‘Slut walks’: Empowerment or Self-degradation?

From the liberal streets of Boston to the subtropical metropolis of Delhi and all the way down to religiously conservative nation of Indonesia, ‘Slutwalks’ have been springing up in protest of the against authorities trying to explaining away or pin the blame of increasing instances of rape or sexual harassment on the appearance and dress sense of women themselves.

Jessica Valenti notes how the nature of the protests deviates from other mainstream protests and ushers in a new wave of social and political empowerment on a ground level.

Unlike protests put on by mainstream national women’s organizations, which are carefully planned and fundraised for — even the signs are bulk-printed ahead of time — SlutWalks have cropped up organically, in city after city, fueled by the raw emotional and political energy of young women. And that’s the real reason SlutWalks have struck me as the future of feminism. Not because an entire generation of women will organize under the word “slut” or because these marches will completely eradicate the damaging tendency of law enforcement and the media to blame sexual assault victims (though I think they’ll certainly put a dent in it). But the success of SlutWalks does herald a new day in feminist organizing.

TIME questions whether these protests will problematize the word ‘slut’ itself in favor of the women:

Critics of the marches have sprung up as fast as the protests themselves. With a name like SlutWalk, it’s not that surprising. The question is whether a movement that has gained momentum from its shock value can turn the tide and change the way victims of sexual assault are treated.

Certainly the decision to use the word slut, which is loaded, to say the least, was ballsy. The idea stemmed from Jarvis and Barnett’s desire to use the offensive language the Toronto constable used, but flip it on its head. A number of SlutWalkers have been adamantly pushing to reappropriate the word slut, or redefine it through repeated use. But others say it’s just muddling the movement’s message.

There is an element of logic to the argument that if women embrace the word slut, its demeaning power will fade. The LGBT community had a similar agenda in the ’90s when it focused on transforming the word queer. However, others have questioned the validity of such a pursuit — not everyone wants to call herself a slut after all. This has been an especially passionate argument made by women who’ve been victimized.

Looking at the intentional use of the name ‘slut’ a little deeper and its impact on the effectiveness of the protests…

Yet these discussions about the look and semantics of the protest — rather than, say, the actual message — are the consequences of the controversial name, according to Gail Dines, a professor of sociology and women’s studies and the author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality. Dines has been one of the most outspoken critics of SlutWalks from the start and has specifically taken issue with the name. “I think it was a mistake to think you that you can use the word slut and somehow keep the focus on male violence and not turn it onto how women dress,” says Dines. “I think the very use of the word slut in the walk undermined the goal of the movement.”

Even organizers have admitted that SlutWalks aren’t flawless. “It’s not a perfect movement,” says Olga Ivesic, a co-organizer of the SlutWalk in Los Angeles, where more than 1,000 people rallied. “But it is constantly moving and changing and evolving. This is a call to action.”

Which leads us to an important point: Is there such a thing as a perfect movement? Is there a right way to protest? Even the angriest critics can’t deny the galvanizing effect the movement has had. Clearly SlutWalks have struck a chord. But if it is a call to action, where will the movement go after the “summer of slut,” as Ivesic termed the past few months, comes to an end?

Reputable Feminist writer and academic Germaine Greer comments on how these women are simply fighting for their own right ‘to be dirty’. More notably, she clarifies that the historical association has been one being ‘dirty’ rather than sexually promiscuous, and suggests how society leverages on that to discriminate women:

Twenty-first century women are even more relentlessly hounded and harassed by the threat of dirt. No house is ever clean enough, no matter how many hours its resident woman spends spraying and wiping, Hoovering, dusting, disinfecting and deodorising. Women’s bodies can never be washed often enough to be entirely free of dirt; they must be depilated and deodorised as well. When it comes to sex, women are as dirty as the next man, but they don’t have the same right to act out their fantasies. If they’re to be liberated, women have to demand the right to be dirty. By declaring themselves sluts, they lay down the Cillit Bang and take up the instruments of pleasure.

Men already enjoy the right to be dirty. In the usual rugby house, unwashed dishes can be found festering under beds as well as piled to chin height in the sink. The rubbish bin will contain an impacted mess of stomped-down rubbish. The lavatory would be only too accurately described as a bog. The filth becomes a challenge; the first man to crack and grab the Hoover is a sissy. In mixed digs in our tolerant universities, it’s the women who are forever cleaning the shared facilities, because the men won’t. The con is a simple one. If you don’t mind that the toilet’s disgusting, then don’t clean it; if you do, then do. Girls don’t have the option of not minding. Dirty house equals dirty woman equals tramp.

If women are to overthrow the tyranny of perpetual cleansing, we have to be able to say: “Yes, I am a slut. My house could be cleaner. My sheets could be whiter. I could be without sexual fantasies too – pure as the untrodden snow – but I’m not. I’m a slut and proud.” The rejection by women of compulsory cleansing of mind, body and soul is a necessary pre-condition of liberation. Besides, taking part in what looks like an endless “vicars and tarts’ street party is not just bad-ass. It’s fun.

What are your own opinions of the ‘slutwalks’? Will they help advance the empowerment of women? Or will their efforts backfire?

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