(sometimes withershins, widershins or widderschynnes) means to take a course opposite that of the sun, going counterclock-wise, lefthandwise, or to circle an object, by always keeping it on the left. It also means "in a direction opposite to the usual," which is how I choose to take it in using it as the title of this blog. We're all in the same world finding our own way.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Slutwalk: Seattle and Beyond

First off, let me start by saying that this is a difficult post for me to make, because SlutWalk is complicated. If people actually read this, I expect there to be controversy, just remember attack the issues, not people.

So let's start from the beginning. I'm going to copy and paste directly from SlutWalk Seattle since they have more experience telling the history of the event than I do.

On January 24th, 2011, a Toronto police officer gave some advice that is all too common: “Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” From an 11-year-old in Texas being blamed for being gang-raped to a teenager in Seattle not being able to file rape charges because witnesses “portrayed the act as consensual,” this line of thought pervades our culture. As long as it seems like the woman might like sex, they’re made to take the blame.

Women of Toronto got angry and showed the establishment that this kind of language and treatment is not okay. And thus was born SlutWalk.

The SlutWalk Seattle FAQ page goes on to explain that SlutWalk as they interpret it is reframing the discourse on rape culture, specifically with regards to victim blaming and slut shaming. Again, I'll quote the page since they did a good job defining those terms.

Victim blaming is when the victims of sexual assault are explicitly or implicitly blamed for their own assault (for example, saying that a woman should have expected to be raped if she wore a short skirt). This wrongfully shifts the burden of prevention from the perpetrator onto the victim.

Slut shaming is when people, especially women, are made to feel shamed and guilty because of their actual or imagined sexual proclivities. Labels like “slut” stigmatize and dehumanize women, making it easier for society and the legal system to turn a blind eye to victims, make excuses for violence, and deny them justice.

Now I'm fairly frustrated with the discourse surrounding SlutWalk. Up until I started doing research into the critiques of the movement, all I (thought I) knew about the event was that it was held to reclaim "slut." Which I'm uncomfortable with, but I also recognize that as with any reclaimed (or as some would argue in this instance claimed) terminology it's a matter of personal choice. The event is not meant to promote a "slutty" lifestyle. It's a position that states that within a sex-positive culture, slut should not be assumed as a pejorative.

Reclaiming "slut" should be secondary to addressing the deep-seated institutional bias that exists when it comes to rape culture. But slut gets all the press and attention in the media. And from what I can tell, it's pissing everyone off. This is unavoidable and was unavoidable from the moment the first SlutWalk organizers named it SlutWalk.

So naturally I started digging. I've found multiple posts by radical feminists addressing the racial polarization around SlutWalk. And it would be a lie for me to deny the historical and cultural differences between many of the supporters of SlutWalk and women of color. In America the sexualization and objectification of women's bodies, especially along racial divides, has created a space where "slut" and the outrage around it is very much a matter of privilege. White women can be outraged because they aren't inculcated to a culture that devalues and sexualizes their bodies from birth. As one blogger put it:
It goes without saying that Black women have always been understood to be lascivious, hypersexed, and always ready and willing. When I think of the daily assaults I hear in the form of copious incantations of “bitch” and “ho” in Hip Hop music directed at Black women, it’s hard to not feel a bit incensed at the “how-dare-you-quality” of the SlutWalk protests, which feel very much like the protests of privileged white girls who still have an expectation that the world will treat them with dignity and respect.
In these instances, SlutWalk is not an appropriate venue through which to stage this conversation. The rhetoric and conversation around "slut" cannot and should not be used as a universal for women. It is culturally specific and should be treated as such. However, that doesn't mean SlutWalk should discontinue its efforts at inclusivity. If people of color want to participate, either in solidarity with a white movement, or because they want to reclaim "slut," that's their choice.

To ignore any of this would be racist and show the kind of privileged feminist views that erase or marginalize people of color. Further, a universalizing treatment of "slut" as a descriptor for women is colonialist based on Western ideas of sexuality that silence the experiences of people of color in countries and locales from a different social background. However, given the grassfire expansion of the SlutWalk movement, I think this assumes a unified agreement on what SlutWalk is. That is to say, it assumes there is a central SlutWalk organization coordinating the plethora of walks across the globe. To my knowledge, while the original SlutWalk Toronto initially sought to advise satellite walks, that line of treatment has all but gone out the door.

SlutWalks as they exist currently are the indicative only of the backgrounds and discourses engaged in by the individual organizers of each event.

Which is not to say that the people most likely to want to organize such an event aren't entrenched in hegemonic, white backgrounds, but ultimately the shape each individual walk takes will be determined by the people walking.

As Meghan Murphy writes, "‘slut’, is gendered." It is a term implicitly feminized by the patriarchy and used as a pejorative against men to imply femininity and thus weakness. I stopped referring to women pretty early on in this writing, because it is a matter of fact that more than just women-identified folk are involved in SlutWalk. As a queer male and self-identified feminist, I see value in the SlutWalk movement. In its potential to disrupt the dominant patriarchal discourse through a subversive reclamation of terms, SlutWalk can benefit anyone marginalized by patriarchal society. Does this mean it will do this? No, but it can if we as activists use it so.

Before I go further, I feel I must address the fact that I am male. Regardless of my sexual orientation or political affiliations, I stand to benefit from the kind of institutionalized patriarchy that privileges males. But I'm carefully straddling a line between accepting and celebrating the movement and between rejecting it for the kinds of issues inherent in a field ripe with potential for classist and racist discourse that further excludes and erases the experiences of people affected by this in ways not accounted for by the dominant language. I recognize the danger in my involvement and I care deeply about how my presence impacts the conversation.

I'm leery of "slut" but as I see it, the potential within SlutWalk lies in addressing those first tenets, that it bring attention to the culture that allows victim blaming and slut-shaming. To teach society not to blame the victim helps redefine our culture. It changes the attitudes around rape and hopefully will help spread the idea that we should be teaching people not to rape rather than "don't get raped."

SlutWalk hasn't even been around for half a year, as a cohesive movement, it's in its infancy, and I for one want to be part of its formation. I want to see SlutWalk (or whatever SlutWalk becomes) move past the valid criticisms leveled at it and I think more than criticizing SlutWalk, this means engaging in and participating in the organization of such events. There's a lot of contradictions and disagreements on both sides of the SlutWalk debate and no one will have a perfect answer, so I take these criticisms with me as I look forward to the fight yet to come.

As a last side note, I would like to thank friends and activists Ben C and Samuel S for involving me in this dialog. I would like to thank Laura G for giving me opportunities to speak out in solidarity with marginalized groups (though I'm still learning to find strength in that voice) and all the women in my life for whom this affects. You are my sisters, my mothers, my aunts and cousins. I hope this inspires and educates you as to why SlutWalk is important and how it can make a difference.