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Politics

Strutting the slut

The mob @ Tornoto SlutWalk -- Anton BielousovMost women have at one time in their lives being called a slut for the way they dress or for not conforming to some saintly code of conduct that applies only to women.

Dictionaries are filled with words used to insult women: whore, tart and tramp, for starters. But no word equals slut for its power to degrade and wound one half of the population. Interestingly, there’s no male equivalent of the word slut.

A quick glance at the history books shows that the slut-word has been part of patriarchal societies for centuries. The great patriarchal fear of women not knowing their place found expression in the word slattern, used to abuse women who didn’t keep a clean house, and later, slut, to describe women of loose morals.

Slut has been in popular usage ever since. Google ‘porn’ and see how often slut comes up in the title. The mass media love a slut, and, recently, policy changes to welfare payments for teenage mothers were underpinned by a subtext (or was that a dog-whistle), one where defenceless young women were portrayed as lazy, uneducated and of questionable morality.

So when I heard about SlutWalk – protests motivated by a policeman in Toronto who told schoolgirls not to dress like sluts if they didn’t want to be ‘victimised’ – I hopped on email and Facebook to spread the news. I was excited that women were taking on the slut-word and taking over the streets. I was also encouraged that a young generation of women were putting a more media-savvy spin on a feminism whose concerns have gone the way of Keynesian economics.

But as I was dragging out the fishnets and red lippy, I began to question if dressing in a way that reinforces the objectification of women would yet again mean that women were seen and not heard. Certainly, the titillation surrounding the slut-word, and pictures of women who look as if they’ve been auditioning for Victoria’s Secret, seem to have lost the campaign its most important message: men are responsible for sexual violence – women don’t ask for it and they don’t deserve it.

The belief that men are driven to rape or to assault women because of the way women look or dress is one of patriarchy’s most powerful and pervasive messages. Given that we are socialised within a patriarchy, it’s worth considering how much free will we exercise when we decide what we wear even when participating in a protest for women’s rights.

Rather than a challenge to capitalist culture, which has co-opted women to sell goods in the marketplace and perform unpaid labour, the sexual glam of SlutWalk risks reinforcing the commodification of women’s bodies. This sends the wrong message to young women (and men) already indoctrinated by hypersexualised images of women that are as much a celebration of capitalism as anything else.

SlutWalk, at this early stage, seems less politically motivated than campaigns such as Reclaim the Night (RTN), a global movement that began in the 70s, which also held (and still does) protests against sexual violence. RTN challenged the advice of male authority, arguing that men, not women, should stay home at night so women could feel safe on the streets after dark. A little more than a decade later, the sexually charged radical-punk movement Riotgrrrl gave birth to girl bands whose music addressed sexual violence and female self-determination (not to mention beergutboyrock), as well as being critical of capitalism. And then there was girl-power, but I won’t go there.

The sight of women taking control of the message and holding banners with slut written loud and proud is seductive; another reading is that women have accepted male terms rather than determine their own. And in spite of the rhetoric, is it really that easy to reclaim a word that for centuries has been used to hurt and humiliate women?

Instead of adopting or adapting the slut-word, SlutWalk might better use its popularity and energy to call for changes to a legal system that re-traumatises women when they report rape, and demand that perpetrators of sexual violence are made accountable by the courts. Maybe that way slut will come to mean a woman who stands up for herself.

I’ll still join SlutWalk, sans fishnets and red lipstick, because anything that attracts attention to sexual violence is worthwhile, and the more support we give this movement, the more likely it will be a growing force for change.

But if the most radical thing we can do is look hot and join men in branding ourselves sluts, capitalism and patriarchy will have notched up another victory on its bedpost.

Trish Bolton is a creative writing student. She has had a short story published in Visible Ink and is working on a novel inspired by her cross to the dark side when she worked as a political media adviser. Her writing - opinion pieces and articles - have appeared in a number of newspapers.

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Comments

  1. I guess it’s meant in the same way that African Americans have taken a derogatory term to refer to each other, I don’t think it works, I’ve heard white ids using that word as if it’s a joke. Leave the word for those severely lacking in choice of adjectives, that way they can be easily identified as the lowlife, inbred, sterile morons that we know them to be.

    The direct male equivalent to ‘slut’ would probably be ‘stud’, maybe this word can be dragged down from the reverence in which the aforementioned cretins hold it. For example, “I got the impression he’d be fun in the right places, turns out he was just a stud,” when saying this give the internationally recognisable little finger ‘small penis’ signal.

