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May 17, 2011

The phones are manned, vote now on Slutwalk

No one appears to have mentioned the Reclaim The Night marches -- which still continue, though their heyday has long passed -- in the current discussion of the Slutwalk phenomenon.


Twenty five years ago, I was standing at the corner of Swanston and Lonsdale streets, Melbourne, watching a march go by. In those days I would have joined pretty much any protest but this wasn’t one that you just tagged onto — it was a Reclaim The Night march, a women’s-only protest against s-xual violence and the controlling threat of such.

The march had come, as I recall, from Melbourne University down to what was still the City Square — a mix of women, both activist and casual supporters. As the march crossed Lonsdale, it began to pass the Barrel and the Shaft, the two rather sad adult cinemas — sorry, sinemas — now long gone, victims not of the defeat of porn but of its universalisation on the internet.

Out of the sinemas emerged a few of the characters — actually, greasy men in vinyl jackets — running the joints, to make a few catcalls, only to be greeted by a roar of anger from an entire column of women of all ages. At that point genuine fear crossed the men’s faces, and they scuttled back inside. There was no doubting that the power of the march resided in the march itself, of its self-assertion, not in any image of it. To stand and watch it was to watch a political event — there was no place to be voyeuristic.

No one appears to have mentioned the Reclaim The Night marches — which still continue, though their heyday has long passed — in the current discussion of the Slutwalk phenomenon. (Yes, this is an article about Slutwalk. They are compulsory now, as they were on Madonna in that earlier era). For the most part that may be because Reclaim The Night has simply been forgotten as a movement, having fallen down the memory hole that everything before the invention of the web appears to have been consigned to.

But in other respects, it’s because the assumptions Reclaim The Night and Slutwalk work on in terms of gender politics are so different. Reclaim The Night occurred at a time — the late ’70s and ’80s — when personal style was still directed against old ideas of femininity, and (the punk movement aside) fishnets, underwear, etc, hadn’t yet become retro chic. Reclaim The Night was a strictly dress-down affair, both explicitly and by the very nature of the culture.

As such, its very manifestation resisted the deep cultural pull to make women into objects rather than subjects, to be constituted by the male gaze. There was no way to watch Reclaim The Night and feel like, or be, a voyeur, and there was no way that it could be subordinated to the process of being spectated. When it received media coverage at all, it was often met with mild hostility, which is not a bad thing to stir up if you’re trying to interrupt basic social assumptions and prejudices. Whatever media coverage it did receive did not consume the event. It remained at the time, and in the memory, a little bit separate, a little bit frightening.

Viewed via the politics of Reclaim The Night, Slutwalk represents giving the game away. In actual fact, most of its participants dress normally — in some ways, Slutwalk is simply a rebranding of Reclaim The Night, revived using the chance dumb remark by a Toronto cop running a personal safety class. Yet on the other hand, it’s quite different since the section of participants dressed in underwear, fishnets, fetish gear, etc, become not merely the image of the march, but its reality.

The problem is not, as right-wing critics assert, as to whether such clothes suggest self-respect or lack of it, but the degree to which the event can stand apart from the accumulated images and construction of it. Slutwalk’s political problem is that it could not easily be distinguished from a parody of it – if Showgirls Bar 20 sent its dancers onto the streets with “It’s My Hot Body and I’ll Do What I want With It” placards, it would be literally impossible to tell whch was the march and which was its commercial mirror. Indeed, the distinction would verge on the spurious.

That analysis accords so neatly with my middle-aged nostalgic prejudices that there must be something terribly wrong with it. What could it be? Several possibilities:

