Outlook: Are 'SlutWalk' protests the future of feminism?

Jun 06, 2011

Author Jessica Valenti will be online Monday June 6 at 2 p.m. ET to chat about her recent Outlook piece "SlutWalks and the future of feminism," which addresses the right to be safe, no matter what you're wearing.

Hi all, thanks so much to The Washington Post for hosting this conversation about feminism and SlutWalks! Really looking forward to chatting with people. 

Have you thought of contrasting this with an incident reported in Gene Weingarten's discussion that happened at a college where male students, of course humorously, chanted "no means yes, yes means anal." Even if this is whimsical, it will make an impression on some. Isn't it good that there be a different side presented, that "no does mean no, even if I am dressed like you may think i mean yes"?

I've actually written some about the incident you're talking about - members of a fraternity at Yale walked through campus chanting the oh-so-charming phrase you mentioned. And I don't think it's "whimsical" or "humorous" at all - I find it horrifying! But of course, I think that no means no (and yes means yes) no matter what women wear - and that's really the point of SlutWalks.

Have you been to any Slutwalks? Are you planning to be at any? Will I see you in NY on Aug 20? :-) You're great.

Sadly, I haven't been to any SlutWalks yet! But yes, I'm planning on being at the NYC event in August; I'm really looking forward to it. (And thanks!)

Do you think the focus on the word 'slut' and the organizers' claim to have 'reclaimed; the word has derailed the conversation and distracted from the real issues (i.e. fighting rape culture, ending sexual assault and victim blaming)?

This is a really great question - and it's something I worried about when I first heard of SlutWalks. I figured that the majority of media coverage would miss the point, but I have to say I've been pleasantly surprised. I think that the marches have gotten coverage that make it clear that they're about battling rape and victim blaming. If anything, I think that the marches and the attention they've gotten have created more conversations about how we can stop rape culture.

As the father of daughters, I strongly condemn the double standard regarding sexuality and the genders. Or more specifically, how societies have historically treated female sexuality as shameful. Often the stated rationale for restricting how females dress is the false claim that this is necessarily for male self-control. My reaction to that is, "Oh, please" - do you share that reaction? At the same time, I cannot deny that I find the sight of female flesh alluring. While I avoid staring, I find that even if I'm not looking I'm still looking, if that makes sense. A bit like not thinking of a pink elephant. I feel like even having the impulse to look is unfair to females. I've told other men that it's wrong for, say, serial adulterers to blame their behavior on either their impulses or on the women. Does that make me a hypocrite if I have the impulse to look?

Yes, I agree that it's silly to argue that men somehow can't control themselves around women who dress a certain way - it's an argument that's insulting to men. As far as you looking at women - I don't know, we all look at each other a bit, don't we?! I think so long as you don't stare in a way that makes a woman clearly uncomfortable, it's pretty understandable. 

If slutwalk protests are the future of feminism, then feminism has become meaningless. As you say, women are not raped because of what they wear. So your walks are not doing anything to prevent rape. They are only protesting the ideas of the few that what a women wore might explain why she was raped. And really, how much better would our world be if news articles did not mention what a rape victim was wearing? Not noticeably. What if, however, you got those 3,000 sluts to volunteer at a battered women's shelter, instead of having a meaningless march? The world would be better for those women they helped. But no, our self absorbed, privilege demanding youth really just want whatever makes THEM happy. So we have these do nothing marches instead of actually doing something concrete to improve the lives of others. Congratulations for accomplishing nothing.

How much better would the world be if the media didn't victim-blame? It would be a hell of a lot better. Research shows a direct link between the victim-blaming in the media and sexual assault survivors failing to report their rapes. If victims know that they're going to be harassed and blamed in public, they think twice about going to the police. So I think the difference in the world would be quite noticeable.

I also don't know why you assume that the women (and men) who participate in SlutWalks aren't also volunteering at shelters or taking other kinds of action. Activism isn't a zero sum game. I also find it interesting that you call the protestors "demanding youth": what's so wrong with demanding that rape stop and victim-blaming be eradicated? If only everyone were so "demanding!"

