Hiding Under the Bed Is Not the Answer

The Slutwalk Phenomen –aka “La Marcha de las Putas”– Arrives in Mexico

The Slutwalks that have taken place in Canada, the United States, Britain and countless other places have generally divided the feminist community. In the UK, some, such as the London Anti-Street Harassment Campaign founder Vicky Simister, have been enthusiastic supporters; others like campaigners Gail Dines and Wendy J. Murphy, have been extremely critical of the idea. The whole thing was triggered by a group of women in Toronto who decided they had had enough of sexual violence being attributed to what women wear (and specifically as a response to a police officer who told students that the best way to avoid getting raped was to avoid dressing like a “slut”). On their blog they write, for example:

SlutWalk started because a few people were angry at the status quo, we were angry at the Toronto Police, because we were too tired of seeing sexual assault overlooked by many, because we demand better for the survivors of sexual assault, for those damaged by blaming and shaming language, and for the respect that everyone deserves and should be given.

The slogan for the 4 June London Slutwalk is “Society teaches ‘Don’t get raped’ rather than ‘don’t rape.'” To which supporter Vicky Simister adds :

Slutwalk’s response to this attitude is clear: “NO. Let’s raise our voices and tell the world that rape is never, ever OK. Not if she was wearing a miniskirt. Not if she was naked. Not if she was your wife, girlfriend or friend. Not if she was a prostitute. Not if she was drunk. Not if you thought she wanted to.”
No means no. Rape, by definition, means non-consensual sex. Rape is NEVER the victim’s fault. It’s about time society faced the facts.

On the website of the London Slutwalk you can read a number of people explaining why they propose to march. In general, they are people who have suffered sexual assault or know someone who have. The common theme is anger over how the survivor of the assault has been treated; by the police, by their friends, by society in general.

No one (in the feminist community that is) argues with this. However many do take issue with the use of the word “slut” which is charged with negative connotations and a well-loved word of the misogynist. As Dines and Murphy argued in a comment piece in the Guardian:

The organisers claim that celebrating the word “slut”, and promoting sluttishness in general, will help women achieve full autonomy over their sexuality. But the focus on “reclaiming” the word slut fails to address the real issue. The term slut is so deeply rooted in the patriarchal “madonna/whore” view of women’s sexuality that it is beyond redemption. The word is so saturated with the ideology that female sexual energy deserves punishment that trying to change its meaning is a waste of precious feminist resources.

The critics think that the marches’ emphasis on women and what they are wearing is merely buying into the idea that prevention of sexual assault is merely a women’s issue. Journalist Julie Bindal, for example, argued in The Guardian:

Why aren’t we telling men: stop raping women? Rather than women celebrating this misogynistic term “sluttiness”. What is different about what the Canadian police officer said and what police officers have said through time immemorial when killers and serial rapists are on the loose, which is: “Women, don’t go out on your own at night, stay indoors.” They don’t say to men: “There’s a curfew on you.” The curfew is on us.

Another general feeling amongst the critics seems to be that they would prefer a march that didn’t buy into the capitalist notion –sold to us by advertisements and the like- that choice equals freedom. In an excellent article by Harsha Walia, a feminist activist from Canada, this position is resumed thus:

Slutwalk – in its slick branding – runs the risk of facilitating the dominant discourse of ‘liberated’ women as only those women wearing mini-skirts and high heels in/on their way to professional jobs. In reality, capitalism mediates the feminist façade of choice by creating an entire industry that commodifies women’s sexuality and links a woman’s self-esteem and self-worth to fashion and beauty. Slutwalk itself consistently refuses any connection to feminism and fixates solely around liberal questions of individual choice – the palatable “I can wear what I want” feminism that is intentionally devoid of an analysis of power dynamics.

A further objection to the marches is that they provide a perfect excuse to the media to run pictures of “scantily clad” girls (witness the recent Daily Mail –who else?- headline to that effect). Why should women let lend themselves to a march that will simply be wilfully misunderstood and misrepresented in the press? Joanna Chui, a Canadian journalist has a great piece on how the media, and the photos it has chosen to print, has distorted both the image and the message of the Slutwalkers:

[…] photographs from the protest in The Toronto Star primarily featured images of young, white women. It seemed consistent with the typical underrepresentation of people of color and the overrepresentation of young, attractive white women in the mainstream media […]The Toronto Sun, […] spent as many words describing the participants’ outfits as on the topic of victim-blaming itself: “Leading the march, Sierra ‘Chevy’ Harris danced in knee-high black boots, with Magdalena ‘Maggie’ Ivasecko sporting see-through, waist-high net stockings over white panties.”

