So with all my slut-positive research, I have become aware that the painful rift in feminism between the sex-positive and the anti-porn camps is still quite alive and well. In fact, it makes me wonder if there is any point to using the term “feminist” to describe oneself when it can mean so many different things.
I’d like to open with this man’s brilliant words made into a cartoon I found on youtube. (I wonder how these are made. Looks like a jib-jab type model.)
Sex-negative Feminism Illustrated
SlutWalk is a sex-positive anti-rape movement that brings what I’d call the “slut-positive” phenomenon, that has its roots in The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy, and poly culture, into the mainstream. It was sparked by Constable Michael Sanguinetti when on January 24, 2011 he spoke on crime prevention at a York University safety forum at Osgoode Hall Law School. He said: “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” Co-founders Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis decided to use the word “slut” in their response. Their website states:
“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 movement initially started in Toronto but soon became global. Women took to the streets dressed like “sluts,” holding up signs like “Proud Slut,” “Clothes don’t equal consent” and “Sluts love sex, not rape” in a gesture of defiance, solidarity and empowerment, reinforcing the concept of consent, choice and personal autonomy – all key concepts of feminism, at least the kind that I subscribe to. Here is a good video explaining what it is: AAUW SlutWalk Debate
Of course not all people see what I see in the act of appropriation of dirty words or taking one’s clothes off to make a point about consent. There is still plenty of frat-boy mentality to go around with the passive-aggressive message of “be a slut, but don’t be a slut” – the old mother-whore complex; but we’re not talking about Rush Limbaugh here, or even speudo-liberal hipster folks like Tosh.0 with his brand of shock-value ironic misogyny. Somehow those two have lost my interest. What we’re talking about are articulate, accomplished feminists, such as Gail Dines (radical by her own admission,) who has dismissed SlutWalk as hurtful and misguided, along with the entire third-wave feminist movement as she dramatically declared that feminism is dead. How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality
Wikipedia describes Gail Dines as “an English–American feminist anti-pornography activist, author, professor, and lecturer. She has also been described as ‘The world’s leading anti-pornography campaigner.'” My original reaction as a sex-positive advocate when I hear “anti-pornography” is “repressive, judgmental, condescending, infused with a good dose of misandry.” However, as I watched Dr. Dines speak, she didn’t seem at first to have that stuffy air about her. She connects with women in the audience, discussing the affect of advertising on women’s body image – something that in some way affects us all, or is at least felt. Then she moves on to porn. She begins with things we all know to be true – porn makes men have unrealistic ideas about women and unreasonable expectations, as a result of which some men find it difficult to connect with real women. This is true for some men, but would go against the individual liberty principle to actually campaign against. She then moves on to describe abusive practices sometimes witnessed in the porn industry that are unsafe, such as “ass-to-mouth.” The description makes me cringe. So far I’m with her. I want porn and sex work to be legitimate industries with all the same protections as any other, unions and all. Except here’s where she loses me. For her, abuses are not something to be dealt with through some regulation but rather an indication that porn is an evil patriarchal industry and ideally should be done away with all-together, leaving no room for people who are happy consumers or happily employed by the industry – men or women. She then describes other examples of “abuse” – “women are gagged and hung tied up for public entertainment” clearly referring to some BDSM role-play, most likely involving consenting adults in full control of the situation, complete with safe words. Lost me completely at this point! The assertion that women who are in submissive roles in porn are invariably being exploited, and that it’s only women who are in these roles, is ludicrous for multiple reasons. One glaring reason is that it isn’t only women who play submissive roles. Men pay to be dominated by women at fetish clubs! There are all kinds of dominatrix porn – porn where men are talked down to and humiliated by women, as part of role play. Just look up “foot fetish” on youtube. There is a sense even that the kind of male bashing done by women, encouraged by second-wave feminism is now fetishized by men as a form of domination. “You horny dog, you’re such a loser!” Etc. It seems the angry feminists have taken the place of the Christian Right in inspiring repression-based fetishizing of certain power dynamics. How sad. But more on that later. Then there is gay porn. Who’s the exploiter and who’s the exploit-ee when both are men? And of course, last but not least, women do in fact enjoy and even produce porn. Are we all brainwashed tools? And what about those female porn stars who get paid lots of money? There are just too many things at play here that don’t fit into the classic essentialist second-wave paradigm of women being ever exploited by men in porn and in life.
There is a certain paternalistic arrogance in the assertion that a woman who by her own admission is happy with her choices is actually being exploited. Not surprisingly Gail directs the same paternalism towards SlutWalk. She asserts that, even though there are words that have been successfully reclaimed, such as “queer,” “slut” is not one of them. “Slut” is far too vile for her to reclaim, much like “kike.” She also makes the distinction from “queer” in that it’s easy to reclaim it for the gay community – using it with each other, but women and girls still have to deal with the judgements of men and boys whom they date who will not respond well, according to Gail. (Is she seriously saying that women’s and girls’ choices should be motivated by “what boys will think”??) “It’s a word born of the patriarchy” she says. “It’s not yours to reclaim.” According to Gail, by dressing up as “sluts” we’re playing right into the laps of male chauvinists, giving them what they want while failing to “reeducate.” And what could be worse than “giving a male chauvinist what he wants” even if it was not the motivation behind the action and has no affect on anything! Now, there are clearly holes all over this argument. 1. What makes “slut” more vile than “queer”? 2. How is “queer” NOT born of oppression much like “slut”? 3. She misses the point of empowerment through appropriation, thinking that its intent is to “reeducate” misogynists or even rapists. Of course a rally isn’t going to “reeducate” anyone! Has it ever? The point is to empower oneself and disempower misogynists, making reeducating besides the point. As an aside, I don’t believe rapists can be reeducated or reasoned with. They should just be given a life sentence. As for non-violent misogynists – the act of reclaiming renders their judgments and opinions insignificant.
