Thursday, May 12, 2011

Slutwalk: Disingenuous Debate

I am fascinated by how quickly the activist Slutwalk has taken off. If you're not familiar with it, this is a pretty good summation from the Slutwalk page:
On January 24th, 2011, a representative of the Toronto Police gave shocking insight into the Force’s view of sexual assault by stating: “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”. As the city’s major protective service, the Toronto Police have perpetuated the myth and stereotype of ‘the slut’, and in doing so have failed us. With sexual assault already a significantly under-reported crime, survivors have now been given even less of a reason to go to the Police, for fear that they could be blamed. Being assaulted isn’t about what you wear; it’s not even about sex; but using a pejorative term to rationalize inexcusable behaviour creates an environment in which it’s okay to blame the victim. Historically, the term ‘slut’ has carried a predominantly negative connotation. Aimed at those who are sexually promiscuous, be it for work or pleasure, it has primarily been women who have suffered under the burden of this label. And whether dished out as a serious indictment of one’s character or merely as a flippant insult, the intent behind the word is always to wound, so we’re taking it back. “Slut” is being re-appropriated. We are tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result. Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless if we participate in sex for pleasure or work. No one should equate enjoying sex with attracting sexual assault
.


"Reclaiming" words can be a complex task, and it's no big surprise that some folks disagree with the concept of a slutwalk, including some feminists. Debate about such things is healthy for feminist movements, I think, just as debates in black communities around use of "nigga", and debates in LGBT communities about the word "queer"
can be healthy.

Thing is, much of the debate about slut walk seems to be at the very least misguided, and at its worst completely disingenuous. On the "misguided" end of the spectrum, I really enjoyed Meaghan Murphy's analysis of why Slutwalk stopped appealing to her, but her main take is that it's just not feminist enough, in the way that the "This is what a feminist looks like" video isn't feminist enough (for her), and I simply disagree with her. I don't think that feminism is a zero-sum game where we need to take only one path toward achieving feminist ideals--I think it can be the case that both Slutwalk and Solanas' S.C.U.M Manifesto can provide us all with insights and inspire us to act. I don't have to agree with everything folks on Slutwalk's facebook page say in order to take good things away from it, any more than I have to believe that there should really be a Society for Cutting Up Men in order to take Solanas' views on pornography seriously. Just as a for-instance.

Meagan Murphy is making a thoughtful critique on what Slutwalk has become, or might become, versus what she thought it originally might have been aiming at, and I think that can be a fair criticism. I just disagree with her. Compared to her analysis, the analysis by Gail Dines and Wendy Murphy (no relation to Meagan, I think) is pretty obviously disingenuous. In their Guardian article they say:

The organisers claim that celebrating the word "slut", and promoting sluttishness in general, will help women achieve full autonomy over their sexuality.
and
Women need to take to the streets – but not for the right to be called "slut".


However, a simple, cursory read of Slutwalk's website, including what I quoted above, is enough to show that Dines' and Murphy's "critique" is a simple strawperson argument--sure, if Slutwalk were arguing for the right to be called slut, that would not be the kind of activism feminists of any kind could get behind--but of course that's not what they're fighting for at all. There are all kinds of good criticisms of Dines' and Murphy's article around the interwebs (I like Lindsay Beyerstein's take on it, and Hugo does a pretty good job too), so I won't go into it much, but I'm just disappointed that Dines takes something complex and intricate and tries to present it in such a simplistic way. Checking out some pictures from the (original) Toronto Slutwalk, there are signs that say "If I stop dressing like 'a slut' will I be safe from rape? Stop victim-blaming hold the abuser accountable!" If that's not feminist, I don't know what is, really.

In the debate below, Dines takes it even further. First, she reiterates her plainly ridiculous criticism that women can't "reclaim" the word slut, because it was never used in a positive way--as if the folks who reclaim "queer" and "nigger" were trying to get back to a bygone era when those words meant something positive. But then she takes it further and suggests that the organizers of Slutwalk are just trying to promote themselves personally, and are too steeped in academia, instead of in the real world. Which is just woefully ironic. I have no doubt that Dines does some good work with actual women, but checking out her activism site, Stop Porn Culture, I wonder if she was projecting during that debate, as the front page of Stop Porn Culture has an advertisement for both her next speaking engagement (presumably paid, as it should be) and her book. Is Stop Porn Culture about stopping porn culture, or about Gail Dines?

Of course, such criticism is completely unfair--as activists, folks still have to make money to live, and selling books spreads the word and potentially changes the world. There are unavoidable intersections between self-promotion and changing-the-world, and I'm sure Dines understands that--she must, as she doesn't have a problem with lots of self-promoting on Stop Porn Culture. But of course she has a problem with the organizers of Slutwalk both creating something amazing and at the same time, probably, promoting their own work.

The debate is still worth watching, and a fascinating portrait of disingenuousness.
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