Sunday, May 1, 2011

"Slutwalk": Empowerment or Exploitation?

Today, I learned about a public event called “Slutwalk.” It’s advertised as a rally that's held to spread awareness of sexual assault, and for sexual assault survivors of all genders to meet and support one another. It was formed in response to a Toronto police officer’s claim that women wouldn’t be raped anymore if they just stopped dressing like “sluts.” Understandably, people were outraged and decided to protest. It all sounded like a good idea to me until I read this in the description: those who attend the rally are supposed to dress like “sluts” in order to “take back” their sexuality, and take back the word. They hold up signs proclaiming “Slut Pride,” and proudly wear the label.
            It alarms me how popular the Slutwalk movement has become, and I think it points to a larger social phenomenon of confusing exploitation with empowerment. There’s nothing wrong with encouragement and group support, but we’ve largely lost sight of what it actually means.
            The police officer’s statement was obviously grossly insensitive, as well as inaccurate. Victim-blaming is never progressive. Women (and men and children) can be sexually assaulted regardless of what they wear. Women who wear burqas are raped every day. Rape is a crime of violence. It’s more about power than about sex. Rape is born of a desire to dominate and terrorize; to force one’s will and one’s body on another person. Unfortunately, I don’t see how rallies like Slutwalk could combat rape or manage to be truly liberating for anyone.
            Firstly, I don’t like the title. It’s meant to highlight the police officer’s ignorance and to reclaim a degrading word. However, I have misgivings about whether such a word can even be reclaimed. Some women may attempt to use it endearingly, but society at large will not. It’s a pejorative term that measures a woman’s entire worth by her sexual behavior. (While a man can also be called a “slut,” it’s usually said jokingly and without any real disapproval of male promiscuity. As we all know, men are usually encouraged to sleep around while women are shunned for it.) In my opinion, it’s not a good idea to try to give the word a positive connotation. It’s not positive or healthy to be compulsively promiscuous, regardless of your gender. That being said, I don’t think that people who engage in risky sexual behavior should be demonized. More often than not, it stems from psychological problems which cause a person to crave attention and approval while fearing genuine intimacy. Those who have this problem should be treated with compassion and concern, not with ridicule. I don’t see how embracing the concept of promiscuity solves anything, though. You don’t solve a problem by pretending it doesn’t exist, nor do you solve it by lashing out at the people who suffer from it.
            My second objection to Slutwalk is the fact that those who attend it are encouraged to dress as provocatively as possible. This is also utterly counterproductive if the goal is to de-objectify women. I don’t think that women who wear revealing outfits are “asking for it.” It doesn’t place the responsibility of rape on their shoulders, nor does it absolve a rapist of his or her actions. Once again, nothing justifies sexual assault. I’ve heard people say that women shouldn’t have to take self-defense classes or learn to avoid risky situations. Of course we shouldn’t have to, since no one should get raped. In an ideal world, there would be no need for self-defense or any other precaution. Regardless of how things should be, though, it’s not the way they are. Things happen that shouldn’t happen, and people do things they shouldn’t do. As a result, we need to make an effort to protect ourselves. A college student who attends a frat party wearing a bikini and proceeds to drink herself unconscious does not deserve to be raped. Her apparel may mean that she seeks validation, rather than implying a sexual invitation. She may just drink to feel more comfortable within the setting. The rapist is at fault for violating her, not vice versa. However, this doesn’t change the fact that she’s more at risk of sexual assault than a student who attends a party with a group of friends, shows up with her body reasonably covered, leaves none of her drinks unattended, and arranges for a trusted friend to take her home. Is it possible that the latter student could also be raped? Absolutely. My point, though, is that it’s less likely. As women, we owe it to ourselves to look out for our own safety, as well as the safety of other women. It’s pointless to refuse to protect ourselves just because we know that men shouldn’t take advantage of us.
            As far as objectification goes, I think that going out of one’s way to wear revealing clothing (as Slutwalk endorses) does nothing to battle sexism. I understand the line of reasoning, which seems to be an increasing trend in popular culture as well. The rationale proposes that sexual exploitation is acceptable, as long as we’re exploiting ourselves. But whether we are exploited by others or taking the initiative in our own objectification, the end result is the same: we’re not taken seriously as human beings. We are valued mainly for sexuality (or a cheap flashy imitation of it), which comes to eclipse everything else we have to offer. Our bodies are not at fault; a body doesn’t objectify itself. Ironically, we use our brains to concoct new ways to exploit our bodies when we should be using them to defy such injustice. We talk a lot about the importance of women uniting to support one another, but how can we be united when we’re at war with our own selves?
            I doubt that the majority of men who attend Slutwalk will go with the intention of showing support for rape survivors. I predict that most will be sold by the name, and attend the rally to see women in skimpy outfits and possibly find a so-called “slut” to take home. Some women may even take part in it just for an excuse to wear an exhibitionistic ensemble like they’re at a Halloween party, which will completely negate the intended purpose. Even the original idea is self-defeating, since the police officer will not renounce his sexism upon watching a parade of scantily-clad women. It will only encourage onlookers to take a chauvinistic perspective.
            I’d like to leave you all with a quote from a very thought-provoking book called Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture:

            “The preposition that having the most simplistic, plastic stereotypes of female sexuality constantly reiterated throughout our culture somehow proves that we are sexually liberated and personally empowered has been offered to us, and we have accepted it. But if we think about it, we know this just doesn’t make any sense. It’s time to stop nodding and smiling uncomfortably as we ignore the crazy feeling in our heads and admit that the emperor has no clothes.
            Many women today, whether they are fourteen or forty, seem to have forgotten that sexual power is only one very specific kind of power. And what’s more, looking like a stripper or a Hooters waitress or a Playboy bunny is only one very specific kind of sexual expression.”

            I couldn’t agree more.

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