I know a lot of people who respond to discussions with "Sure, women shouldn't get raped for what they are wearing, BUT they still shouldn't dress like that." What do you say to them? Is there anything valid that could follow that "but"?

This is something I hear a lot - and I mention it in the article. I tell folks who talk about rape in this way that clothing has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not women get attacked. There is no research showing a link between clothing and sexual assault. I also think it's telling that you very rarely (if ever) hear this argument about clothing directed at male victims of rape. 

I would also tell them that as much as we would like to believe that there's some magic conservative outfit that could keep us from being assaulted, that's simply not the case. 

Hi Jessica! Marc here representing the Feminism 2.0 folks. When I posted one of Hugo Schwyzer's links about Slutwalk, one of my friends from back in Louisiana wrote: "Bad luck on the semantic front for the SlutWalk folks though. I agree w/ the ideals they are supporting, though they may be aiming a bit high in trying 'to reclaim the word "slut" and use it in a positive, empowering and respectful way' . Trying to imagine a scenario where that would play out. Women hailing each other on the street with, "hey, my slut"? "Your daughter has the cutest slutty outfit". "My granddaughter is the sweetest slut in the world"? " I think he has a point about the political utility of the word 'slut;' but it clearly is the galvanizing trigger for many people staging walks. What do you think is so galvanizing about the term? It definitely was seen as a negative term at this morning's staff meeting when your article came up in discussion...

Hi Marc! I agree that it's a loaded word and that it may not be possible to reclaim it to the point where it has no more negative connotations. But social justice movements have often reclaimed words with great success - I'm thinking of the word 'queer' for example. 

In terms of what is so galvanizing about the word slut, I think it's something that resonates with women - especially young women - because it's a word that's so often used against us. So while these marches may not mean an end to 'slut' as a pejorative, I like the idea of having one day, one march, one moment where the word doesn't hold so much negative power over women. 

If you have the courage of your convictions and truly believe that clothes have nothing to do with vulnerability and attraction, then dress slutty and stand out side a testosterone filled bar at 2 AM NOT walk down the street in broad day light without a predator in sight.

I'm pretty sure I did this most weekends while I was in my twenties. Charming question. Women aren't raped because of what they wear; they are raped because someone decided to rape them. We shouldn't be talking about women's clothing, we should be telling men not to rape.

Jessica, how do you think older feminists are responding to SlutWalks and their ramifications? Does SlutWalk simply highlight old intergenerational tensions within feminism, or does it have the potential to create coalition? (P.S. You inspire me every day.)

Thank you! I think older feminists (at least, the ones I've spoken with or heard from) have been responding as diversely as younger feminists. I don't want to paint older fems with a broad brush - I think that there's criticism coming from a lot of different places, and I think there's a lot of valid critique out there. (Several pieces by feminists of color on Racialicious and the Crunk Feminist Collective have been particularly astute)

That said, I do think there is some intergenerational tension that I've seen around SlutWalks. But I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing - I think the best kind of feminism is one that's hotly debated!

If Slutwalk protests are the future of feminism, what does this mean for radical feminism? Slutwalk's failure to address the root of rape culture seems to have left a big hole in the conversation...Namely, the connection between the objectification of women, pornography, and prostitution in patriarchy and male domination.

I don't agree that SlutWalk has failed to address rape culture and systemic issues. I also don't think it's useful to talk about SlutWalk as if it's a monolith - there are different protests in different cities with different goals. 

Hi Jessica, I recently read a piece that strongly criticized the SlutWalk movement because of it's inattention to the voice and perspective of women of color. What's your opinion on that?

I would have to read the specific piece you were talking about to directly address it, but as I mentioned in a previous question - and in the article - I think there's a valid critique in discussing how the word slut can mean something very different to women of color (and low income women, immigrant women, & disabled women), and a lot of folks feel like it's not a redeemable word or one that all people can comfortably march under. 

Hi, Ever since I read your first book, I've been a distant fan, and share many of your views on feminism. As a Muslim, I'm curious as to what feminists think of Muslims engaging in feminist discourse. What do you think of Muslim women participating in Slutwalk to show that it happens to them too, and that rape happens to women regardless of how they dress? Would feminists see women wearing Hijab/Niqab joining them as 'unwelcome'. Look forward to your reply, and thanks to WP for hosting this.