Finally, and most interestingly from a Mexican standpoint, the harshest critic comes from those who see the whole Slutwalk idea as yet another manifestation of privileged white western women complaining about discrimination and victim-blaming while simultaneously silencing and ignoring the plight of women of other colour and races. Perhaps the most eloquent expression of this can be found in Aura Blogando’s piece “Slutwalk: a Stroll Through White Supremacy” in her blog To the Curb:

If SlutWalk truly wanted to bring attention to the systematic ways in which women are harmed by regressive and misogynistic thinking, they could have done the heavy lifting of reaching out and supporting black, poor and transgender women in New Orleans, for whom the word “slut” carries a criminal sex offender record. Instead, they force us to keep bearing the multiple burdens that come with not only being a woman, but also being a working class woman of color. Had SlutWalk organizers considered New Orleans – or perhaps any city in the Northern Hemisphere where undocumented women possess a very real fear that a call to the police for any reason will result in her own deportation – they might have thought twice about sinking so much time and energy into their event. They might have had to listen to women of color, and actually involve them in visioning for what an equitable future would look like. Instead, they decided to celebrate a term not everyone is comfortable even saying. While I will not pretend to speak for women targeted in New Orleans, I doubt that the mere idea of naming themselves “sluts” would be welcomed. SlutWalk has proven itself to be a maddening distraction from the systematic and interpersonal violence that women of color face daily.

The charge is that by emphasizing the issue of clothing the Slutwalkers are ignoring “the fact that history of genocide against Indigenous women, the enslavement of Black women, and the forced sterilization of poor women goes beyond their attire” (Walia).

    The Mexico City Slutwalk (styled La Marcha de las Putas) is planned for 12 June. Others are being planned in Puebla and Cancun. The Mexico City one is being organised by the anti-street harassment group AtréveteDF (“Dare to DF!”), the group Feminicidios del Campo Algodonero
(“Femicides in the Cotton Field”; for more information on this subject see my post
here) as well as other feminist groups that work to prevent violence against women. The slogan they have chosen is “No means No” (no es no) or in its longer form: “Enough! I decide about my body and No means No.” (¡Basta! Yo decido sobre mi cuerpo y No, es No.) Although I have not been able to find many discussions on the subject of reclaiming the word “puta” (which is perhaps even more negatively charged than “slut”) and none whatsoever on the question of race or class, it is clear that the Mexican organizers are aware of the ongoing debates. Thus, while the emphasis of the marches is again on the clothing issue (“Si me pongo medias de red y tacones de aguja: no, significa no.” “Even if I put on fish net stockings and stilettos: no means no”); in their statement the Mexico City organisers are being very careful to make the march as inclusive as possible:

We aren’t just inviting women to join us, but rather everyone, whatever their gender, sexual orientation, profession, level of education, race, ethnicity, age [or] ability […] to come together and make a statement about sexual violence and the rights of victims. […] To demand respect for all women and men. Join us in this mission to spread the word that those who suffer sexual violence are, without exception, not to blame.

The organisers, with their background in social activism amongst victims of violence, are more than aware sexual assault in Mexico is extremely common and that poor, marginalised women and indigenous women are those who suffer most (see my post here and here). They may not emphasis other causes of violence against women in their flyers and publicity, but their actions –especially the efforts of the group Feminicidios to secure justice for the thousands of women raped and murdered in Ciudad Juárez. Chihuahua in the last few years- demonstrate they are committed to rights for all women, not just white or mestizo women, not just prosperous urbanites, but women of all classes and ethnicity.

Moreover, in the current context in which the mayor of one northern municipality, Novato, Sinaloa, has recently decided to prohibit miniskirts in secondary schools with the aim of reducing teenage pregnancy, the question of female attire is very much in the news. Moreover, it is an issue which also affects women in daily life, even if they are lucky enough not to experience harassment; public hospitals generally do not allow women wearing miniskirts or strapless dresses or vest tops to visit patients; and in many businesses employers oblige their female staff to wear makeup and abide by strict dress codes. Indigenous women wearing their traditional clothing can be barred from shops and hotels with impunity. What women wear, then, is one that Mexican society considers a public matter; one that demands rules and regulations. Those people who don’t obey such dress codes are discriminated against, harassed and considered unworthy of the protection of the law. The bottom line is that women’s clothing is a big deal here. Thus a march which demands respect for women, regardless of what they have on, is very important.

Filed under: Feminism, Violence Against Women, , , , , , , ,

One Response

  1. Joni says:

    Mexico City’s statement on being inclusive came directly from the first SlutWalk in Toronto as well as the emphasis on people dressing how they wanted to.

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