SlutWalk: can it work for feminism?

May 20, 2011
SlutWalk in Boston
SlutWalk in Boston, May 7.

Yes, I am a feminist and I will be joining the Melbourne “SlutWalk” on May 28, and I hope you will too!

And, yes, I still cringe every time I mention the infamous word SlutWalk and my desire of wanting to be there, right in the middle of it.

“Slut”, “bitch”, “whore”, “cunt” — how many women have had one or maybe all of the above words hurled at them in a terrorising fit of anger and aggression, at least once in her lifetime? Or maybe the word(s) was uttered silently, barely audible but with no less intent of humiliation, degradation and hurt?

There is hardly ever a warning. At any moment the verbal torrent of abuse can hit you on the head from two floors above, smack you in the face from across the dinner table, fly at you from your mobile phone and make you sick in the stomach through the flat screen; it’s all pervasive, it is everywhere. And count yourself lucky if the attack has been only verbal.

Women pay — for having too much sex, or not wanting to have sex, for sleeping with the wrong people or for being a virgin, for dressing sexy or wearing a headscarf, for cooking the wrong meal or drinking too much, for earning money or being a stay-at-home mum, for being assertive or laughing out loud, for being black, coloured, Asian or white.

So, no wonder I have a moral dilemma about joining and even promoting an event called SlutWalk.

Why on earth would I want to be marching under a name that is synonymous with utter contempt for women?

Why would I want to be part of a protest that shouts “sluts and allies unite” at me and proudly proclaims the “re-appropriation” of the world “slut”, when I have spent the last 20 years actively promoting women’s rights and feminism?

It is a complicated story.

The SlutWalk phenomena kicked off in Toronto, Canada, after city police constable Michael Sanguinetti suggested at a campus safety meeting that women could avoid rape if they dressed less like “sluts”.

The police officer in question has apologised since, but the genie was out of the bottle.

People were infuriated enough at such a blatant and barbaric display of sexism from a powerful institution to take their disapproval to the streets on April 3.

Toronto protest organisers expected a few hundred people, but thousands attended instead.

The Toronto Slutwalk protest aimed to condemn the popular myth that a woman's clothing makes her a target for sexual assault.

Since then, marches have also taken place in North America with more planned for Europe.

Slutwalks have been organised for Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide, Darwin and Perth. Predictions are that attendance will be high. The marches are open to all ages and gender identities.

Not surprisingly, the media has had a field day, with organisers interviewed on an almost daily basis.

Some reports prefer to sensationalise the issue around the name of the march and the potential of “women wearing provocative clothing”, but others more accurately reflect the essence of the protests — women’s right to feel safe and not be blamed for sexual violence perpetrated against them by men.

There is no doubt that the SlutWalk phenomenon has hit a nerve. The shock value in using the word “SlutWalk” has no doubt given it a much broader public platform than a “Reclaim the Night” rally could in the current climate.

SlutWalk expresses outrage at the institutionally embedded victim-blaming mentality when it comes to sexual assault that makes the statement of the Canadian police officer neither an isolated incident nor potentially the worst “slip of the tongue.”

Judges across the globe are infamous for putting considerable blame on the victims of rape, which are mostly women. These judges and the perpetrators are mostly male.

It is very often a woman’s clothing, her independence (being out at night) and “promiscuity” that is used as an excuse to minimise the crime. Never mind that the majority of sexual assaults are not perpetrated by strangers or in a dark ally.

The Australian Institute of Criminology says 65% of sexual assault occurs in private dwellings (including motels and hostels) and only 7% of recorded sexual assault occurs in the street/footpath.

In 2003, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) found that most female victims (78%) knew the offender and ABS figures from 2005 show that about one quarter of these women had experienced sexual violence from a former or current partner.

Mainstream popular culture feeds on sexist imagery. Rapper Kanye West likes his women very sexy and very dead.

In his 2011 video “Monster”, he is surrounded by dead women in bikinis and high heels dangling from the ceiling. He struts around holding a dead woman’s head by the hair while rapper Rick Ross wolfs down a plate of raw meat from between the legs of a dead woman lying on a table.

Expensive designer labels, such as Dolce & Gabbana, make megabucks out of glamorising predatory sexual behaviour in their clothing advertisements.

Many rape allegations against rugby and AFL players have been brushed aside by the media as either “group sex” or “minor” incidents with willing participants, leaving the victims full of shame and without a sense of justice.

And who could possibly forget the infamous 2010 “cup of milo” tweet by brutish former AFL St Kilda ruckman, Peter Spider Everett, reminding women who go home with footy players at 3am that they might get a lot more than asked for?

Women are also joining the SlutWalk to celebrate and demand their right to be confident sexual beings in their own right. There is no argument with that; it is precisely what the second wave of feminists were campaigning for in the ’60s and ’70s.

It is in this context that says it wants to take back the word “slut” because it is “aimed at those who are sexually promiscuous, be it for work or pleasure, it has primarily been women who have suffered under the burden of this label”.

But here is where the problem lies. It is misguided that by appropriating a deeply misogynist word, women will somehow become empowered and the blaming, shaming and violence will disappear.

In the May 11 Sydney Morning Herald, Melbourne SlutWalk organiser and self confessed “slut”, Clem Bastow, suggested: “If you subscribe to the radical notion that no one deserves to be raped, who knows — you may already be a slut.”

This statement is offensive to many and at best reflects a postmodern politics, rooted in individual identity and a naivety with regards to the importance of semantics in a highly politicised environment.

“Slut” is a generalised insult directed at any woman. It has no relation to a woman’s appearance or sexual behaviour. It is simply used to make us feel inferior, dirty and ashamed.

