As more and more SlutWalk marches against sexual violence and victim blaming take place across the country and overseas, the movement is attracting criticism from some feminists who regard the entire premise as elitist and exclusionary. Some argue that the protests are flawed because they don’t explicitly take into account the racial politics of the word “slut,” which make it more complicated, difficult, and risky for many women of color to join in the movement.
The critics raise valid points. As the movement unfolds it is important to be talking about who’s being left out and what else needs to be done. However, many of the denunciations strike me as unduly harsh towards the organizers of the SlutWalks.
SlutWalk started as a local phenomenon that went viral. The organizers were students who were outraged over a particular incident in their community, a Toronto police officer telling students to not dress like “sluts” if they didn’t want to get raped. So, they organized and protested in a way that seemed appropriate to their circumstances. These young women couldn’t have anticipated that they would galvanize a international movement almost over night. SlutWalks have already been held from Vancouver, B.C. to London, England and more are planned.
SlutWalk is about standing in solidarity with all victims of sexual violence and demanding police protection for everyone. It’s not about encouraging women to be “sluts” it’s about mocking the meaningless concept of sluttiness, which is just an excuse to say that certain women don’t count.
It’s important to point out that SlutWalk is not a model that will work for everyone. This kind of protest is likely to have disproportionate appeal for young, white, college educated women who don’t have to worry about the state taking their children away, or getting fired, or ostracized by their communities if they publicly flirt with the label of “slut.” I can call myself a slut and, chances are, people won’t even believe me. They’ll think “Oh, she’s just saying it for attention.” or “Maybe she was slutty in college.” Whereas, if a woman of color calls herself a slut in a racist society, people are more likely to conjure up some lurid assumption about what that means, and file her declaration away as “evidence” for their racist theories.
This argument cuts both way. The label “slut” hurts everyone, but it is disproportionately harmful and painful for women who are trying to cultivate a positive sexual self-image in a racist society. So, any movement that attempts to defang or deflate the concept of “slut” is at least potentially beneficial for all women.
There’s an unexamined assumption that SlutWalk is bad feminism if it doesn’t appeal to everyone. The same could be said about almost any kind of protest tactic. Civil disobedience is a lot easier to contemplate as a more privileged person. You have greater assurance of fair treatment by the justice system. You can be confident that your protest will be read as “Getting Arrested on Principle,” as opposed to “Riff Raff Getting Out Of Line,” and so on. That doesn’t mean that civil disobedience is never a valid tactic.