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May 24, 2011

Feminism is alive and kicking and wearing whatever it wants

You can’t have it both ways -- if you want people to be feminists, and engage in active political protest, you can’t then police the way they choose to do it, writes Karen Pickering.

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For all the hand-wringing about feminism not having a pulse, this is a pretty powerful moment.

What was she wearing? Shouldn’t women take some responsibility for their safety when it comes to sexual assault? Are there degrees of rape? Are some women “asking for it”? If you dress like a slut, aren’t you asking to be treated like one? What is a slut? Is there such a thing? How many is too many sexual partners? How can one little word have so much power? By using it, aren’t you just hurting women more?

These are some of the questions I’ve been trying to answer over the last couple of weeks in my capacity as an organiser of SlutWalk Melbourne. They’ve been put to me by journalists, activists, commenters, strangers and friends. I don’t claim to have an answer to all of them but I’m taking part in a huge conversation about what is essentially a feminist issue — ending the culture of victim-blaming, slut-shaming and rape apology, which is the core message of SlutWalk.

Many have chosen instead to focus on the word itself and I understand that. It’s almost irresistible. The license to use the word “slut” has had the media in a lather and SlutWalk has created a Situation that people cannot help but comment on. We owe the name for that. But we can’t forget the origins of the protest — a police officer’s casual reference to women as sluts who invite sexual assault. The Toronto activists made the right call in choosing a name that reveals so much in people’s response to it.

So who are the critics of SlutWalk? There are many and they make strange bedfellows. A high-profile one is visiting author Gail Dines, who denounced the SlutWalk movement as capitulating to the worst desires of men — to see women dress as “sluts”. (Incidentally, calling your book Pornland is a pretty savvy marketing decision, not unlike calling your protest SlutWalk. Just saying.) The mainstream media, who love our concept for its ability to sell newspapers and generate clicks, have been wilfully obtuse to the central aim of the protest (to condemn victim-blaming) focusing instead on the titillation factor of what somebody might wear on the day.

Other feminists have dismissed it as an expression of white privilege, or as brainless, sex-positive, third-wave regression, which plays into the worst stereotypes of feminism as earnest, petty and humourless, even though I share some of their concerns.

You can’t have it both ways: if you want people to be feminists, and engage in active political protest, you can’t then police the way they choose to do it. It’s incredibly patronising to dismiss the thousands of people who’ve supported SlutWalk globally as being equally deluded and alienated from the “right” kinds of feminism, activism, and Continental theory.

Guy Rundle attacks it from the Left, essentially arguing that the movement is not authentic enough, not genuinely radical, and not what he wants it to be. What all these criticisms have in common, besides failing to engage with the point of the protest, is an anxiety about not being able to control it. I can’t control the movement either, even as one of the organisers, and I’m okay with that.

I’m not into policing other people’s feminism, nor should they mine. We have made the central message of the walk clear and worked hard to engage constructively with all criticism. The whole concept is not perfect but it’s here and it’s happening — so you can either work to invest it with power or you can stand outside and heckle. I’ll be inside this tent.

It is not without its problems but it has single-handedly triggered a debate in the public sphere about the ubiquity of sexual assault, harassment and shaming of women and their right to push back against it, female (and male) sexuality, and the freedom to express it without fear of retribution.

But if criticism has come from every direction, so has a kind of intuitive, organic support. We’ve welcomed a diverse cross-section of people into the SlutWalk community. We’ve got grandmothers marching with their whole families, women marching in hijab, young people, old people, gay, straight, trans, bi, black, white, male, female, sluts and their allies all coming together for one moment to stand together against victim-blaming.

And if you don’t like it, don’t come.

Karen Pickering is the host of Cherchez la Femme, co-founder of The Dawn Conspiracy, and one of the organisers of SlutWalk Melbourne.

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