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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.


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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17 thoughts on “Feminism is alive and kicking and wearing whatever it wants

  1. Captain Planet

    Way to go Karen. You’re doing great work.

    Having read Guy Rundle’s supercilious piece, claiming the high moral ground for Reclaim the Night, I am really pleased to see your realistic and grounded summary of the aims and moral grounding of the SlutWalk movement.

    Some time ago I took issue with the fact that men are not permitted at Reclaim the Night rallies. The justification from the organisers was that it was essential to ban men in order to ensure that “all women could feel comfortable”.

    I understand that victims of sexual assualt and other forms of violence perpetrated by men, against women, could be made more comfortable by banning the presence of men from such an event.

    However in my opinion this needs to be balanced against the negative connotations of banning men. It sends a clear message that all men cannot be trusted, all men are a problem, It is us (women) against them (men).

    I am not ignorant of the point that violence against women is almost exclusively perpetrated by men. This does not mean that the Reclaim the Night organisers were being constructive in creating an atmosphere which implicitly impugned ALL men.

    When I queried the attendance ban I was told that children were permitted. I asked, at what age does a male child cease to be a family member who can participate in a rally supporting women’s right to freedom from violence, and become a dangerously violent MAN who must be prevented from attending? No age limit was given. I can only assume if you look like a man, you’ll get turned away.

    The imagery I’ve seen of Slutwalk, on the other hand, clearly contains men who are welcomed and participate freely. This is essential to the cause as, at the end of the day, it is men whose behaviour has to change (although the attitudes towards sexual morality, of large percentages of our female population, are, frankly, every bit as repressive as those espoused by their male peers). It is great to see the expression at the rallies, that there is a large component of the male populace who support the aims of the SlutWalk movement. Denying men a voice and a presence in Reclaim the Night created the impression that all men opposed it’s aims.

    It is a shame your article is titled “A defense” as it illustrates that the SlutWalk movement, which is self – evidently completely morally correct, is coming under attack. How any rational human could disagree with it sufficiently to want to attack it, is beyond me.

  2. davidk

    Good on you Karen. I saw Ms Dines on Q&A last night and was bewildered by her machine-gun verbocity and surprised at her aobjections to your movement. Any action that highlights the issue of violence against women and getting it into the mainstream media is to be applauded.

  3. Shooba

    “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.”

    What a ridiculous statement! Of course we can police the way you choose to do it. If a political response does more harm than good, it shouldn’t be accepted as an empowering expression of civil unrest… it should be shut down.

    For instance, if it became apparent that initiatives like slutwalk were encouraging man-hate, breeding a new wave of feminists-for-equality-as-long-as-women-get-the-better-deal… then you should stop conducting the slutwalk!

    We have enough man hatred in the world just from the fringe elements of feminism, thanks very much, we don’t need it creeping into the mainstream.

  4. Kevin Tyerman

    If you dress like a slut, aren’t you asking to be treated like one? What is a sl-t? Is there such a thing?

    Whatever the chosen definition of slut, a slut, let alone anyone who chooses to simply dress provocatively, has an absolute right to say no to any sexual proposition.

    Nobody has a right to violate that decision. A woman’s dress, or actions in other circumstances, are absolutely no defence to rape or sexual abuse.

    Thank you for your summary of what Slutwalk represents. I have not been to the right media to get ant understanding of the movement. It probably speaks poorly of me, but my first encounter with the term / movement was through Guy Rundle’s article in Crikey.

  5. Brizben

    When watching Q and A last night I had one comment on changing the name: Don’t change the name. The controversial name has made this issue wag tongues across the globe. Who wants to talk about “Wear what you want walk” or even “dress as you feel day”? The controversial name has given soooo much voice to the victims, now the whole world knows what an ass the Canadian police are.

    Does any one know if the perp has been caught?

  6. Phen

    Seems to have generated plenty of debate and discussion, if that was the main purpose. Shame it seems to be about the correctness of the protest approach, rather than about the causes and stigmas associated with sexual assault.

  7. eacaed1d587022df558454153a8ef2a5

    The 3rd wave of feminism is under way,it’s evolving in the way it is.
    The backlash is back as well but people power is a wave that’s sweeping the world and they’ll be washed away.People are sick of being doormats.
    This month we see the outing of several high profile alpha males because they have treated women as objects and playthings with no right to say no (not to mention no feelings) making all sorts of excuses and blame everything/everyone but their own lack of control!Why should a movement be radical or anything that has been before? Let feminism reinvent itself in a new generation of women.
    Support women2drive June 17th(these women don’t even have the right to vote yet!)link on facebook also

  8. Captain Planet

    Errrr, this article is ABOUT the correctness of the protest approach. In fact, it’s a defence of the protest approach. Hence the commentary about the correctness of the protest approach.

    If an article is written primarily focussing on the role of SlutWalk in the need to address the causes and stigmas associated with sexual assault, I anticipate you could expect commentary and debate on the causes and stigmas associated with sexual assault.

  9. nico

    Victim-blaming and shaming definitely needs to be addressed. It’s peculiar that young girls (in paticular) are regularly encouraged to objectify themselves but when things go awry and a girl is sexually assaulted she has to defend her choice of clothing or promiscuity. It doesn’t say much about our confidence in men either.

