Slut Pride

In 2012, I SlutWalked for the first time, in Melbourne. SlutWalk is a two-year-old global feminist event created in response to the fact that the culture we live in blames women who get raped for being raped rather than blaming the men who do the raping for being rapists.

Just before the walk I heard something new: some women see SlutWalk as a way of reclaiming the word ‘slut’; reclaiming as in stripping it of its negative connotations. Apparently women who like to have a lot of sex want to be able to be called sluts and call themselves sluts without it being an insult or put down.

They want SlutWalk to be both an anti-victim blaming protest and a promiscuity pride parade. While these are both important feminist issues, I’m convinced that they are so disparate that one event cannot be about both.

‘Slut’, to paraphrase several dictionaries, means ‘a woman who has many sexual partners’. Women who want to reclaim the word, including one of Slutwalk’s founders, don’t really want to change the definition; they want to change the qualifier that comes in brackets before or after the definition: derogatory.

Oppressed social groups reclaiming words is not without precedent. One of the most well known instances is the reappropriation of ‘queer’ in the 1990s. ‘Queer’ appeared in English in the sixteenth century and was first used to describe anything not quite right. Sometime in the nineteenth century, people with money trouble were said to be ‘on Queer Street’.

In the early twentieth century, it began to be applied to men who displayed unacceptable forms of masculinity, which were: being effeminate (no matter who they wanted to have sex with), having receptive penetrative sex with other men, being trans, and cross-dressing. Men who did the penetrating were called ‘straight’. (Mmmkay.)

Then, in 1990 there was a gay pride march in New York. Someone distributed flyers entitled Queers Read This and an organisation called Queer Nation was created. From then on, non-heterosexual people used it more and more to describe themselves. Academia joined in, creating new fields of study: ‘queer theory’, ‘queer cinema’, ‘queer studies’. And so we can now say that ‘queer’ has been reclaimed, although this is a still contested idea. (If you want to know more, go here and here.)

Oppressed social groups reclaiming their derogatory labels is problematic. No matter what vocabulary they choose, those who oppress and discriminate will continue to use these terms derogatively. ‘Queer’ is still used as an insult. ‘Gay’ has a new(ish) life as a catch-all descriptor for all things stupid. ‘Nigger’ has never been reclaimed outside of extremely specific contexts.

As for words with negative connotations that are used to describe women, the situation is far beyond the help of a token reclamation. Any word used to refer to women is a potential insult. And it’s not just the obvious ones—slut, bitch, whore—that are the problem. People—not just men—call men and boys ‘woman’ or ‘girl’ to insult them, to say that they are less. By merely being associated with the female, men are denigrated.

The underlying problem is that in our culture, women are simply valued less than men. We are considered less capable, less intelligent and less powerful; essentially a lesser type of human. This is what patriarchy is. If we are less for simply being female, women’s social oppression is a much bigger problem than a single example of the insulting words directed at us and the one issue of sexual empowerment.

Sexual empowerment is part of feminism. It is about liberating all of us—women, men and everyone in between—from thinking that how a woman approaches her sex life is an acceptable method of ascribing value to her as a person. However, focusing on the approaches of those with high sex drives, or who have sex outside relationships, or who maintain non-monogamous relationships, by trying to reclaim ‘slut’ is only part of this story.

The urge to reclaim terminology, I think, often comes from a wish to overcome one’s own internalised discrimination. If you can label your choices with something supportive, it’s easier to convince yourself that you and the way you feel are OK. It’s an internal problem and not one that will be solved by feeling vindicated by society.

There will always be people who don’t approve of our choices. There will always be times when we feel that maybe we’re not making the right ones. There will always be people eager to help us feel that way. Overcoming these feelings is a challenge deeper than finding the right label for ourselves. My thinking is this: if you enjoy having sex with many partners, do it. If you feel guilty about enjoying it, that’s something you need to work out with yourself before you try to change how other people think.

So, yes, sexual empowerment is one part of feminism. But fighting rape-victim-blaming is quite another.

brisbaneslutwalk

Rape is not sex. Rape is violence. It is born of hate and anger. Linking discussions of rape and victim blaming to discussions of women’s sexual freedom reinforces the idea that how a woman presents herself and how she approaches her sex life is connected with whether or not she is raped. It makes a woman’s sex life relevant in a dialogue about victim blaming.

Therefore, I believe that any discussion about rape that links it with sex is deeply misguided. That this link is enmeshed in the founding of SlutWalk, an invaluable global event that has been instrumental in kick-starting an unprecedented discussion on blaming victims of sexual assault, is a chilling reminder of how deeply entrenched these sexist ideas are, even in the minds of thoughtful feminists.

I can’t imagine how confusing the competing narratives around SlutWalk must be for people who are less acquainted with feminist ideas than I am, and as a result it’s not surprising that it struggles to gain support in some quarters.

SlutWalk is problematic and always will be, just as discussions of feminism and sexism and patriarchy and society are always problematic. Humans are not rational; we live in big, messy, overlapping communities and societies. It’s my opinion that SlutWalk should focus on fighting victim blaming and remove sexual empowerment from its mandate. But that’s not up to me. It’s up to the big, messy community around it.

Sarah Jansen writes fiction about relationships and odd situations, and ranty blog posts about feminism, religion and the arts. Her online profile is at sarahjansen.com and you can follow her on Twitter @sarahjansencom.

 

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