I was recently asked to cover an event in London known as the ‘Slutwalk.’ The event, which features scores of women walking down the street dressed as ‘sluts,’ started in Toronto on April 3. Since then, according to the Wikipedia article about it, the movement has spread to other towns throughout the US, Canada, Australia, Europe and even the Middle East. (Not for young readers.)The march is an opportunity for women to dress in bikinis, miniskirts and other minimalist outfits. In one march a woman appeared in her underwear with the word ‘slut’ written across her skin. Some have even gone completely topless.
London was not the only UK city to jump on the slut bandwagon. Glasgow and Cardiff had a Slutwalk on 4 June, Manchester on the 17th and Edinburgh on the 18th.
Those involved in the movement have claimed that it is an attempt to empower females by re-appropriating the word ‘slut.’ As bestselling author Zeo Margolis said in a Newsnight appearance:
Re-appropriating the word ‘Slut’
Those involved in the movement have said that it is an attempt to empower females by re-appropriate the word ‘slut.’ As bestselling author Zeo Margolis said in a Newsnight appearance:
“They’re promoting the idea that women should be able to express their sexuality in any way that they please and not be worried about being blamed for it or being labelled with a sexist label like slut….It’s very important, actually, to reclaim the word.”
Vanessa White, 33, who participated in the Boston event argued similarly: “For me it’s an attempt to reclaim the word ‘slut’ itself. Because once you reclaim it, you take the power away from it.”
How it All Began
The event began as a protest against comments made by Police constable, Michael Sanguinetti, back in January this year when he addressed a group of students at the Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. He said, “You know, I think we’re beating around the bush here. I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.”
PC Sanguinetti has subsequently apologized for his words and has experienced ‘re-education’ from his superiors. However, feminists throughout the world have expressed concern that his comments were symptomatic of the pervasive assumption that men are not responsible for crimes of sexual violence against women. The organizers of Slutwalk have argued that sexual exploitation is never okay even when women dress immodestly. To underscore this point, those who are participating in Slutwalk have been holding up placards with messages such as, “The Skirt is no excuse for Rape” and “Don’t tell us now to dress: tell men not to rape.”
The walks have taken on a strong Dionysian flavour, as the women participating in them have been encouraged to abandon all societal and ethical norms. This has opened the event up to criticism from Tory MP Louise Bagshawe that the Slutwalk “lionises promiscuity.” As she put it in a Newsnight interview:
“I don’t care if a woman walks naked down the street, nobody has the right to rape her or sexual assault her in any way. What the slutwalk thing is doing, however, is lionizing promiscuity and trying to make that into a feminist trait, and there is nothing feminist about it. It’s a self-destructive behaviour for men and for women, and there is no point trying to make that a mark of feminism.
Although defenders of the march have denied that they are encouraging promiscuity, you would be forgiven for drawing such a conclusion if you read what the participants are themselves saying. Suzanne Moore’s article for the Guardian defending the walks was typical:
“Being a slut, to my mind, was mostly fun – wearing and doing what you liked…. I like the idea of women being chaotic, messy and having whatever sex they want.”
Before we go any further, it’s time for a reality check. For starters, PC Sanguinetti never suggested that the men who commit sexual crimes are not responsible for their actions. Nor has anyone claimed that when a man commits acts of violence against a woman that he is not responsible as long as the woman in question was dressed like a slut. That is simply a straw-man argument, masking the more important issues at stake. Everyone agrees that criminals are responsible: the issue is whether women can be said to share part of the blame when their appearance in public conveys to men that they are sexually available.
Those participating in Slutwalk have denied that women share any culpability. To make the point that men are 100% responsible for crimes of sexual violence, the women participating in the event are intentionally dressing in exhibitionist ways, while the organizer of the Cardiff event has claimed that women need to assert their right to be sexually aggressive without fear of repercussions. It is degrading to females, many are arguing, to say that girls share some of the responsibility for their victimization when they dress in ‘slutish’ ways.
It’s time for another reality check. In any other area of criminal justice, it is generally accepted that people can do things to try to avoid being victimized. To say that shop keepers should lock their doors at night to decrease the chances of theft is not degrading to shop keepers, nor does it absolve burglars from responsibility. Or again, to say that it is sometimes prudent for those organizing youth events to insist that participants have a background check is not to degrade children nor does it absolve paedophiles from responsibility. In the same way, to say that women can decrease the chances of being victimized by dressing appropriately is neither to degrade women nor to absolve rapists from guilt. That is a false-dilemma that any rational person should be able to see through.