    Quite often I shy away from my gender stereotypes, usually when talk turns to football, and when I read Koraly’s lovely narrative http://koralydimitriadis.com/2011/05/01/how-to-get-a-fuck/

    (by some strange ‘Sparrow’esque’ intervention the second captcha word to post this comment is ‘respect’!)

    • Thanks for the comments, Mark.

      I always understood the word ‘stud’ to be something of a compliment and had no idea that it has come to signify something not worth signifying – very funny!

      I agree Koraly’s poem is amazing!

  2. Everyone seems to have a different opinion of Slutwalk, so I’ll offer mine. :) My take on it is that Slutwalk is about the right of women not to be blamed if they are raped, more than reclaiming the word “slut” or claiming the right to dress provocatively. The only person we should blame for rape is the rapist (I’m sure I’m preaching to the converted here).

    Yes, the word slut is a horrible, emotive one, but it was used by the policeman who sparked off the movement, so I don’t see why it can’t also be used by the movement itself.

    The issue of whether women dress provocatively to titillate prospective partners or to express their own sexuality is a thorny one and I simply don’t have the knowledge to tackle it. However, I certainly haven’t seen Slutwalk described in titillating terms (although perhaps I’m just looking in the wrong places…).

    As you say, those of us attending Slutwalk don’t have to pull out the fishnets and red lipstick. We can wear whatever we feel comfortable in – which, for me, is the whole point of the event.

    • Nice to hear your thoughts, Lizabelle.

      I’ve always hated the word, too, but I was surprised at the strong response to it by a few female friends in their forties who found the word terribly confronting for the pain it causes women.

      And of course, women can join the walk dressed in something snug – highly recommended for anyone living in Melbourne.

      • I’m sitting here watching the Golden Girls (yes indeed) and the word slut is certainly one they reclaimed. Maybe it didn’t have the same strong conotation in USA in the 80s.

        Good piece Trish and much cause for thought. And you are right. But the attraction of Slut Walk for me is the element of fun and a little more in your face. It’s a good counter balance to the serious issue.

        I can’t wait for the walk. Finally! A place I can wear my recently purchased fur (vintage of course).

        • Good to hear your thoughts, Stella.

          I think the sense of fun associated with this walk will speak to women who perhaps would not normally participate in protests.

          Your mention of Golden Girls reminded of a YouTube video I came across when writing this piece. If you were a fan of Roseanne you might enjoy this:Good to hear your thoughts, Stella.
          I think the sense of fun associated with this walk will speak to women who perhaps would not normally participate in protests.
          Your mention of Golden Girls reminded of a YouTube video I came across when writing this piece. If you were a fan of Roseanne you might enjoy this:Good to hear your thoughts, Stella.
          I think the sense of fun associated with this walk will speak to women who perhaps would not normally participate in protests.
          Your mention of Golden Girls reminded of a YouTube video I came across when writing this piece. If you were a fan of Roseanne you might enjoy this:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CeTjUhAxabM

          If I see someone wearing vintage fur I’ll come over and introduce myself.

          If I see someone wearing vintage fur I’ll come over and introduce myself.

          If I see someone wearing vintage fur I’ll come over and introduce myself.

          • Oops, not sure what happened with this post – I’ll try again:

            Good to hear your thoughts, Stella.

            I think the sense of fun associated with this walk will speak to women who perhaps would not normally participate in protests.

            Your mention of Golden Girls reminded of a YouTube video I came across when writing this piece. If you were a fan of Roseanne you might enjoy this:

            If I see someone wearing vintage fur I’ll come over and introduce myself.

  3. 1. The ‘schoolgirls’ in question were women at York University. The police reprimanded the officer for his error which was not in accordance with police policy and he has since apologised. That this is still going on seems to be more about entertainment than politics. I keep thinking of the old James Dean line: “What are you against” “What have you got?”

    2. The (rather small) collection of bands that came to be known as riotgrrrl were not the first to address sexual violence, female self-determination etc. They overtly acknowledged their punk and post-punk feminist heritage. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-h7Da4wJgZg http://youtu.be/ogypBUCb7DA

    3. PS Riotgrrrls got a lot of US media attention for reclaiming words like slut and reviving a kind of 70s punk aesthetic by writing slut on their bare midriffs. Which is adding to the very dated feeling of this whole internet slutwalk meme.

