Sunday, 12 June 2011

The SlutWalk phenomenon

Yesterday, 4,000 took to the streets of London to take part in a "SlutWalk." The phenomenon, which first arose in Toronto, was sparked by a police officer saying that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised." However, it goes broader than this and "was a reaction to not one officer’s remark, but to a history that was doomed to keep repeating. Insults, degredation, shame, rape."

On that front, certainly, there can be no criticism of it. The phenomenon has come to Britain at a time when reactionary attitudes to rape are reasserting themselves in mainstream debate. They were always there, of course, but with Ken Clarke's comments on "serious" rape, the defensive reaction from the lunatic right, and the revelation that half of women think rape victims are sometimes "asking for it," the trend of political discourse is certainly worrying. As such, a protest movement that challenges the stigmatisation of the victims is certainly welcome.

This hasn't been understood by everyone. The liberal Guardian reduced the message to a "debate" on "whether telling women and girls that they should be free to dress 'sluttily' is right." But that was never the point. It's not about if women are "free to dress" any given way. It's the fact that, whether a woman is stark naked or clad head to toe in a black burkha, it doesn't justify or excuse sexual violence.

The slogan on one placard - "it's a dress, not a yes" - summed this up perfectly. The liberal commentators who overlook this to focus on that use of the word "slut," despite that it should be obvious why this word was chosen, are actively missing the point.

This isn't to say that there are no problems with the event and the thinking behind it, of course. One might argue that - with a focus on the rape of females by males - it is overly heteronormative. When male on male, female on female, and even female on male rape are also serious issues. It could be argued that this is necessarily the case because the victim-blaming culture that SlutWalk aims to challenge occurs primarily in male on female rape situations, but this is not satisfactory when where there is no victim-blaming there is instead a culture of "hidden shame" forced upon people who are the victims of a kind of attack that heteronormative society refuses to acknowledge as a legitimate concern.

This said, I would argue that as a whole the phenomenon is a positive one. For too long, this absurd notion that you can be "asking for" violent sexual assault has managed to maintain a position within acceptable discourse and this offers a powerful and provocative way to challenge that. It manages to penetrate the thought of wider society in the way that intellectual discourse amongst the chattering classes simply could not.

As far as the sub-debate that has emerged from SlutWalk, namely on the "reclaiming" of the word slut, I have no concrete position. Not least because it is not my position to argue this point any more than it is mine to wade into the debates over black people reclaiming the word "nigger," for example. Certainly, the continuing debate on that particular word suggests that the argument over whether women should take slut as "their word" will not soon be resolved.

The complexity of the debate is neatly summed up by Ray Filar in the Guardian;
This move to embrace the word as a term of positive sexuality may currently be travelling across the world to the tune of the marching band, but it harks back to the dawn of the 1990s when musician Kathleen Hanna, unwilling figurehead for the riot grrrl movement and lead singer for Bikini Kill, went on stage with the word "slut" scrawled across her body. In doing this, she made a visceral, powerful statement about her sexuality. Her message was not "yes, I am a slut". It was this: "by reclaiming the derogatory terms that you use to silence my sexual expression, I dilute your power".

So far, so feminist. Unfortunately, not everybody got the memo.

Predictably, this slightly complex message about bolstering women's sexual power through use of misogynist insults was overlooked. Instead, as they became successful, riot grrrl bands were commodified, commercialised and eventually repackaged. Girl groups became known mostly as visions of unmitigated, unthreatening saccharinity. "Revolution girl style" was conflated with "girl power", real empowerment with relentlessly boring, soft-porn imitation.
The debate, and the row over where the line is between provocative empowerment and sexuality as a cheap commodity, will no doubt continue for a very long time.

In the meantime, what's important is that the victim shaming culture that surrounds rape is coming under attack. There are limitations, criticisms, and internal contradictions, yes, but as with all movements they can be addressed as we go on. What we cannot do is stand idly by as the Nadine Dorries and Peter Hitchens of this world find their views gaining increased currency.