Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Who Are You Callin’ a “Slut”? And Why?

 
 
Okay, it’s true.  I am obsessed by language and stereotypes, as you will know if you’ve read my previous posts.  And finally, my obsession seems to be echoed in the feminist movement (though I am not claiming responsibility for that).  What’s more, it’s doing so through grassroots activism sparked by a specific word: Slut.
 
Powerful word, that one, with decades of baggage and dark connotations.  Yet it is serving to impel women and men all over the world to organize Slutwalks.  Women in Toronto organized the first one after a police officer lecturing about rape prevention told students, “I’m not supposed to say this, but avoid dressing like sluts.”   He was right; he was not supposed to say it, and shouldn’t have been surprised by the response: a march at which organizers expected 200+ people, but 3,000 showed up, to “change the system and do something constructive with anger and frustration.”

From there things snowballed, and more than 60 city-specific Slutwalks have occurred or been planned, from Toronto to Dallas to Brisbane to Sao Paolo to Edinburgh.   Perhaps even in your city. In my home city, Seattle, it’s on June 19th.   And lucky us: we’re going to be “honored” by a protest from the Westboro Baptist Church, the folks who bring you loud, disruptive, homophobic protests at the funerals of fallen service members.  Is that how we know we’ve hit the big time?

I confess, when I heard the date I had to wonder if the organizers deliberately chose the date: it’s Juneteenth, the day for celebrating the ending of slavery in the United States.  (Well, its official repudiation, anyway, if not its actual eradication.)   But it seems unlikely that was intentional, especially in light of the responses  from many women of color to the protests.   What strikes me about these comments, and the rebuttals to the responses, is how wondrous it is that the feminist/women’s/human rights movement is having this discussion respectfully, thoughtfully, and in the spirit of inquiry.

There are genuine questions and issues here, both from the perspective of the experiences of women of color, and older feminists for whom the idea of ‘reclaiming’ the word is antithetical to their experience. Analyses of the differing gender and race oppression and exploitation experiences of women is worthwhile and necessary. These discussions are interesting, necessary and exhilarating, and not just for word geeks like me: they represent yet another stage in the evolution of feminism.

But what is not (nor in my view, should be) up for discussion is the clear and absolute need to call out these blaming phrases.  And of course, it’s not just the cop in Toronto.  It’s also the one here in King County, who discussed the possibility of foul play in the case of a missing 19-year old, Kathy Chou: “This kid had never run away, she didn’t seem to be into drugs at all, she wasn’t sleeping around . . . . ”  Remind me again why you need to throw a woman’s sexual activity in with being a runaway and using illegal drugs?   Because you’re shaming and blaming women, that’s why.   If she had been “sleeping around” would that mean her disappearance was less worthy of investigation?

Unsurprisingly, lawyers for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former International Monetary Fund chairman accused of sexually assaulting a hotel worker, have taken the same low road.   Yes, Strauss-Kahn is presumed innocent. And yes, his attorneys must do their zealous best to defend him.   But you have to wonder, given the apparent finding of his DNA on her clothing, if they believe their only chance of prevailing is by smearing the victim.

So, thank you to those women and men having a genuine debate about the word, and about the Walks. And to those of you engaging in reflexive misogynistic blather, just shut up.  It’s our turn, and we’re sick of your nonsense.  Sick enough to turn out 6,000 people in Seattle, and tens of thousands more around the globe.

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