On Sluts. And the Racism/Feminism divide.

I’ve written about SlutWalks before, but a quick history: they stem from comments made by a police officer giving a speech. In it, he implied that women could avoid being raped by not wearing provocative clothing. The comments prompted so-called SlutWalks in major cities across the world. Women (and men) have marched (and are still marching) in protest.

To be clear, I really hate the word “slut.” It’s not a word I feel any inclination to reclaim. I don’t want to be called “slut.” I don’t want to call myself “slut.” It sends shivers up my spine. But I really like how moved people were to try and do something about it.

We live in a culture that is not supportive of women, of their clothing, or of their victimization. Rape victims are often reprimanded. Rather than addressing the rapists, we address the victims with criticism, complaints, judgement. New Jersey just passed a law to ensure that victims don’t have to pay for their own rape kit processing. As of August 15, it hadn’t been signed.

We were driving out of Chicago last summer and passed a scantily clothed woman on the South Side. “She’s just asking for it,” said my passenger. I nearly slammed on the brakes and made him walk. I turned to him and, while agreeing that her clothing was inappropriate for 4pm on a weekday, asked him how he’d feel if it was me who was being judged. Or how he’d feel if I got raped. “Would it be my fault?” I asked him. I often wonder what would happen, since I’m so outspoken about sexuality and sexual issues. Were I to be raped, would anyone believe me? Would I lose the respect of my peers?

Granted, there are things you can do to help mitigate the potential for rape, but often, nothing can be done. Rape is not the fault of the victim, no matter the circumstance.

The article below, published on the Ms. magazine website October 5, 2011, addresses the issues of racism within the feminist movement.

A few months ago, I purchased Girl Drive, a  look at everyday women across America. What struck me was the disconnect that people reported feeling between feminism and their cultures. They spoke about feminism being for white girls. I actually fit the definition of their idea of what a feminist was: it’s the academic, middle-class, white girl (basically college me). They spoke about being black rather than being a feminist. Or about being black before being a feminist. It’s as though the idea of being a black feminist was impossible. Culture comes first. And sometimes, there’s not enough room for both.

On the surface, it seems simple to bridge the gap between race and feminism. But it’s not. Peace and love is way harder than you’d think.

Another article, mentioned in the article below, discusses other issues associated with black feminism. It argues that white women have benefited from the “racialized virgin/whore dichotomy,” by fostering distrust of white women and blinding the white women to “what a SlutWalk would look like in solidarity with black women, with low-income women” etc. I don’t entirely agree with that. I don’t think that any women have benefited from the dichotomy, and that separation of women (by race, by income level, by immigration status, etc) only hinders our progress as we must fight among ourselves before we can fight for something else.

[Some] White women embrace feminism and that shouldn’t be a reason that anyone else can’t embrace feminism as well. People do. There are feminists of all colors. There are poor feminists and rich feminists.  Feminists who are double-jointed and feminists who aren’t. Feminists who have longer second toes. Feminists who have wonky ears and who have no taste in music.

I am finding that more and more of racial tension (in specific situations and circumstances, not across the board) stems from our attempts to address and acknowledge differences because regardless of our own color, we’re so hypersensitive to it. (It exists. We all see it. I absolutely accept that I have “white privilege” but disagree that it blinds me entirely.)

I realize that racism is still alive and well. Racism happens every day in institutions, from schools to prisons, in the media, in government. By acknowledging race before we acknowledge any other characteristic, we’re limiting the scope of our focus. We can’t see any further. Therefore, we make no progress.

I think that to move past it, we must put it aside. As educated individuals, we must simply step over it rather than letting it be a line that both sides draw. It has to start somewhere. It will trickle out around us. It will grow in the minds of our children. Progress.

As women, we can be that beginning. We can work together as women united by a stronger cause. We can embrace our differences, learn from each other, and begin to create a strong network of support. Regardless of color, women must realize that other women are not the enemy. Neither are men.