Words like “slut” are important tools in shaping people’s psychology and societal attitudes and are used to remind us that we are seen first and foremost as sexual objects and hence always second best.

All women are “sluts” in the eyes of misogynists and there is real danger that by giving such sexist language our stamp of approval, we end up “normalising” and “beautifying” our own oppression.

Women, and especially young women, are under immense pressure in today’s rapacious consumer society to conform to a very narrow stereotype of a highly sexualised woman, who must look like a plastic porn star and be ready to perform sexual acts any time for any man.

This is the polar opposite to the kind of a liberating sexuality we are talking about, where women can be who they want and have sex safely with whoever they please.

But we are also a lot more than just our sexuality. And it is up to us to define ourselves beyond the mainstream prism that sees women primarily as sexual beings and free labour. Reclaiming the word “slut” does not achieve any of that.

Challenging deep seated systemic oppression requires a vision and a modus operandi that is way beyond the pre-occupation with non-reclaimable words.

It’s about creating the material conditions women require to become true citizens of the world and active agents for change. It means fighting for reproductive rights, equal pay and an end to imperialist oppression in the Third World, where the majority of the women on this planet live and suffer.

So let’s join SlutWalk and inject a politics into it, which has nothing to do with re-claiming sexist words and is all about fighting for women’s liberation — a world where women can proudly be women.

[Margarita Windisch is a sexual assault counsellor and a member of the Socialist Alliance. For details of SlutWalk actions in Australia visit the SlutWalk Australia facebook page]

Video: Slut Walk 2011 Toronto. Christine Peace.


A great article overall, shame the author had to get into a competition over who's feminism is better in the semantic discussion in the second half. "way beyond the pre-occupation with non-reclaimable words" - that is a great aspiration for women's liberation.
Thanks for writing this. I've been quite disappointed to see quite a few feminists I respect dismiss SlutWalk without really making any attempt to engage, so I appreciate the stance you're taking. I think that your approach is a good one - if critics of SlutWalk think there is a lack of structural analyses of rape culture (and this is their reason to opposing it), then trying to provide such an analysis is a lot more useful than proclaiming 'all is lost'. I think your dismissal of the notion of appropriating the term 'slut' isn't accurate, however. Slut is being (primarily) understood as describing a woman who has sex. Its purpose is to shame these women, as you have noted. It seems there are two main approaches you can take when you are called a slut: you can argue that there is no such thing as a slut, or you can say if a slut is someone who has/enjoys sex, then what is wrong with that? It seems to me that SlutWalk is having a go at the latter approach. This great blog comment sums up what I think could be great about SlutWalk: "if you have thousands of women and men all together proclaiming “this is what a slut looks like ” and these thousands of people are so strikingly diverse. Some wearing tight/short/”immodest” clothing, others showing very little skin, some having a sex life which might consist of many partners, one night flings, BDSM and anything else deemed not for nice girls all mixed in with people who could be strictly monogamous and into “vanilla” sex, and the vast array of people who fall everywhere in between.. I think it sends a powerful message. This is what a slut looks like – we look like all the people you know, and all the people you walk by on the streets, we just look like PEOPLE, in all our diversity." I also think Jaclyn Friedman's speech at the Boston SlutWalk gets to the heart of what is being said: "Instead of distancing ourselves from those among us who are targeted as sluts, lest we get caught in the crossfire, let’s stand together today and say, if you use the word slut as a weapon against one of us, you’re using it against all of us. If you shame one of us, you will receive shame from all of us. If you rape one of us, you will have to answer to all of us." So, the way I see it, SlutWalk is about solidarity, and that should definitely be something us socialist feminists should get behind!
This pretty much sums up my perspective on Slutwalk - I don't agree with the 'reclaiming' of words with such misogynistic roots (no pun intended) but I plan on going because I find victim-blaming for sexual assault absolutely repugnant and we must take a stand against it!!
The whole article was good. In my experience people who are really into Slut Walk try to shut down any critical engagement with what they're doing. This is evident in the 'mostly good' post above. Even comradely discussion about strategy and tactics is seen as a "shame" or about proving who is better. Being able to assess strengths and weaknesses is crucial.
I think this counters some of the criticisms in Green Left's article: Clem writes: "This is just the beginning of the process of reclaiming ''slut'': if we can begin by just neutralising it, that's a good start." Whatever you think about "reclaiming" a word that was never ours I think neutralising these words (and the ideas they represent) is worthwhile. Congratulations to the organisers.
Thanks for this article. It has added clarity rather than confusion. But I still won't be going to the slut walk.
Has anyone else ever been successful in appropriating a term like that? The first example that comes to mind is the "n" word. Rap artists first started using the word for that reason, as I recall. Many Blacks have never bought into it. But in my home town, when "pollack" jokes became popular, Polish people pretty successfully appropriated the term, I think. Anyway, it's helpful to look at other examples like that when you're trying to analyze the pros and cons of something.
Hey - I am really glad to find this. Good job!
This rally was by far the biggest feminist event for many years. I think it's important to acknowledge that the name/theme of this event is a lot of the reason it has been so popular. I don't think it's necessarily because there is some overwhelming sentiment to reclaim the word slut. I do however think that having a theme that was both confrontational and playful made it accessible to a lot more people than traditional events.
I am a woman and a feminist, I am not a slut nor a prostitute, transgendered, transsexual or homosexual, but a strait feminist. If you were truly interested in feminism you would have been at the conference, where the sluts were causing descent before their walk, instead of walking with the sluts. The price you pay for supporting exploitation of woman. As a feminist I do not support prostitution ( sex work) as a legitimate form of employment. Who owns the brothels?

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