It seems that for Gail, Slutwalk has hit too close to home, being the contemporary manifestation of sex-positive feminism. To make matters worse for Gail, sex-positive feminism, as manifested in Slutwalk, appears to have expanded the scope from discourse revolving around sex workers, strippers and porn stars to include women in any profession who identify as sexually liberated to whatever degree and/or as rape survivors or just someone who stands in solidarity with rape survivors. Not only that – it even includes men – some of them survivors as well. That’s the power of Slutwalk and what Gail seems to be threatened by – we’re no longer talking about porn! The sex-positive movement has gone past that and is now concerned with normalizing sexually liberated and alternative lifestyles of non-pornstars, while emphasizing consent and personal autonomy. Not only that, but sex-positivity seems to be the bridge that reconciled feminism with the male species again. Makes sense that Gail is threatened.
In this context, reclaiming “slut” is about owning and enjoying one’s sexuality. It is saying, “Yes, I’m a slut, i.e. a promiscuous woman, i.e. a sexually liberated woman” – whatever that may mean. It is saying “I have deconstructed ‘slut’ and have unlearned the conditioning that once caused me to believe the myth that being a ‘promiscuous woman’ is somehow unworthy. Therefore ‘slut’ no longer affects me.” And so marching in the parade is not so much the act of reclaiming, which actually can take years, but rather an assertion that “slut” has already been reclaimed by the participant on her own terms, and she’s simply sharing this beautiful truth with the world. Now, can someone’s judgement affect my career for instance? Of course. But that’s something one can’t control. What I can control is whether I become a slave of this judgement.
There is an interesting dynamic in the SlutWalk debate above that sadly reminds me of the abortion debate – that’s how big a gap there is between these women who all call themselves feminists and largely support the same causes! Just as pro-lifers stubbornly propagate the notion that pro-choicers promote and advocate abortion regardless of circumstance, Slutwalk critics insist that SlutWalkers are imposing “slut” onto other women. As we all know, in reality pro-choicers support the freedom of choice for each individual woman. Guess what? So do the SlutWalkers! Slutwalk is not for everyone. Don’t walk if you don’t feel comfortable identifying with that term or walking under its name – for whatever reason. But there is no need to trivialize perfectly legitimate efforts. Telling other women who feel empowered what they can or cannot reclaim is frankly no better than the good old patriarchy attempting to control women’s sex lives. Interestingly, while attacking the concept of a self-styled slut in her speech, Gail brings up examples such as Paris Hilton, Modanna and Lady Gaga. Curious choice. Nothing against any of these women, but they are easy to dismiss as “capitulating to the male gaze” – or should I say capitalizing on it, which by the way there’s nothing wrong with when willingly and consciously chosen. But why not bring up someone like Peaches, who breaks all kinds of molds and gender roles while taking sexual liberation to a whole new level? Peaches is a shining example of a sex-positive feminist who lives it and certainly exudes a personal, unique sexuality not at all inspired or approved by the “patriarchy.” Isn’t that what Gail is talking about – defining your own sexuality? Perhaps she’s not familiar with Peaches. Of course, I believe that breaking away from the system is empowering, but so is playing within the system while consciously using one’s body as merely a tool. Both are equally feminist.
There are so many criticisms of the movement I could not possibly address them all, but here is one more, whose arrogant, more-feminist-than-thou paternalism makes me particularly sad: “Dear Feminists, Will You Also Be Marching In N***erwalk? Because I Won’t.” by Keli Goff. Before I address any of that, let me just say: no, I won’t. (I’m white.) But if you did, I would never rain on your parade! Neither would SlutWalk organizers, I’m sure.
Keli starts off pretty heavy-handed, dismissing the feminist movement she seems barely familiar with as silly and frivolous. Judging women for being sexually provocative as being silly and lacking substance – does that remind you of something? Oh right, that’s something a male chauvinist pig would do. Oh but of course, it’s more complicated. She’s not judging the women for being actually “sluts.” She’s judging them for mixing fun and shock value irony with their political expression, because God knows that all political expression must take itself extremely seriously, especially feminism, and of course must be steeped in academia, while never challenging it. You see, the Zen act of actually living one’s own definition of feminism through sex-positive self-empowerment is not deep enough for Keli.