The enemy is the idea of inequality, of implied consent. The enemy lies in assumptions.

It is possible to be many things at once. Our connections, our histories, all of those things could lead us to create powerful webs of community. Instead, we let them divide us. We must stop seeing everyone as fractured statistics and start seeing them as whole people before we make any progress on this.

I agree with the author (of the second article – linked here) when she closes by saying:

There’s a reason why many rape survivors don’t come forward with their experiences. They do not want to be subject to such words by a larger society that still blames victims. At least the SlutWalk boldly takes on that word, and in doing so, invites us to empty it of its power and its racist, classist, hetero/sexist meanings.  Whether that’s possible is another debate, but for now, it’s useful to remember what Emi Koyama once wrote: “Everyone is safe when sluts are safe.”

What NYC SlutWalk Was, and What It Wasn’t

October 5, 2011 by  · Leave a Comment 
Union Square was packed when I arrived at this weekend’s inaugural New York SlutWalk. The crowd was mostly women, mostly young and mostly white. Clothing styles ranged from topless to scanty to normal street garb to formal. One woman wore a business suit. A common thread was “slut” in red and black markers across foreheads, arms, backs and chests. The red-and-black writing was striking: People silently write “slut” across a girl’s chest everyday, but here it was, literalized.
I wandered through the 3,000-person crowd amid signs such as “Women are Souls, Not Holes” and “If I was asking for it, I would ask for it.” “This is what I was wearing when I was raped” read one sign held by a woman in pajamas. Another held pictures of her battered body from a sexual assault a few weeks prior. As I talked with her and other NYC SlutWalkers, they all kept using the same word: empowerment. For many of them, it was the first time they had ever participated in a march about women’s rights, and it was the first time they felt surrounded by other people who “got it.”
When I finally found my way to the SlutWalk organizers, I was feeling pretty slutty and powerful myself. I’d even found a “Slut Pride” pin and attached it to my shirt. But as I reviewed my prepared questions, I remembered the serious qualms I and other feminists had with SlutWalk, such as the recent criticisms from women of color. When I asked Holly Meyer, one of the organizers, about these critiques, she had a simple response:
We have always been inclusive. We’ve always said anyone is welcome to come to our meetings, we’ve never excluded any group. It’s unfortunate that some people have that perspective and don’t feel welcome, but our message is to end sexual violence.
Plain and simple. The point of SlutWalk isn’t complicated. Or, at least, the NYC SlutWalk organizers don’t seem to think so.
Holly was proud to say that many of rally’s official performances were by women of color. From what I witnessed, those performers focused on calling for solidarity and inclusiveness, but did not get into the unique experiences that black and other marginalized women have had with sexual violence and words like “slut.” For example, Amber Stewart of Radical Women said during her performance:
We have to work to tear down racism, because there is no place in this movement for an Us versus Them mentality. We need all voices, all concerns brought to the table.
Holly told me some other great things about the NYC SlutWalk, like its pressure on the NYPD to have sensitivity trainings or its calls to the FBI asking for a change in the FBI’s definition of rape.
Despite all this, it’s easy to criticize the NYC SlutWalk as a rally for privileged white feminists, especially when women of color at the rally were few and far between. I also couldn’t help but wince when I saw a group of men staring, mouths open, at the woman in lingerie pole-dancing on the back of bike during the march. If I talked to those men today, I doubt they could tell me what the march was about.
Overall, however, I left the NYC SlutWalk feeling like it was a work in progress. Yes, it should focus more squarely on women of color issues. But it brought out thousands of New Yorkers against sexual violence at a time when Brooklyn NYPD are telling women not to wear skirts to avoid being raped. It allowed 3,000 New Yorkers to feel like they were in power for a few hours on a Saturday. We should ask SlutWalks to graduate to a higher level of feminist thinking that addresses race and deeper issues within rape culture, but I think we should also recognize them for the work in their freshman year.
Photo of SlutWalk NYC sign holder from Flickr user David Shankbone under Creative Commons 2.0.
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