The Slutwalk phenomenon is coming to New Zealand. I commented on twitter the other day that I think it’s a stupid gimmick, and this prompted a flood of outraged emails and tweeted responses, and since Twitter is not a venue for reasoned argument, here’s a more expansive take.
The original premise is rather witty. A policeman visiting a university in Toronto gave a speech in which he advised woman to ‘avoid dressing like sluts’ to avoid becoming victims of sexual violence. Social activist groups organised a protest outside the police headquarters and called it ‘Slutwalk’ to foreground the police officer’s offensive remarks. The organisers asked people to dress normally but some dressed as sluts, and this (inevitably) captured media attention and this attention, in turn, captured the attention of activists in other cities who immediately organised their own Slutwalks, with a stronger focus on dressing up like sluts.
Removed from the context of the Toronto protests what is Slutwalk about? Well, clicking around the different organising sites, it seems to be about a lot of things. It’s about celebrating female sexuality, and protesting against sexual violence, and the fallacy that women behave in ways that invite sexual violence, and re-appropriating the term ‘slut’ (eg. in the manner of suffragette and queer) and also protesting the use of the word, and also celebrating the use of the word.
I’m not going to pretend to a feminist analysis of Slutwalk, but as an amateur observer of political activism it looks to me like a train-wreck. You’d think that the main critics of the global Slutwalk phenomenon would be conservative groups and commentators, but the most outspoken naysayers are other feminists. The basic criticism is that it’s counter-productive to associate being a feminist with being a slut, that many feminists don’t self-identify as ‘sluts’, so don’t want to march on something called a ‘Slutwalk’. Feminist writers and intellectuals from non-white ethnic groups point out that there’s a huge stigma against sexual promiscuity in many non-western cultures and the identification of feminists as sluts is damaging to their struggle for basic human rights and gender equality. I don’t have a dog in these fights – but if there is one single issue you’d think all feminists and all progressives could unite behind it’s outrage against sexual assault and the culture enabling it – yet Slutwalk has managed to create division and polarisation around this very issue.
Sure, it’s superficially clever: the basic concept – chicks dressed up as sluts! – will attract massive media attention so it’s a forgone success if that’s your only goal. But the goal of protesting is to convey a message and attempt to bring about change. What message does Slutwalk send?
See, a protest march is not a nuanced, sophisticated medium. It’s about what it’s about, not an ironic meta-message. When Tuhoe marched through Wellington in 2007 to protest the terror raids some of them dressed as terrorists to make an ironic comment; but all the bystanders and TV viewers saw were a bunch of Maori dressed up as terrorists. The message conveyed was the opposite of the message intended. Compare that to the protests last year against mining in national parks: simple, uncomplicated theme; massive support; massive turnout: the government reversed its decision. That’s how you do it.
Slutwalk aims to convey a variety of messages: some worthy, some vague, others contradictory. But the means of doing so are highly mediagenic and sexualised and the basic, elemental message is about the right to dress up like a slut. That’s going to be the message sent to 99.9% of bystanders and TV viewers. Is that really where contemporary feminism is headed nowadays? You’re a feminist if you can get your picture in the paper or on TV by dressing like a slut? It’s not my movement, so if that’s what contemporary feminists think is important then good luck to ‘em. I just think it’s stupid.