After getting through all the snarky insults and dismissals, I’m expecting some substantial criticism. I’m waiting for her to say something about the movement being insensitive to African American women with its use of “slut,” given the title. However, all that she is able to offer is a regurgitation of Gail Dines’ view with a little cherry on top:
“…you can’t “reclaim” a word defined by a predominant group in power unless you are a part of that group. Just ask all of those people on a mission to “reclaim” the N-word for black Americans or the F-word for gay Americans. (How’s that working out by the way? Perhaps we should ask critics of Rick Perry.) As long as heterosexual white males in power (or anyone else) can use a particular word as a pejorative to denigrate a particular group — and you acknowledge that them doing so will offend you as a member of that group — then you using it is not “reclaiming” it but simply perpetuating it.”
I don’t even know what to say about the n-word bit, as I was under the impression that it has been reclaimed successfully and is regularly used in conversation as a term of endearment by black people. That is the definition of reclaimed, whether you like it or not. The point she seems to miss is it’s up to the individual to reclaim a word for themselves and themselves only. No one is perpetrating anything by saying “I’m a proud slut.” The focus of feminism should be individual choice and empowerment, not a collective formula for how to be an “empowered woman.”
She then makes it worse by claiming that the walks are pointless because they “do nothing to help rape survivors.” In actuality the movement was cofounded by Heather Jarvis, who is herself a rape survivor, and so it is her own personal expression. The movement also includes many women who are survivors and feel empowered by it. Several even left comments on this very article, refuting Keli’s stance. I’m going to assume Keli is not a rape a survivor, or she would have mentioned it. So Keli dismissing this movement, started by a rape survivor, as “not helpful to rape survivors” is equivalent to a white person dismissing an African American movement as “not helpful to African Americans.” I bet no one would stand for that kind of absurdity.
Finally, I’d like to address this image:
The wikipedia caption reads “Young girl protesting the sexualization of women and girls by SlutWalk in San Francisco.” I’m going try to reserve my judgement as to who actually made that sign and what it means to use one’s young child in this manner to paint SlutWalk as exploiting young girls. I don’t think I need to point out that SlutWalk does not encourage ten-year-old girls to “dress slutty” or be “sluts.” It encourages adult women who are already sexual to not be ashamed of their sexuality. But another fallacy here is the parallel made between “slut,” “bitch,” and “chick.” I would agree with the author that it would make no sense to have a BitchWalk or a ChickWalk. Bitch and chick have both been reclaimed and used by women – can anyone truly argue that a woman saying “What’s up, bitches!” to her friends is harmful to women? And yet, saying “I’m a proud bitch” as a political statement doesn’t have the same weight to it as “I’m a proud slut,” being that the latter addresses the restraints and judgements put on female sexuality for hundreds of years, whereas the former does not deliver much in the form of commentary. The fact that the sign author lists these words as one shows she perceives the movement to be only about the politics of language, missing the larger point about victim blaming and repressive attitudes towards female sexuality. Let me be clear here, that I personally do not believe in word police, but rather accept that words can have entirely different meanings depending on context. SlutWalk is not a rebellion against a word – it is a demand to change the status quo, as a result of which words get slowly redefined.
Interestingly, I have seen a lot of comparisons between SlutWalk and Take Back the Night, either as a way of seeing them as equivalent or noting differences, usually favoring the Take Back the Night approach as a more serious and better informed method. Let me point something out. I respect Take Back the Night as a genuine effort to make a case against rape and victim-blaming, but they are the anti-thesis of each other. Take Back was a protest against rape and pornography in the early 80s, spearheaded by porn’s arch enemy Andrea Dworkin, who has also written a curious book called Intercourse, in which she claims that hetero intercourse is by its very anatomical nature abusive and violent – leaving the female reader no choice but to be a lesbian (who never uses dildos) or asexual, in order to wear the badge of her brand of feminist. Don’t get me started on the choices left to the male reader. SlutWalk is a sex-positive protest against rape and rape only, that addresses the stigmatization of female sexuality and the false belief that it leads to or is a justification for sexual assault. No one in SlutWalk is trying to make a connection between porn and violence towards women. Making that connection was the biggest mistake made by feminists, as it obliterates the concept of consent and dilutes the message that rape is solely the perpetrator’s responsibility and cannot be blamed on seeing so many images of women having sex as to conclude that we all want it at all times with anyone or that we all secretly want to get raped. Some people like to play out the rape fantasy. One could argue that any kind of bondage is the acting out of a rape fantasy, as it implies force. But the difference between rape/abuse and healthy sex is one thing and one thing only: consent. And for that reason pornography – based on consent, no matter how “perverted,” can never be viewed as a direct cause of rape – not based on consent. A man’s ability to distinguish between consent and lack thereof is his responsibility. But enough about rape. The idea that only men have “sick” fantasies and desires, silently propagated by the anti-porn camp, strikes me as sexist, utterly paternalistic and dogmatic. Being this type of feminist comes with the paradox of a political view incompatible with one’s true unbridled sexuality.
Attempting to say that the two movements are the same in their goals but one had better execution is missing the point of SlutWalk completely, but missing the point is something all of its critics have in common.
I will leave you with this message from SlutWalk NYC.
Here is one more video that crystalizes Dr. Dines’ position on third-wave feminism:
Neo-Liberalism and the Defanging of Feminism