    • Thanks for bringing me up to speed on Riotgrrrls.

      It’s interesting that Riotgrrrls attempted to reclaim the slut-word without much ongoing success – tends to support the argument that it’s difficult to challenge and change meaning of a word that has had so much negative power.

  4. Hi all, great piece, Trish, and timely for me. Only an hour ago I was telling a member of my family that I didn’t want to get married again, having been seperated for one year now. Then that person said to me, ‘so you won’t have sex again?’. I said, ‘um, no, i will still have sex.’ and then they said, ‘well, you know what they call girls that don’t get married and have sex don’t you?’ (implying that i am a slut). and of course i have had comments when i wear short skirts, when I dress myself up to look sexy and why shouldn’t i? I just cannot BELIEVE we live in a world where when men want to explore they are studs and when women want to explore they are sluts. Especially in migrant cultures where women are raised to repress their sexuality – it just makes me furious, hence the poem on my website which has caused quite a stir within my culture, and I am serioulsy about to be outcast because I am a producing a new poetry chap book called ‘Love and fuck poems’. Christos Tsiolkas can write about sex but I can’t because I am a woman. I mean, just because I have seperated from my husband and want to live a free existance and write about it I am a slut that has gone insane according to the gossiping wogs! Coming out of the ‘wog bubble’ I just really pity all those women that never got to find out who they were as a person before they married and are so afraid or living a life other than the one dictated to them. It just makes me furious!

    • Koraly, you’ve really highlighted the double standards that exist for men and women and the courage needed for a woman to defy family and social expectation.

      I hope you keep on writing (I know you will) your poetry and challenging traditions that prevent women expressing who are they are and what they need. Young women, particularly in your community, will thank you for it!

  5. Perhaps ‘SlutWalk, at this early stage, seems less politically motivated than campaigns such as…’ is simply indicative of the times we live in. Why expect properly politically motivated actions at a time without any social articulation of politics? It seems totally appropriate that this is pre-political.

    And on counterposing riot grrl and Slutwalk: did you not listen to Bikini Kill … ‘suck my left one’ anyone?

    (the thing below made me type in ‘father’ to post this … weird.)

  6. Hi there

    Its great to see this conversation happening. My family are of Irish extraction and my parents were so worried that I would bring shame on the family that I wasnt allowed out after 9pm until I was 21 years old. I didnt really get out and party so to speak until I was 34 years old.

    The point is that it was my responsibility to keep shame from the family door and yet I didnt have the freedom to actually to anything that would bring shame (sigh. The issue is about judgement. There should be no judgement status attached to what a woman wears – many women use clothes to express a part of themselves, it should be about personal freedom – but not as showcased in some the media advertising around in current fashion magazines. I noted recently that they are still using the old madonna/whore image mandate for their advertising campaigns.

    Thank you for raising these issues and I think it is wonderful that you are writing ‘love and fuck poems’:):)

    Olga from http://revedoa@blogspot.com

  7. Nothing salient to add as still in perturbation on what I really think/feel about the #slutwalk phenomena … though I unequivocally support taking feminist protest to the streets.

    I love this post and comment thread :)

  8. Pingback: SlutWalk (Melbourne) OMGWTF | slackbastard

  9. In what ways do you believe our legal system re-traumatises women?

    As a sex offences prosecutor (Melbourne-based) I would be intruiged to hear your suggestions.

    Ongoing Witness Assistance Service support and Victims Charter compliancy, specially trained SOCIT police units, the capacity for victims (‘complainants’) to give their evidence via remote facility or with a screen precluding the accused from being within their view, prohibition on being cross-examined as to prior sexual history, the ability to read Victim Impact Statements aloud in court at plea hearings if they wish… the protections are numerous (and necessarily and justifiably so!).

    • Hello VS, thanks for raising this.

      I welcome the opportunity for women to give evidence against the perpetrator of rape from a distance as this avoids the enormously traumatic experience of again coming face-to-face with the rapist. It’s also entirely appropriate that a woman’s sexual history should not be up for grabs because a woman has alleged rape.

      However, there are many issues that still create trauma that need to be addressed. While my stats may be a little out of date, 2008 figures show that less that 3 per cent of sexual assaults resulted in a conviction.