A Day in the Life of a Slut
So is it true that there is a correlation between dressing like a slut and being treated like one? In Wendy Shalit’s book A Return To Modesty, she suggests that the answer is yes, but she also adds another important dimension to the discussion. A woman that dresses like a slut, she argues, cannot help but draw the type of attention to herself that most women would rather evade. “We are concerned” she writes, “that if we discuss the correlation between immodest dress and street harassment, such a discussion will end up blaming the victim of the harassment. But it’s not clear that this is the only conclusion to such a discussion. Many women report that when they dress extremely provocatively and step out on the street, they simply get too much unwanted attention. It feels oppressive, as if they are wading through a jungle.”
Thus, there are good personal reasons for women not to dress like a slut. Dressing modestly helps women to avoid a type of attention that is potentially oppressive.
To underscore her point, Shalit cites the experience of author Jenna McCarthy who engaged in a “Slut for a Day” experiment after being dared by one of her friends to wear a leather microskirt and an off-the-shoulder, skintight black T-shirt.
“At first she feels good about it, she reports in Mademoiselle, because she is ‘exercising her right’ to look sexy. Then Miss McCarthy steps out of the house. First, at 9:30 A.M., she is offended by the guys who gape at her breasts. She thinks: “They’re just breasts, for God’s sake. Don’t you people get any cable access channels?” Then at 9:45, a man on a loading dock says he would like to, as she puts it, “do something unmentionable.” “Sick bastard,” she thinks. At 4 P.M, she doesn’t like the way a man is grunting at her at the Laundromat, so she gives “him my best up-yours look.” At 9 P.M, another man says something obscene to her at a pub, and then in a failed bid to peek up her skirt, he falls off his bar stool and knocks it over.
The anecdotal testimony of many women suggests that Miss McCarthy experience is not an anomaly. Indeed, historical documents from the ancient past through to the present show that men have tended to respond to women, in part, based on how they look, and this can include what a woman chooses to wear, or not to wear. For example, the concept of the ‘temptress’ who dresses in a way to entice certain types of men (either for sex or for sexual attention) has been a powerful cross-cultural archetype throughout human history, and the reality of this paradigm is not diminished merely because we live in a society in which the uniform of the temptress has become culturally normative.
From Objectification to Obscuration
What Miss McCarthy experienced during her day as a slut is what is often referred to as “Sexual objectification”, a term used to describe the practice of treating another person as merely an object to gratify sexual pleasure. Interestingly, “Sexual objectification” is one of the things that the women participating in the Slutwalks say they are revolting against. For example, on the ‘SlutWalk London’ website we read that “sexuality can be celebrated without leading to objectification.” (Within this context, the celebrating sexuality is shorthand for being able to dress like a slut.)
On the surface, the Slutwalk phenomenon seems like a rather odd way to go about dealing with the problem of objectification. Indeed, if the “slut for the day” experiment was anything to go by, there is a causal link between a woman dressing provocatively and that same woman being objectified by men. While no one would say that such dress excuses men from responsibility, it is equally naive to imagine that the causal link does not exist. The solution for objectification given by the organizers of Slutwalk is rather like the man who tried to bring the crime rate down by leaving the doors of his house unlocked whenever he was away. Exhibitionist attire is not the solution to objectification, but one of its principal causes.
But there is another, more subtle, difficulty with the way Slutwalk is attempting to deal with the problem of sexual objectification. Many who have been participating in the event have unwittingly embraced a narrative that ends up obscuring the very sexuality they claim to be celebrating. This can best be understood by comparing the revealing appearance of those participating in the walks with the provocative appearance of prostitutes. A prostitute will dress skimpily in order purposely to incite men to sex, recognizing the connection between clothes and sexual availability. The whole point of the recent walks, however, is that a woman can dress like a slut without it having anything to do with sex, and without it signalling her sexual availability. While the prostitute dresses revealingly because she recognizes that she is an inherently sexual being whose body is charged with erotic suggestion, the participants of Slutwalk have embraced a narrative which denies that the revealed body is necessarily charged with erotic suggestion. In so doing, these walks are negating the very sexuality they claim to be celebrating.
