To my great surprise, there was a SlutWalk in my rather conservative city last Saturday. Our local news station called me for an interview for a story they were doing on the event ; they were looking for the voice of an “expert” of some kind, and given my credentials in the study of gender and communication, they thought I’d be a good bet. I don’t know if I was or not, but I agreed to the interview. Aside from the fact that I said a bunch of stuff that I thought was pretty cool but that they reduced to one fairly bland sentence (isn’t that always the way), I was underwhelmed with the story, and am beginning to feel ambivalent about the movement. Ever since the first official “SlutWalk” in Toronto earlier this year, we’ve seen a spate of similar marches across the U.S. and Canada, and the movement has spread even to places like India and South Africa, and well beyond. It’s a real social phenomenon that has spread like wildfire in an incredibly short span of time. I’d have never guessed, when my friends from the MotheringInitiative.org attended in Toronto and posted pics on their FB pages, that within a few months my normally foot-dragging town would be responding in kind. I am mightily impressed at the numbers (a couple thousand, some stories report) that showed up at the Toronto event and that have attended other Walks since. And I’m mightily impressed that the progressives in my town were interested in pulling one off here and able to do so. I am proud to live in a city that pushes up against normative thinking, even if not on a Toronto scale.
Still, I’m not as gung-ho about the Walks or the media coverage of them as I’d like to be. I do find it exhausting that we are STILL having to make arguments about the pertinence of women’s clothing in discussions of rape. We have settled this already. And yet, it continues to rear its ugly head. It remains a widespread and deeply entrenched notion that sexual assault is caused by the way women dress and not by the way men rape. So actually we have not settled this already. And I do get behind the idea of saturating public dialogue with the language that is used against us in such a way that it loses its power to police and regulate women’s behavior (far beyond discussions of rape), in a way that “leaches it of its venom,” as a recent NPR story noted (a story which, by the way, makes mention of our Johnson City Walk). Much like the way that the use of “we’re queer and we’re here” in gay pride marches and other pride rhetoric defanged the term ‘queer,’ SlutWalks could function to defang this word too. Women on the Walks are saying, among other things: ‘Slut’ won’t work as a weapon against us; we are not afraid of it; it cannot puncture our skin or our lives. Look, we’re even going to parody your idea of what sluts look like, and we’re going to reveal even more of our skin to show just how punctured we aren’t. If women stop being wounded or “bossed around” by the word, then presumably it loses its ability to dictate their behavior. I dig all of this.
I don’t have any interest in reclaiming the word slut for women and for feminism, though. It’s never done anything good for us and it’s never going to; we never claimed it in the first place. Like the now largely defanged ‘queer,’ there will be other words and regulatory mechanisms to take the place of ‘slut.’ It’s been in use for several centuries and I doubt we’ll be able to disempower it in less time. And I can see that media coverage of the thing is never going to focus on the arguments beyond “I can wear whatever I want without judgment” which, while it perhaps should be true, it isn’t (and further, isn’t true for anyone). It also is a woefully watered-down version of the impetus behind the SlutWalks, but it makes a good sound bite and certainly allows the movement to be easily dismissed. I also can see that it’s just too hot for media cameras to avoid focusing their lenses on breasts and upper thighs and the like so that the status quo image of women is reinforced rather than resisted. So I’m not feelin’ the efficacy of the thing in the end and I worry that, before long, it will be reduced to images and sound bites of women that function not to leach the venom but to concentrate its poison.