Are You Dressed To Be Oppressed?
Part Two of a Three-Part Series
Following on from our piece on Stella McCartney and Her Mistaken Cultural Identity, in the second article of this series, we’re going to be putting slut walk in the spotlight to determine whether we really want the right to be sluts, or if this movement falls short of its goal.
Do We Really Want The Right To Be Sluts?
The media is full of images of scantily-clad women that tell us we need to dress like sex sirens if we want to be attractive to the opposite sex – or any sex, for that matter. When we do get dressed up in the best “come-hither” outfits, we can muster; however, we’re called sluts and told that we’re asking for it.
The SlutWalk movement is trying to change that perspective and fight for the right to wear short skirts, high heels, and crop tops without being automatically labeled as sexually promiscuous. But is it working?
What Is The Slut Movement All About?
In Toronto in 2011, women took to the streets in the first-ever SlutWalk. The protest emerged in reaction to a Canadian police officer’s advice that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”
Since then, SlutWalks have taken place all over the world, with participants eager “to challenge myths that conflate revealing dress with sexual consent.”
The central premise is that by subverting and reclaiming the word slut, the movement “reflects young feminists’ emphasis on sex positivity and their interpretation of the body as a means of contesting normative expectations about women’s sexuality.”
Before we reclaim or resignify a derogatory word, we must understand its true meaning.
What Does It Mean To Be A Slut?
Before the word slut became synonymous with a sexually active woman or one who dresses provocatively, it was used to describe someone with “dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance.” It was later used to describe “a woman of low or loose character.”
These days, dictionary definitions of the word slut range from “a promiscuous person: someone who has many sexual partners —usually used of a woman” to any “sexually active woman” or “a woman who is usually untidy and lazy.”
However, an article in TeenVogue gives a more accurate definition, stating that what people really mean when they use the word is: “I grew up in a culture where female sexuality is thought to be dangerous. I’ve bought into various mythologies and traditions that allow me to blame this girl/woman for any feelings of arousal or insecurity I feel.”
Do We Really Want To Be Sluts?
Taking the above definitions into account, let’s consider that SlutWalk protestors are saying when they take to the streets in their fishnet tights and mini skirts.
Most are angry at the victim-blaming culture we live in and are making a clear statement that “What you are wearing doesn’t cause rape – the rapist causes it.”
Others are raising “awareness to the shame and degradation women still face for expressing their sexuality.”
For Germaine Greer, however, a SlutWalk event is all about the right to be dirty.
According to her, women have been forced into a life of cleanliness for far too long. “No house is ever clean enough…,” she wrote in 2011, while “Women’s bodies can never be washed often enough to be entirely free of dirt.”
For Greer, the link between sex and dirt is clear, and therefore, in order “to be liberated, women have to demand the right to be dirty.”
Taken from that perspective, the SlutWalk movement is a wholehearted rejection “of compulsory cleansing of mind, body and soul” and, as such, “is a necessary pre-condition of liberation.”
Others, however, feel that the term too “deeply rooted in the patriarchal “madonna/whore” view of women’s sexuality” to be either reclaimed or resignified.
What is the slut walk movement?
The Guardian ran an article shortly after the world’s first SlutWalk suggesting that the word slut “is so saturated with the ideology that female sexual energy deserves punishment that trying to change its meaning is a waste of precious feminist resources.”
To explore this idea more, I turned to a study conducted in 2014 that scrutinized Canadian undergraduate students’ views regarding “the meaning and use of the term “slut”.
The participants’ reactions were surprising, with some suggesting that “the movement was ‘having a reverse effect’” although the research didn’t specify how.
Others (primarily women) “were opposed to the “SlutWalk” because it was “almost like a personal attack to the cop”… who was just “trying to give good advice.”
The researchers concluded that this “state of learned helplessness” made it impossible for the participants to “consider life as young women in the absence of “slut” discourse.”
SlutWalkers aren’t, however, trying to eliminate the slut discourse but to reengage with it positively, claiming the word as our own in a similar way to how the LGBTQ movement claimed the word “queer.”
Part of the problem with the SlutWalk movement is that the word it’s trying to reclaim is highly ambiguous.
The word “slut” “functions as a cultural myth that can be employed for a variety of purposes: acting as a cautionary tale, enforcing patriarchal values, and reinforcing a just-world ideology.”
How Can We Reclaim Something So Fundamentally Mercurial, And Do We Really Want To?
For Dr. Gail Dines, a sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston, and her co-author, Wendy J Murphy, professor of sexual violence at New England Law-Boston, the answer is no.
They believe that “advocates would be better off exposing the myriad ways in which the law and the culture enable myths about all types of feminine issues and women – sexually active or ‘chaste’ alike.”
As women are just as easily criticized for being frigid “cock-teases” as they are for being sluts, encouraging them to dress or behave more sluttishly will, arguably, do little to change the rape culture.
Personally, I think the SlutWalk movement makes a valuable contribution to the current feminist dialogue, giving both women and men an opportunity to express their anger at “the pervasive and normalized nature of rape, sexual assault, slut-shaming, violence and oppression against women.”
On the other hand, women calling themselves sluts also perpetuates the notion that we must be either sexually promiscuous or frigid, but never both. In my opinion, we should be able to be women, shifting and changing without being forced into a box because of something we chose to wear.
We should be multifaceted beings capable of sexual activity or complete disinterest as any other being, human or otherwise.
We could don high heels and a short skirt in an ideal world one day and a tracksuit the next without being judged or labeled either way.