      I would argue the reasons for this are many: an adversarial legal system that demeans women from the moment they report sexual violence; prohibitive legal costs; negotiating a complex, alienating and arguably unsympathetic and misogynist legal system as well as community attitudes that show a willingness to excuse rape and sexual assault and contribute to women being more harshly judged than male assailants who often cause physical as well as emotional damage.

      Much progress has been made in recent years but it has been a long time coming and much more needs to be done if women who have been sexually violated are to achieve real justice in the legal system.

      • Thanks Trish.

        Interesting to hear your views and I think they highlight some widespread perceptions of this topic.

        In response to the points you raise:
        The system is structured around not demeaning women who make complaints to police. SOCIT units function to provide female police officers to take statements if preferable and this process can be conducted over days or weeks if that will provide greater comfort. Most police units will also refer the complainant to a Center Against Sexual Assault for counselling and government funded support.
        The issue of costs is non-existent. Criminal complaints cost nothing. Literally. A complainant never pays a single dollar to anyone – the state brings criminal prosecutions against offenders, and it’s the state that pays.
        Accusations of misogyny in the system are also unwarranted. The Specialist Sex Offences Unit (in Victorian prosecutions) is comprised of 90% women. So too, are at least half the trial Judges female.
        And community attitudes… well, I think they’re (slowly) changing. I had a trial a few weeks ago in which a jury convicted a father of three of raping a prostitute. Hearing a verdict of ‘guilty’ where the victim had to openly tell the jury of her heroin use and sex work was immensely heartening as to the notion that the ‘she was wearing a short skirt so she was asking for it’ attitude is becoming somewhat archaic. It was a classic ‘he said/she said’ case and the jury (community) believed the ‘she said’ story more. And it’s an encouraging trend – of prosecutions in the last year, guilty outcomes have been obtained in over 70% of matters.

        Encouragement for women who don’t report their complaints to the police needs to be our focus. I fear that SlutWalk characterises itself as representing victimhood in its’ entirety. But it’s the women being raped in marriage, the girls being violated by trusted family members, and cognitively impaired victims – those not represented by the ‘slut-reclaiming’ agenda – that account for the majority of victims that do not report assaults.

        I think misconceptions of the legal system are widespread and that your perceptions echo those of many, but I fear that one of the perils of misrepresenting the justice system is that it scares off many of those who should be reporting crimes from actually doing so.

        • I know things are changing for women reporting sexual assault but if we think of sexual assault within the context of violence against women, I still maintain that there’s a way to go yet.

          I also don’t feel that because a unit is made up overwhelmingly of women that that is necessarily a protection against attitudes hostile to women – culture often the stronger determinant.

          I totally agree with your contention however that women are most often raped and assaulted by people from their own families – for many women their husbands and partners – or people known to them. I also agree that it is important that women are not dissuaded from reporting sexual violence whenever it occurs.

          We may disagree on some points but it’s terrific to think there are people such as you supporting women in their attempt to hold men who perpetrate sexual violence against women to account.

          An issues paper (albeit an edited version) I wrote addressing violence against women can be read here:
          http://whv.org.au/publications-resources/publications-resources-by-topic/post/women-and-violence-ip/

  10. Hey Trish, despite the seriousness of the topic, I love the comedy and guts with which women have said ‘up yours’ to the cop. You’re right, of course, in summary to talk of capitalism and patriarchy – the two seemed utterly fused and women’s sexuality the belittled loser. Great post.

  11. Very good to hear your thoughts, Finn.

    Yep, I love the spectacle, too! Women standing up in an in-your-face way for their sex and sexuality. But the more I think about this – women demanding what most men take for granted – the more confused I’m becoming.

  12. Imagine being called a slut – by a police man – after having been raped – while still drunk – at 13 years of age.

    That is my experience.

  13. I’m so grateful to you for sharing such a traumatic experience – not something you could ever forget.

    You also highlight very well (what I’m more and more thinking) is that the SlutWalk reinforces the very concern it raises.

    Here’s an excerpt from a piece in The Age today which really clarified my thoughts about the SlutWalk; so much so I’ve decided not to participate after all:

    ”Slut” is a symptom, not a cause, of the rape
    culture – those unwritten rules of society that
    simultaneously praise the objectification of women and
    damn women for allowing themselves to be objectified http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/expect-no-good-from-slutwalk-20110524-1f2dm.html

    Thankyou again!

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