  1. The ’80s second-wave feminism that Reclaim The Night represented was the nadir of the movement as a living thing — the “liberation” of the early ’70s had been hived off, and what remained was a puritanism that set itself against deep-seated feminine and masculine desires for display, spectatorship, voyeurism and the complexities of power, crashing and burning in the identity politics of the ’90s. The self-definition of large amounts of women as “not a feminist” dates from that time, as does the huge reversal in popular culture, whereby traditional ultra-femininity returned, often disguised with a light dusting of irony.
  2. Seeing Slutwalk as in the tradition of non-performative “demonstrations” or marches is to misunderstand it. It’s better seen as a political form of the dada-ish “zombie walks”, “santa rampages”, etc, that began on the US west coast a decade or two ago — with a bit of riot grrl thrown into the mix — and have now expanded. Slutwalk is a joke about the way in which divisions that structured second-wave feminist politics are so far beyond relevant that the whole idea of not being a “slut”, can be parodied without danger.
  3. Slutwalk is an entirely post-feminist event, a manifestation of what Michel Houellebecq calls the “extension of the domain of the struggle” (his first novel; in English it is titled Whatever), in which he argues that the character of the current period is one of total competition in all fields, particularly sexual, a real dystopia borne equally of the ’60s and the ’80s. Slutwalk uses feminist themes as a cover for young women to wage war against older women (who would surrender their own power by going on Sl-twalk in a way they didn’t for Reclaim The Night), and conventionally attr — oh God OK, hot chicks, versus the rest. It is a Reclaim The Night march through hell, it is high school by other means.
  4. Slutwalk celebrates not merely play, parody, recuperation, etc, but also the dissolution of boundaries and notions of a respectable self, which is the principal way by which the contemporary dysfunctional capitalism is enforced these days. Thus, it’s inevitable that one of its principal opponents would be chicklit novelist and Tory MP Louise Bagshawe, since the well-regulated world of totally commodified desire that is chicklit’s forte* relies on a firmly bounded Protestant/puritan self-working and consuming in a wholly regulated manner, and mistaking this for liberation. Bagshawe et al can use the language of ’80s Reclaim The Night-style feminism, because that, now isolated from any current possibility of wider political change, has become a mode of class enforcement, not female emancipation — the manner by which professional women mark themselves out as different to service/admin class women.
  5. On the other hand, Slutwalk is a more radical assertion of autonomy than Reclaim The Night. Though Reclaim the Night purported to be establishing autonomy by women dressing for themselves, this was in fact the cultural enforcement of older stereotypes that women needed to dress in certain clothes — drab, formless, originally masculine — to be taken seriously. Slutwalk exposes the assumptions in that position, and the manner in which they reinforce old notions of how women are to be regarded and judged.
  6. On the third hand, the event has no compelling meaning beyond its own spectacle, because the “event” that triggered it — one dumb remark, since profusely, Canadianly, apologised for — represents, per se, no threat at all. Its non-political character can be made clear by imagining what would happen if anyone turned up in slut mode to march against rape in South Africa, femicide in Mexico, etc. Slutwalk is instead of radical politics, but expresses the continued urge to be radically political, and the current dilemma of doing this in the current era.

Vote now, our lines are open. Can’t say I wouldn’t have preferred Slutwalk to Reclaim The Night in the ’80s. On the other, can’t say the latter didn’t achieve more for those who made it happen than the former will.

* “Texan honey Sally Lassiter, English rose Jane Morgan and Jordanian Helen Yanna meet at an exclusive girls school and become best friends. They form a bond which will never be broken. Years later, the three girls are grown-up, co-founders and millionaire co-owners of the exclusive GLAMOUR chain of stores. They are fabulously wealthy, instantly recognisable, adored and revered. Or are they?” — blurb for Glamour by Louise Bagshawe



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22 thoughts on “The phones are manned, vote now on Slutwalk

  1. paddy

    Well worth the read, if only for that magnificent word … Canadianly 😀

  2. grahame

    IMHO your description of (6) is a bit off. That one particular event happens all the time. In Perth last year we had the state government (according to The Perth Voice, not online) handing out cards to women telling them how they should go about not being raped or sexually assaulted in a taxi.

    I think the slutwalk is wonderful because it so directly confronts the idea that it’s a woman’s problem (or a person’s problem) to avoid being sexually assaulted. It’s not. People should be able to wear whatever they want without the fear of being attacked, and also without the fear of being blamed if there are attacked.

    Events like that one in Canada happen all the time, and I think the notion that women must dress modestly to be safe is pretty firmly entrenched in the public consciousness.

  3. amct

    Nearly every item I have read about SlutWalk references Reclaim the Night. What are you reading that doesn’t?

  4. alexio

    Not worth the read. The ignorance in the Canadianly paragraph alone is too staggering to penetrate.

  5. bex

    Try reading this AMCT. http://godardsletterboxes.wordpress.com/2011/05/14/power-sluts/
    Much more of the time. Don’t need some Women’s History 101 from the Old White Dude perspective. Seen it before.

  6. Gavin Moodie

    @ sub editor

    ‘The phones are manned . . . ‘ is sexist and should be replaced with ‘staffed’ or some other non sexist term. This is particularly ironic since it heads an essay about post modern feminism, or is the heading post- post modern feminist?

