These are protests against sexism

May 26, 2011

I THINK Helen Redmond ("Why I won't call myself a 'slut'") makes some sweeping and mistaken generalizations, not only about women who might choose to wear revealing clothing, but also--and most critically--about the degree to which "raunch culture" has been embraced by those organizing against rape and sexual assault as part of the current "SlutWalk" marches.

Helen states that she's "sick of seeing images in the media of women practically naked standing next to men who are fully clothed. Or women who wear T-shirts that say 'Bitch' or 'Ho' or 'Bitchin' Bod!'" I am too--and for both of us, it's because we hate sexism and have a view of the world that recognizes that women's oppression has to be fought, not embraced or excused, as part of the struggle for a different kind of society.

But I also think that within their individual lives, women can choose to wear tight or revealing clothing for reasons that have nothing to do with embracing "raunch culture," emulating strippers or prostitutes, or believing that sexual expression is a liberating end in itself. An individual woman may or may not decide to wear clothing that "shows skin" for a variety of reasons, including comfort, aesthetics or sexual expression. And that should be every woman's right.

Socialists shouldn't go around policing how women dress. Unfortunately, Helen's argument comes perilously close to this, particularly when she makes the especially outrageous statement that such clothing "sanitizes and glamorizes prostitution."

While we should argue against sexism in all its forms--including the sexism of the fashion industry--and make the point that sexuality alone cannot liberate women from oppression, we should also fight for people's right to personal sexual expression, even under capitalism, where so much about sexuality is alienated.

The problem isn't with the woman who wears something "revealing," but with the idea that a glimpse of cleavage can be a justification for a man to harass or assault her--and more so, with a sexist culture that warps sexuality and sexual expression for both men and women.

Helen does say that "women should be able to wear any clothing they want, but the choices they make take place in and are shaped by a sexist society that commodifies and degrades women's bodies and sexuality."

Exactly right. But young women wearing shirts that say "slut" aren't the cause of that sexist society. Instead, such dress and language are reflections of oppression in society at large.

AN EVEN more important criticism I would make of Helen's argument is that the women participating in SlutWalks, even if they come dressed in slips, bras and underwear, are not embracing "raunch culture." They are making a point against the sexist idea that women should be shamed for "being sluts."

These demonstrations are an expression of defiance against such sexist labels and a gesture of solidarity with women who have been victimized twice--once at the hands of a rapist/attacker, and again by a system that tells them they were "asking for it" because they were supposedly dressed like "strippers or prostitutes."

As the Toronto SlutWalk website puts it: "We are tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result. Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless if we participate in sex for pleasure or work. No one should equate enjoying sex with attracting sexual assault."

In this statement, the organizers of the march are not celebrating the term "slut," but are rejecting the idea that anyone should be able to excuse sexual assault and rape by passing judgment on what women wear or how they act. The distinction is crucial.

Some women who attend SlutWalk demonstrations--a small minority, from what I can tell--have expressed the belief that they can "reclaim" a term of abuse and give it a radical meaning. I agree with Helen that it's not possible to "reclaim" such words in a sexist, racist and homophobic society, and whether this attempt is effective as a political tool should be up for discussion with activists we meet.

But even if we disagree with it, the idea of "reclaiming" an abusive term is not, as Helen claims, the same as embracing raunch culture--the media-manufactured objectification of women justified with the idea that this is liberation.

Moreover, lecturing young activists about how wrong they are in their personal expression, in their methods of organizing and even in the name of their march--at a time when we're seeing some of the first significant steps forward in organizing for women's rights and against sexism in decades--is a recipe for sectarianism.

If we want to eventually stamp out the word "slut," it won't be because socialists go into a movement and pick fights with some activists who might mistakenly embrace the term as "liberatory"--especially when it's clear that many, many others involved in that movement are using the term not to embrace it, but to attack the sexism behind it.

Instead, it will be because we rebuild a women's movement--and ultimately a socialist movement--capable of confronting sexism in society at large.
Nicole Colson, Chicago

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