Or we might compare the mentality behind the Slutwalk to that which animates Muslim women who wear burqas. At first this seems like an odd comparison to make. While the women of Slutwalk dress in a way designed to reveal, the women who wear burqas dress in a way designed to conceal. Although these two approaches appear to be polar opposites, they both presuppose a common narrative about the body. Both are ways of trying to deny the potency, power and inherent sexuality of the body. The burqa will obscure a woman’s inherent sexual identity through attempting to erase anything that would be emblematic of feminine identity, from her figure to her hair to her face. There is consequently no way to know (except by association) that the person behind the burqa is even a woman. As such, a woman’s sexual identity is negated by the attempt to disconnect how she appears from who one she is. This same narrative has been pervasive in the various Slutwalks, though the expression is different. To pretend that walking down the street in hardly any clothes does not give off a message about sexual availability, is to functionally deny the fact that our bodies are sexually charged. It is to take something – namely, uncovered flesh – which is actually latent with erotic suggestion and treat it instead as something merely common, without the respect and honor due to it. This implicitly denies a woman’s inherent sexuality since it rejects the inescapable connotation attendant in the exposure of one’s sex organs, placing the responsibility instead for such connotation (and the corollary objectification) entirely with men.
When anything short of complete nudity becomes comfortable for a woman in public (as the photographs from previous Slutwalks indicate), this is usually a sign that the naked body has lost its sexual associations, and this can only happen to the degree that a woman successfully represses her own innate eroticism. Exposing most of her breasts, legs and midriff then becomes like exposing her elbow, as the woman acts like a pre-pubescent girl where there isn’t and shouldn’t be sexual connotations. It is to pretend that exposure does not proclaim what everyone knows it does, in fact, proclaim.
In the end, the path of the slut is less sexy than the modest alternatives. Those things which ought to be signifiers of sexuality, and therefore kept private, have been emptied of their meaning, having been turned into something tame, trivialized and humdrum. “Profane” best describes the resulting situation, given that the term originally meant “to treat as common.”
Thus, the Slutwalks are thus encouraging the repression of female sexual identity in a way not dissimilar to the burqa. Both are attempting to say – albeit in opposite ways – that the body can be de-sexualized. Here again, Suzanne Moore’s article in the Guardian defending the Slutwalks is very instructive, since she testified to the process she went through as a slut of self-consciously denying the sexualized association of skimpy clothing.
Clothes are a vocabulary, and one that we hammered the meaning out of. We took the signs of “sex” and tore them up. …. sluttiness is always in the eye of the beholder.
Not Merely Common
The solution to both the slut and the burqa is for women to be encouraged to dress in a way that is at once feminine and modest, which both affirms sexual identity as the same time as underscoring the fact that sexuality needs to be cherished, preserved and honoured. (This is another point that Shalit has highlighted so admirably in A Return to Modesty). To wear modest clothing is to affirm the true importance of our sexual identity since it proclaims that our bodies are not merely common, tame and benign.
We can begin to see how ironic it is that women who have decided to dress modesty are often said to be the ones “uncomfortable with their bodies” or “ashamed of their sexuality.” However, to say that a modest woman is uncomfortable with her body is like saying that I am uncomfortable with my expensive fine chinaware because I refuse to use it to feed the dogs with. Just as my fine china is too precious to put to common use, so the treasure of the human body should be too valuable to use in any but the appropriate context.
Modesty is thus the truly erotic option since it gives the highest valuation to one’s sexual identity. By contrast, a culture that does not place a premium on modesty is a culture in which sex is ultimately reduced to something boring. It was observed in The Times that advertisers are finding that sex does not sell products like it once did. The reason, reported Cristina Odone, is that the advertisers have made sex so banal it does not entice us any longer. The words of one 16-year old boy who was cited in a 2004 newspaper article is typical: “I’m so used to it, it makes me sick.” Nor should we be surprised that in Denmark, where pornography is unrestricted, people are often quoted as saying that sex is dull.
This should come as no surprise. Modesty and chastity are not matters of negation, but of affirmation: affirming the sacredness and beauty of sexuality and committing to preserve the sense in which it is set apart and cherished. C. S. Lewis observed that “when a thing is enclosed, the mind does not willingly regard it as common.” The narrative implicit in the Slutwalks, on the other hand, is that sexuality requires no enclosure, that women should be able to display their sexuality to all the world without fear of repercussions. In so doing, they have ended up trivializing their sexuality.
It is ironic that a movement which includes in its aims the celebration of female sexuality, has ended up championing its negation.
Some of this article will be appearing in the monthly magazine of Christian Voice, a UK ministry whose website is http://www.christianvoice.org.uk/. The article is reprinted here with permission.