The point of the SlutWalk protests

May 31, 2011

I WANTED to respond to Helen Redmond's Readers' View "Why I won't call myself a slut" critiquing SlutWalk. Of course, I have no disagreement with her basic point--that the word "slut" is a sexist slur that cannot be re-appropriated. But I think she makes several other points and assumptions that are worth examining.

First, I believe that Helen (as well as several other women I've talked to about this) exaggerates this aspect of the marches. While the call for these demonstrations does argue for re-appropriating the word slut, the primary emphasis is on a rejection of victim-blaming, breaking down sexist stereotypes and demanding sexual freedom for all women. Women in all forms of attire--as well as men--are encouraged to attend.

While I have not yet had the opportunity to attend one of these marches, I have followed the coverage from Toronto and Boston. I saw a new generation of women unapologetically demanding the right to control over their own bodies. One of the speakers in Boston expressed the rage and frustration women feel with the sexual double standard, pointing out that "If we wear too much, we're called a prude, and if we don't wear enough, we're called a slut."

From what I've seen, rejecting this double standard is the message of this march--and one that we should celebrate. Focusing so strongly on the use of the word "slut" obscures the far larger significance of these marches.

Secondly, I believe that Helen's identification of this aspect of the march with the toxic influence of "raunch culture" misses the mark. Raunch culture is manufactured and perpetrated by the advertising and entertainment industries. Its goal is to use women's bodies to sell products, and call this liberation. It is a reflection of capitalism's ability to commodify and pervert even our most intimate and natural desires.

It is true that some feminists--particularly in the long period of defeat we are hopefully emerging from--have falsely celebrated raunch culture as a measure of female progress. But I do not think that this is where most of the women participating in SlutWalk are coming from--including those wearing signs like "Slut Pride" or "Slut=Dignity," which Helen quoted.

Instead, I think these signs reflect anger at the idea that being sexually active (and even sexually aggressive) is something to be ashamed of. They represent an attempt by women to embrace their sexuality in a context in which they are told that they can be demonized or brutalized for doing so.

Of course, we can argue that they also accept the terms of the debate--that is, that to have multiple sexual partners or to dress a certain way is to be a "slut." And unfortunately, we need to point out that the attempt to shape our own sexuality will always be distorted by a society that commodifies women's bodies and sexuality. But we have to start from a position of understanding and identification with the legitimate sentiment driving people.

Rather than reflexively branding this the "toxic influence of raunch culture," we should attempt to understand the frustrated aspirations that women have for genuine sexual liberation. We should be having a discussion of what real sexual liberation would mean: women and men having the ability to choose if, when and with whom to have sex in ways that are both safe and mutually satisfying. And we should be able to explain why this seemingly simple goal remains so elusive.

We can talk about building a movement that could at least begin to reverse the dismal situation women face. We can fight for increased access to birth control and abortion. We can fight for real sex education in the schools starting at an early age. And we can build a new women's liberation movement that raises the confidence and expectations of a new generation of women--and men.

We should reject outright the victim-blaming that says a woman "asked for it" if she dresses a certain way or has had previous sexual partners. But we must go further and build an anti-sexist movement that can empower women to confidently accept or refuse sex according to their own desires--and create the kind of culture in which men understand and respect the difference. Whatever their contradictions (and let's not overblow them), the SlutWalk marches that are popping up all over the country are a very welcome first step in that process.
Jen Roesch, New York City

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