  10. Rufus Marsh

    Sl*t Walk is a risky idea in the sense that its organisers and participants will have little control over the way it is portrayed in the media by which most people will learn about it. Assuming that risk is not a great net negative in ultimate outcome it seems like a pretty good gimmick for making a point worth making. However, let’s hope it doesn’t infect the dimmer minds of parents and adolescents with the idea that there is no such thing as dressing sensibly having regard to the need for personal security. Hope and aspiration, even winning an argument, should not be confused with reality.

  11. 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.

  12. Phen

    CP – exactly. This article is about the protest approach, as was Guy Rundle’s, and the other piece on this subject in Crikey last week. I suspect this is debating around the fringes of the issue, rather than broadly raising awareness of victim blaming or whatever the primary purpose of the march actually is.

  13. Shooba

    Just going to put it out there:

    There is a group in Australia that anecdotally, are raped more than any other group. Ironically, all we have to go on is anecdotal evidence due to a criminally negligent lack of reporting documentation.

    They are blamed more than any other victim group, and most people simply don’t care.

    They are male prisoners, and (again, anecdotally) there are more of them raped per year than there are women raped per year in Australia.

    But apparently human rights go out the window once you’re convicted of a crime. Apparently being under the state’s duty of care counts for naught.

  14. Captain Planet

    @ Phen,

    Point taken. The articles themselves have been largely defending the protest approach instead of addressing the underlying aims of social reform.

    I’ve done some thinking about this lately, and I am not sure that the approach of attempting to “reclaim” labels with negative connotations (e.g. Nig*er, Sl*t, or Nerd for that matter) is even a good idea.

    The example of afro – americans “reclaiming” the word Nig*er is a good starting point. To what extent has this really worked? It’s still an offensive term. Implicit in the word itself is denigration to the recipient. Ask an afro american if he considers himself to be a nigger. I suspect the politest reply you would ever receive might be, “No, I am a proud black man”. A more enlightened response might even be, “No, I am a human being like you”.

    Likewise, is it really possible, appropriate or helpful to “reclaim” the word Sl*t? Can we ever envisage a time when anyone is going to really feel comfortable with it? Implicit in the word is a devaluing of the individual and a moral judgement which means that really, if you say “I am a slut” then what you are unavoidably saying is, “I am a woman with loose morals who is less worthy of respect than a lady”. What is wrong with “I am strong, independant woman who is comfortable with my own sexuality and my expression of it”? Too verbose I suppose, but I don’t think that “Slut” will ever come to mean that, try as we might.

    So in a way, by attempting the linguistically and socially impossible (taking a pejorative label and removing its denigrating connotations) SlutWalk may be bound to attract more attention to its methods than its message.

    I fully support the empowerment of women and their right to dress as they like without being judged or mistreated. I support the aims of the SlutWalk movement in this regard. Perhaps the name was a clever marketing ploy (it has certainly attracted attention) or perhaps it is social engineering overreach. Either way I agree, the name, and the focus on “reclaiming” the word, has served to sidetrack debate from the real issues.

  15. Cajela

    We’ve been trying to have debate on “the real issue” for a few decades now, and it’s usually ignored by the media or dismissed as tiresome feminist whinging. At least this time it’s got attention.

    Even the discussion of whether the word “slut” can or cannot be reclaimed is germane to the issue. I’m not decided about the reclaim question, but I wouldn’t say it’s linguistically and socially impossible. We’ve been doing quite well with geek, nerd, queer, dyke, wog and a few others, though I admit not all attempts have worked.

  16. 7ac35c1f78dd9412ff4ab1b03ec23c44

    Agree the name was marketing gold as it certainly aroused media interest for a topic that needs as much support as it can get. Would we all be talking about a rally named “end violence against women?” – sadly no. And ultimately, if the aim was to spark conversations around gender inequality, then its been a huge success already and the numbers of people who may, or may not, rally is almost immaterial.

    However, I find the argument that you’re either marching or outside heckling, and the last phrase ” if you don’t like it, don’t come” offensive and dismissive.

    I won’t be marching as I am still unsure as to whether we should be playing into voyeuristic desires to see women “slut it up” and I fear we may be encouraging this type of labeling rather than reclaiming the term. However, despite the personal angst, I will not be heckling and will in fact be cheering on those who do rally. I cheer on a wide range of feminists even if I don’t support all their politics as I recognize the importance of their contributions – the movement needs to be alive, kicking, and diverse!

    I’d also like to do something more, rather than be left with no other way of assisting if I don’t want to play at “sluts”.

    Perhaps a charity could have also been nominated for non-marchers to donate to? A petition set up? Finally – let’s not forget their are other ways of raising awareness and working towards ending the women-who-ask-for-it culture that exists. I have been working with young women daily for 7 years on this through my work as CEO of Enlighten Education and am encouraged to see they share our rage at misogyny.

    Danni Miller, CEO Enlighten Education

  17. Sarah Simple

    The father of my children always said my “no-knickers” look gave me a comparative advantage but now I am looking for a husband who will support us and like kids I wonder if keeping them interested in what is (just) hidden is the way to go.

    Bill Bogan (that’s what I call him: I think it might be Buggins though he never seems to get a turn except when reminded to shout) says I give sl*ts a bad name because I don’t kick him in the b*lls when he pinches my b*m but never let him get any further. Is he entitled to think I’m giving him a come-on?


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