SlutWalks: Feeling Free vs. Being Free
In January, Toronto police constable Michael Sanguinetti made a gaffe that has sparked a worldwide protest among young women and their supporters. Sanguinetti was speaking about women’s safety at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School when he suggested that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” There you have it: that old canard that women provoke rape and sexual assault. (A colleague told me that overalls happen to be the garment that attracts rapists most often–I don’t know if it’s true or where she heard that but apparently it’s because they are easy to get off quickly. Not because they are so alluring…) Two women in Toronto responded immediately–calling for a “SlutWalk” to protest the prevalence of blame-the-victim attitudes that make women’s sexuality such an area of inner and outer conflict. The idea has caught on, giving rise to SlutWalks across the globe.
Yes! I thought, how great that women are organizing and hitting the streets again. The spirit of the response is thrilling–not unlike the Take Back the Night marches that started in the 1970s. But almost immediately, I found myself with questions and reservations. Of course, the protest is campy postmodern irony—“Hey, in the world as it is and when women are blamed for rape, every one of us is, or could be called, a slut, so let’s celebrate our unavoidable sluttiness.” But beneath the irony is the premise that we have a right to express our sexuality in any way we choose, to dress in any way we want to, and not be harassed, humiliated or worse. And furthermore that being able to express our sexuality as we please, when we please is essential to our liberation as women.
These protests—now in over 70 cities around the world—have caught on among progressive young women. While some may be SlutWalking against victim-blaming, I would bet that the majority who are participating are doing so to declare their right to women=sexual liberation. In other words, “I have a right to be a Hottie!” Now, I’m not saying that women should shove their sexuality under the rug or twist it into some form of neurosis. The issue to me is a bigger one about subjectivity and cultural change. It’s really complicated to objectify oneself in a (predominantly) Hottie parade and be a sexual object, and then be taken seriously as a subject. Subjects create change. Objects are moved about.
The activist impulse is motivated by the desire for change, to create a new culture, new ways for men and women interact in which…? This is where these SlutWalk actions become messed up with faux liberation and The Hottie Mystique–Stephanie Coontz’s term for the belief that women’s true worth and identity relates to how hot/sexy she is. So, then, are we talking about a new culture where women can be on full sexual display without being taunted, touched, or worse? (Um, and don’t we dress in certain ways in order to get attention?) Of course, no one should be accosted or harmed for walking down the street no matter what they are wearing. But the SlutWalk approach still limits us to being identified with and as our sexuality. As if that stands as the most essential aspect of who women are–which is nothing the least bit new. This has been women’s lot for ages. And isn’t that the essence of the problem? That the cultural roles that we have been embedded in are so wrapped up in sexuality/procreation that we end up seeing ourselves in terms of who we can attract? We become the object he is seeking. Freedom becomes our capacity to let loose with all we’ve got. Feeling free to express ourselves as, well, primates looking for mates…
There is a difference between FEELING free (to do as one pleases, which is a privilege) and BEING free from the limiting notions of identity that have arisen from the complex mix of cultural history and biology that we each are. The former is often an expression of entitlement. The latter is real work. Only aspiring to BE FREE, at an existential level, creates the space to transcend the sexual dynamics that have created us as the women and men we are. Sexuality will always be one of the strata that make up our experience of self. But it isn’t even the most important part of who we are. If we keep insisting on having our sexual function and roles define us so fundamentally, then human culture will likewise be fundamentally shaped by the competitive dynamics of mating. That brings you to the culture we’ve got. Creating a new and higher stage of culture calls us to discover new ways for women and men to relate that are free of these dynamics. Only something at that level of transformation would liberate us from the need for SlutWalks.