Thanks so much for reading my work and for the support! I believe Muslim women have participated in SlutWalks making the same point that you are. And I absolutely don't think that a woman wearing a Hijab or Niqab would be unwelcome! Harsha Walia, who I quote in my article, had a piece you may be interested in at Rabble called "Slutwalk: To march or not to march." (She ultimately decided to march) Thanks again...

What do you suggest an overweight 60-something feminist like me wear to a SlutWalk? (I was thinking of a sign reading, "I'm a sexagenarian"). Truthfully, I don't exactly rock slut-wear anymore, alas.

I think you should wear whatever you feel comfortable in! Most of the organizers of SlutWalks have been encouraging people to come in whatever clothing they like - because the point is no matter what we wear, be it "slutty" or not, no one deserves to be raped. (Or blamed)

As a 22-year-old woman, I believe that no means no, regardless of how somebody's dressed. It's never, ever the victim's fault. But that doesn't mean I think it's a-okay to wear clothes that expose all of their business. I just don't want to see it. We have rules against public nakedness because nobody wants to see that, and some attire I see around my college campus leaves little to the imagination, and I simply just don't want to see it. So I think there are two separate issues. No means no, regardless of how a person's dressed. But that doesn't mean that just because they can, a person *should* dress to expose everything they have. This is coming from a very liberal college woman who yes, does like to wear sexy clothes sometimes. I think this is consistent with what a lot of people believe, but I also think that too often these two issues are conflated.

Ok, but you agree that even if someone is "exposing their business" they still shouldn't be assaulted, and if they are they shouldn't be blamed for it. And that's the message of SlutWalks.

As a woman (older than God) who still has her copy of the very first edition of Ms. Magazine and had the remarkable opportunity to hug Gloria Steinem, I salute your approach to this matter. It is interesting to note that the term "slut" is a derogatory descriptor of a sexually active woman, but there is no corresponding term to describe sexually active men, unless it's "lucky". Girls as dreadfully young as under *one year old* and women in their 70s, 80s and 90s have been victims of rape. Perhaps the diapers (at each end of the age spectrum) were too provocative..... It is thuggery against women, no more and no less.

I don't think we have to reclaim "slut." Me, I'm pretty sure it'll never become a word I like or use. But it is a powerful way to attack the unspoken limits of female safety--as in, women should be safe in public [except when we're drunk, we dress slutty, we have sexual histories, etc.] Newspapers, juries, and the general public too often believe the [except.]

That's a really good point, thanks! 

That this conversation (or a lot of the questions I'm getting) are so focused on women's clothing and behavior rather than holding perpetrators accountable... 

Enjoyed your appearance this AM on Morning Joe, but got the sense that some around the table were REALLY uncomfortable about the name SlutWalk. I know that's kind of the point and I thought you handled the questions well, but would like to hear more of your thoughts on helping people get past that word.

Thanks very much! I think there's always going to be people who are uncomfortable with the word, and I respect that. I don't think that reclaiming the word or SlutWalks themselves have to be something that everyone (or all feminists) support. This is just one aspect of feminist activism; it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea. That said, I think that if you're trying to explain to friends why you support SlutWalks you could try to email some of the organizer's blog posts and thoughts on why they created the marches, or even other's criticism. I think the debate has been fascinating and it's certainly kept me thinking (and rethinking!) about the issue.

I'm so sorry that I didn't get to answer everyone's questions, but thanks to all of you for participating. Feel free to ask me questions via twitter (/jessicavalenti) or by email through my website (jessicavalenti.com). I may not answer toady (I'm a bit SlutWalked out!) but I'll be sure to get back to you. Thanks again to WaPo for hosting!

In This Chat
Jessica Valenti
Jessica Valenti, the founder of Feministing.com, is the author of "The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession With Virginity Is Hurting Young Women" and the forthcoming book, “Why Have Kids: The Truth About Parenting and Happiness” (Harper)
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