  7. tracy

    You know it wouldn’t be so frustrating that a search on Crikey shows the only slutwalk article has been written by a man if the article didn’t say, ‘No one appears to have mentioned the Reclaim The Night marches — which still continue, though their heyday has long passed — in the current discussion of the Slutwalk phenomenon. ‘

    Pretty effective way to dismiss/ignore us, because a lot of people have mentioned it – pretty much everyone I’ve read who has anything substantial to say about it has mentioned it.

  8. Antigone1990

    I think SlutWalk and Reclaim the Night are quite complementary. Reclaim the Night focuses on the fact that women are extremely likely to suffer sexual assault. SlutWalk, however, is focused on a particular part of this: the victim-blaming that occurs to women who are sexually active.

    From the original SlutWalk: “We are tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result. Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless if we participate in sex for pleasure or work. No one should equate enjoying sex with attracting sexual assault.”

    The word slut is used against women with no logic: if your skirt is too short, you’re a slut. If you talk about sex too much, you’re a slut. If you enjoy sex, you’re a slut. If you have sex, you’re a slut.

    So here’s what I think: if people come together for SlutWalk (women, men, covered up, wearing little clothing, monogamous, promiscuous) and stand together, it is powerful. It says that this word does not define us.

    As Jaclyn Friedman said at the Boston SlutWalk: “Instead of distancing ourselves from those among us who are targeted as sluts, lest we get caught in the crossfire, let’s stand together today and say, if you use the word slut as a weapon against one of us, you’re using it against all of us. If you shame one of us, you will receive shame from all of us. If you rape one of us, you will have to answer to all of us.”

  9. AR

    In 1969 in London I was involved with a group who forewarned the meeja, only print & TV in those long gone daze, that there would be a feminist march, from Bank to Fleet Street, and the marchers would be TOPLESS.
    The slimiest hacks & dregs of the tabloids were there in droves at the appointed hour, polishing their lenses & licking their pencils (puns/metaphors intended), stunned by the good looking women assembling with the burnt bra-banners.
    Then the Great Strip Off began, all the blokes mingling with the females (previously unnoticed by Fleet St’s worst) suddenly took off their shirts (very brave, I think, as it was October) and began to march, topless as promised.
    Didn’t make the news that evening or next day, don’t know why.
    Possibly something like the recent reference in Crikey to a “young boy, naked from the waist up”, meaning ..err.. shirtless.

  10. pingo

    Golly gee – what’ with all this over zealous academic commentary – it’s simple – who gives a toss about then or now or feminism or whatever – the fact is that anyone in the world should be able to dress as they please. No one in the world should be subjected to rape. Anyone who makes a judgement on rape ever being able to be forgiven – should be slapped with something very large and lethal.

  11. Liz45

    @GUY – Reclaim The Night rallies are alive and well in the Illawarra. We receive support from men who stand to the side but support the speakers etc. We have representatives from young women, lesbian women, indigenous women, women who have been victims of either domestic violence or sexual asault; women as workers, and women who live or whose relatives still live in war zones. We usually hold them on a Thursday evening as we gather in the major shopping Mall.

    Many crimes have decreased, but crimes of violence against women and children have increased. One in 3 women will be abused in her lifetime. Sadly, the use of rape as an extra ‘weapon’ of war has grown in recent times. While ever women are treated as they are, there’ll always be the need for Reclaim The Night rallies. There’s a long way to go!

    Last year we had the inaugural White Ribbon Day function which produced a very large number of people in attendance. There are exciting innovations by both State & Federal govts in the last few years, including a local Committee against Domestic Violence. As a senior woman, I find it most exciting – at last – ACTION! It’s taken over 40 yrs, but we’re on the move now!

    I feel quite sad over this sort of ‘modern’ lingo. It’s not smart or funny, and certainly doesn’t do our cause any good!

  12. doyle

    The most ridiculous part of this is the notion that the protest is young women using feminism to wage war on older women. You have missed the point entirely.

    Your post annoyed me so much I wrote my own response to SlutWalk and its detractors. (http://passionpoppistol.blogspot.com/2011/05/these-fuck-me-boots-are-made-for.html)

    So, I suppose, thank you.

  13. Liz45

    @DOYLE – Do you mean me?

  14. doyle

    Oh heavens no. This is directed at Guy. Liz45, your post is really heartening.

  15. Liz45

    Phew! Thanks Doyle!

