seeks to shift blame from the perpetrator to the victims of sexual assault but also because it relies on the attitude that all men are "potential rapists" who will attack if the victim acts or dresses provocatively enough.

Fighting back against the entrenched caveman mentality that allowed a Canadian high court judge to let a convicted rapist go free with the justification that he was just a "clumsy Don Juan" who had succumbed to "inviting circumstances" is a good thing but it is not the main reason I like the SlutWalk movement.

The main reason is that it SlutWalking is a bold assertion by ordinary women that female sexuality actually belongs to women. Men and the male dominated media have been allowed to control and commodify female sexuality for their own purposes, from male advertising executives who appeal to male audiences by draping images of scantily clad females all over the product they are endorsing, to the male dominated pornography industry and it's predominantly male audience.

The SlutWalk movement is an attempt to reclaim female sexuality through the appropriation of the word "slut", to mean "sexually empowered female" in the same way as the once derogatory word "queer" has been appropriated by the gay community to mean "homosexual and proud of it".

As a Quaker and an egalitarian, I'm a default feminist because I believe in equality of opportunity for everyone. I sometimes hesitate to use the word feminist to describe myself because I feel it has been misappropriated and tainted by a vocal minority of man-hating, female supremacists. It is almost impossible to hold a public discourse on gender politics without one or many of these sad "victim complex" sufferers monopolising the conversation with their shouty "all men are evil", "blame the patriarchy" rhetoric and completely undermining the causes of legitimate feminism.

For the purposes of clarity I'm going to refer to these shouty man-haters as "feminazis" and people who believe in gender equality as "feminists". However SlutWalk doesn't really fall into either category, SlutWalkers are not protesting because they hate men, neither are they protesting for full female equality, they are protesting on the specific subject of female sexual liberation, the right to look beautiful, sexy or even completely slutty without the implication that they are "asking to be raped".

SlutWalk has been heavily criticised by a number of "traditional feminists" but they should be seriously concerned that the baritone in their chorus of criticism is Rod Liddle (a man who described his ex-wife and the mother of two of his kids as a "total slut and slattern" and made vulgar Auschwitz jokes on the Millwall FC website) who compared women dressing provocatively to leaving a window open and your valuables on display when you pop out to buy a packet of cigarettes. The idea that being brutaly violated is in any way comparable to having your laptop nicked if you were silly enough to leave it on display is disproportionate at best and misogynistic at worst. Feminists should really think hard about whether they want to join in with people like Liddle and a host of rabid misogynists (see the comments beneath the Youtube vid at the top of the page) in putting the boot into a female empowerment movement.

For all of their gender politics terminology and lofty anti-patriarchy sentiments, I find it hard to see beyond my impression that these "academic feminists" are opposed to SlutWalk simply because they see it as direct competition. They don't want ordinary women to express views on rape and female sexuality in their own terms because it threatens the authority of feminist academia.

I think that this threat to academic feminism is a great thing. For far too long feminism has been the preserve of bookish academics and self-interested careerist businesswomen hoping to break into male dominated company boardrooms or political parties. So many high profile feminists are so badly out of touch with real women's issues that their pontifications on the subject belittle the whole concept of feminism. A classic example of out-of-touch feminism is former leader of the UK Labour party Harriet Harman, who was utterly preoccupied with things that wouldn't make a jot of difference to the vast majority of ordinary women, stuff like complaining about the glass-ceiling for high flying businesswomen and re-balancing the number of female MPs in Parliament using undemocratic measures like all-female shortlists. The vast majority of actually oppressed women wouldn't give a damn about whether a complete stranger was overlooked for a place on the board of directors at Acme Inc or worry over the percentage of highly paid politicians that have a penis, but like the rest of the Neo-Labour party, Harman was so surrounded with privilege that she began to believe that feminism would be best imposed from the top echelons of society downwards.

Feminists that actually care about the really important issues that effect millions of women around the world should be much more concerned with opposing religious organisations that attempt to restrict access to contraception or engage in child genital mutilation, demanding equal pay for equal work, helping to protect women from domestic violence and fighting to eradicate cavemen mentalities about what women should be allowed to do or wear.

One of the recurring criticisms of SlutWalk from traditional "academic feminists" and high profile politicians is that "slut" is such a pejorative term it should never be used by anyone. They claim that by using the word "slut", SlutWalk contributes to the "pornification" of everything, "puts pressure pressure on young girls to look like Barbie dolls" and according to the dreadful Tory MP Louise Mensch "lionises promiscuity".

I'd argue that SlutWalk does not do any of these things. SlutWalk is an attempt to take back ownership of female sexuality from the pornographers of the world. It doesn't pressurise anyone to dress sexy, it simply defends their right to dress as they like. If that means little girls can dress in the way that they enjoy without criticism, that's fine, and if feminists really care about little girls dressing like Barbies, perhaps Mattel Inc (the producers of Barbie) would be a more appropriate target for their criticism than a parallel feminist movement.

As for Mensch's "lionising promiscuity" complaint, this says a hell of a lot more about her inability to grasp the basics of the subject than it does about the number of sexual partners the average SlutWalker would deem appropriate. Even if the SlutWalk movement was about fighting for a woman's right to have as many sexual partners as she liked, Mensch would still be wrong, it would be better for everyone if puritanical Victorian moralists like Mensch who deem the private sexual preferences of others to be "harmful" would just keep their outdated opinions to themselves.

I think that feminists that are considering public criticism of SlutWalk should carefully consider what it is that SlutWalkers are actually protesting about. To me it is the concept of "rapeability", the idea that a woman should consider how "rapeable" she looks before she goes out of the house. Surely any objection to the use of the word "slut" or concerns that the SlutWalker hasn't properly understood "feminism" should be secondary to the protest against the normalisation of the concept of "rapeability", based on the scaremongering, absolute worst case scenario assumption that all men are potential rapists.

It is easy to see how the primitive "women are asking for it" mentality is harmful to women, but it is also harmful to men. It assumes that we are all rapists at heart, and that sexual assault is something that can be mitigated by "provocation". The majority of men are quite capable of restraining their sexual desires and behaving in an appropriate manner most of the time. It doesn't matter how scantly clad a woman is, or how beautiful he finds her body, the normal bloke doesn't consider rape as a viable option. Tarring all men with the crimes of a tiny minority of rapists is as wrong as binning the whole concept of feminism because of the witless shouting of a few man-hating "feminazis".

Many societies accept this bogus "men can't control themselves and are therefore potential rapists" reasoning as a truism about human nature. Some Islamic cultures end up forcing women to dress in oppressive clothing like the Burqa in case their hair, their lips, the curve of their shoulder or the shape of their legs "force" men that are not their husbands to sexually assault them. I'm much happier living in a free and liberal society where women can expose their breasts on the beach without fear that they are going to be gang raped by a hoard of sexual predators or lynched by a bunch of religious puritans. The advantages of topless sunbathing are numerous, women don't end up with silly strap lines on their skin, men on the beach learn to control their basic sexual urges and everyone gets to enjoy the beauty of the female body in a non-sexualised, non-pornographic environment.

Not only has the assumption that all men are "potential rapists" been the foundation of oppressive cultural practices it is also one of the principle weapons in the "feminazi" armoury. Just as the misogynist uses the word "slut" as a pejorative term to imply that the woman is asking to be raped, the misandrist uses the word "creep" to imply that the man is a potential rapist.

It is interesting to compare the fact that extremists at either end of the women's rights spectrum rely on this "potential rapist" fallacy to support their warped ideologies, with the fact that misogynistic male journalists and academic feminists have queued up alongside one another to give the SlutWalk movement a public kicking.


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