Slutwalks and Such: Who's Making Women's History Today?

Big thanks and kudos to Catherine Engh for contributing some terrific posts this Women’s History Month. As we end WHM for 2012, here’s one more from Catherine that I know you’ll enjoy, and I hope you’ll think about and take a moment to share your comments. I’ve written a different take on Slutwalk but Catherine has almost persuaded me…

This last year, women around the world made history, protesting victim-blaming online as well as on foot. The Slutwalk movement began after a Toronto police officer told a group of college women that if they hoped to escape sexual assault, they should avoid dressing like “sluts.”

Victim-blaming last year was by no means isolated to this public incident. A young woman who pressed rape charges against two New York City police officers could not be believed, in part, because she was drunk. When an 11-year-old Texas girl was allegedly gang-raped by 19 men, The New York Times ran a story quoting neighbors saying that she habitually wore makeup and dressed in clothes more appropriate for a 20-year-old. The maid who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of rape has been discredited for being a liar, and The New York Post claimed she was a prostitute.

The women and men who marched in Slutwalks in more than 70 cities around the world last year were fed up with this kind of symbolic violence. The Slutwalk movement was organized around one central message: the relentless interrogation of women’s characters and narratives after they have been raped is deeply problematic and not to be tolerated. Whether wearing a bikini or a power suit, women and their stories are to be respected, not subject to demeaning scrutiny based upon their performance of gender or sexuality.
The movement drew a mixed response from the feminist blogosphere. As protesters donned bras, halter tops and garter belts, feminists worried that the women’s physical embodiment of the term ‘slut’ re-produced the oppressive stereotypes (virgin/whore binary) that operated to control their narratives, bodies and experiences in the first place. Did these women’s reclamation of the slur obscure the root of the issue—victim blaming? Some saw the provocative term and accompanying spectacle as a necessary and effective way of garnering widespread public attention. Others worried about exclusion, noting that certain cultures that value ‘public dignity’ would be unable to participate. Some feminists of color pointed out that the term slut is predominately used to denote white women, while black women are called hoes. Thus, the most marginalized, those who are most susceptible to public shaming in our culture, were not spoken for by the movement.

Considering SlutWalks in relation to women’s History, I couldn’t help but draw a few parallels to the Taking Back the Night marches of 1970s second wave feminism. Both Slutwalks and Take Back the Night have taken up the issue of violence against women’s bodies with mixed responses from the feminist community.

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Take back the Night first appeared in the Unites States in 1975 when citizens of Philadelphia rallied together after the murder of young microbiologist, Susan Alexander Speeth, who was stabbed by a stranger a block from her home while walking alone. Three years later, Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media used the slogan to organize a march through the red-light district of San Francisco in protest of rape and pornography, which they identified with the sexualized subordination of women. At this same time, women around the world were taking up the issue of sexual violence, locally organizing marches, most notably in Belgium, West Germany, Leeds and Rome.

Radical Feminist Andrea Dworkin spoke at the march in San Francisco, pointing out that, at night, women are forced to choose between confinement and danger. She urged women to fight for their freedom to move without fear in public space. As the movement sought to raise public awareness about the ways that violence permeates the lives and bodies of women around the world, Dworkin’s radical anti-pornography feminism marked a divide that was to splinter the feminist movement.

Radical feminists such as Dworkin and Susan Brownmiller saw pornography as violently re-capitulating a culture in which women’s bodies are objectified, in which they exist solely as objects of male desire. Other feminists saw the limitations to a logic in which all feminist analysis was reduced to conceptualizations of female sexuality as always Other, always oppressed, and ultimately without existence.

Take Back the Night events have continued on college campuses to this day. The women-only policies have caused controversy on some campuses; activists arguing that male allies and sexual assault survivors should be allowed to march in support of women. In response, events have evolved on some campuses. At Wesleyan University, men as well as women are given the opportunity to speak up about their experiences of sexual assault.

Take Back the Night and SlutWalks have bravely sought to communicate their respective messages through grassroots organization, fighting symbolic and manifest violence enacted on women’s bodies by cultures infused with mysogyny. While critics found the execution and language of Slutwalks to be problematic and Take Back the Night’s insistence on patriarchal sexual domination limiting, both movements certainly stirred up the public conversation and got us thinking about how to best conceive of a feminist politics that accommodates for difference.

So at the end of Women’s History Month, I would like to express gratitude to all those fearless women who have taken to the streets to combat social policing of gender and sexuality. I would also like to acknowledge the value of smart dissent. The opinions of those who have been outspoken about their problems with these movements are invaluable, whether they took issue with exclusion or the problematics of a universalizing feminism. As the organizers of SlutWalks NYC say on their website, “We cannot forget our past mistakes. If we do, we’ll never be better feminists; that’s what we want more than anything.” Feminist activism, analysis and organization can only benefit from the action of all those who marched, organized and took their stand.