  16. Ben McKenzie

    One point I would definitely disagree with: you’ll be able to tell the real Slutwalk from a “Showgirls parody”, as you put it. While media images will almost certainly focus on those participants in Slutwalk who do choose to dress “slutty” (whatever that means), the Melbourne walk is designated come as you are. There’ll be plenty of people wearing everyday clothes, and given the weather I suspect most (including myself) will be rugged up against the cold. The point isn’t that you should be able to dress “like a slut”; it’s that how you dress is not a factor in sexual assault.

    Plenty of things are problematic about Slutwalk, but it has a good message and has at the very least stimulated a new round of good discussion. Here’s my favourite piece, which sums up lots of stuff:


    My more rambly thoughts don’t fit here, but if you want to read them – and I too mention Reclaim the Night – here they are: http://wp.me/pi8lG-bi

  17. rubylove

    I was raped and I don’t support SlutWalk.

    They’re not subverting the word ‘slut’ they’re reinforcing the sexual objectification of women – the slut or ‘temptress’ is a powerful cultural archetype, and always will be, which lawyers in particular use as a well-worn legal tactic that’s about money not human rights. Should they use it? Of course not! But an ideology doesn’t stop having negative social connotations or ramifications overnight just because people say it should.

    Misogyny is rampant in our culture and the pornification of women dominates popular media. It’s so deeply disappointing that young women have bought into their own objectification to the point whereby they’re willing to reinforce it and promote it because it’s been marketed as cool. I believe they’re naive to allow themselves to be photographed as ‘promiscuous’, too – it may not seem so empowering when their images are taken out of context later.

    Raising money for rape services or walking against rape would have been much more useful than fighting for their right to be a sex object. I’m pleased the sensationalism has stirred wider debate about victim blaming and I believe feminists can learn from their clever marketing techniques to communicate more valuable messages.

    But those who walk are not walking, or speaking, for me.

  18. Liz45

    @RUBYLOVE – I’m so sorry about what happened to you. What a nightmare it must be. As a feminist and just an ordinary human being, I feel for you. Those who walk are not speaking for me either! If I can be of any help, please let me know. I hope you’ve had and continue to have loving support during this awful time. You only need one constant support person to get you through the horrific trauma of rape.

    I hadn’t heard about this new fad or belief. I must live in the wrong circles???? If any woman, but particularly young women think the fight is over, women like you should give them a big nudge. Rape is being used on an alarming level as a ‘tool’ in wars also. I was listening to an interview on ABC a couple of weeks ago, that listed a certain country in a war situation, and there were four women being raped every 5 minutes? Horrific!

    There are about 27 million slaves in the world – mostly women. Women and kids are being sexually abused on a grand scale. Women spend 200 million hours per day just collecting water. We own less than 5% or less of the world’s assets, even though we’re responsible for most of the world labour. The stats go on and on. Even in Australia, women have to work 65 extra days per year in order to receive equal pay with men. I wonder how JUlia Gillard would feel if she was told she’d only receive 83% of the income Kevin Rudd received? I think equal pay might just become a reality over night!

    Please take care and know that you do have lots of support, and not just from women. Good men in this country walk with us on Reclaim the Night, or just stand there listening to speakers, showing their support. Hopefully, the numbers get bigger each year. Brave women who’ve experienced some form of violence come up on stage and tell their stories, many don’t, but of course we support those women too. Last year we held the first function on White Ribbon Day, November 25th – organised by men I believe. It was a great experience. Pity it had to take almost 50 yrs for me to see it. I felt very emotional by the huge turnout! Let’s hope this year is even bigger!
    Warmest wishes!

  19. Jenny

    @PINGO well said.

    Can you provide a summary of all crikey articles in future? It’ll save me hours of wading through rhetoric to get to the point.

  20. laura agustin

    Guy, you might be interested in something I published recently about World Gender War, with memories going back even farther than yours. It isn’t about slutwalks per se but they were part of the mental backdrop while I was writing: http://magazine.goodvibes.com/?p=17933&preview=true

    I have been writing about migration and the sex industry, and the endless contradictions those awaken within feminisms for 15 years and am beginning to feel like an old war horse.

    Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

  21. Liz45

    After watching the rally on the TV ABC Saturday evening I’ve had a change of mind. I agreed with the march and what their message was, I just regret the use of the word ‘slut’? Some feminists who walked disagreed with the name, but hoped it made people take notice. It was good to see so many young women participating, so maybe they now realise that the ‘fight’ isn’t over yet. We still have a long way to go!


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