I have to say I’m dismayed by an upcoming piece in The New York Times Magazine by Rebecca Traister. Let me first say: I love Rebecca. She’s been the women’s political issues writer for Salon.com for nearly forever and last year she published Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything For American Women about the 2008 election. She’s been a personal mentor to me over the years and someone I’ve always respected and whose career I’ve hoped to emulate.
But I wonder if her recent piece on the current state of feminist activism in general, and SlutWalks in particular, in the Times magazine reveals a generational rift of opinion. Is it individual? Is it generational? It’s hard to say. But there’s no debating that there isn’t a word in the English language more controversial than “slut.” It only helps to multiply that controversy when feminists often virulently disagree about it. The original SlutWalk, which I wrote about, was organized after a police officer in Toronto suggested during a law school public safety session that a woman could avoid sexual assault if she didn’t dress like “a slut.” That one comment lit a fuse in a way you just don’t often see when it comes to activism. Women and men took to the streets for a SlutWalk protest — first in Toronto and then in dozens of other cities throughout the world.
I’ve avoided writing about the rest of the SlutWalk protests almost entirely on The Frisky because I don’t see them as “controversial.” It’s not that I didn’t think the SlutWalks weren’t newsworthy. I did, of course. Any sex-positive public protest is exciting! However, so many of the SlutWalk discussions were defensive and reactive, focused on the organizers’ ironic use of the word “slut” and often handwringing over whether ‘the right to be slutty’ is really what we should be focusing on when we have reproductive rights and gay marriage to worry about. Those are both legit concerns, yet as far as I’m concerned, stewing in them detracts from a movement that’s getting butts out of seats and vocalizing feminist sentiments. What could be bad about that?
A fair amoung, apparently, Traister suggests — especially the “slutty” outfits some women have worn while SlutWalk-ing. She wrote:
“… [A]t a moment when questions of sex and power, blame and credibility, and gender and justice are so ubiquitous and so urgent, I have mostly felt irritation that stripping down to skivvies and calling ourselves sluts is passing for keen retort. … To object to these ugly characterizations [as sluts] is right and righteous. But to do so while dressed in what look like sexy stewardess Halloween costumes seems less like victory than capitulation (linguistic and sartorial) to what society already expects of its young women. Scantily clad marching seems weirdly blind to the race, class and body-image issues that usually (rightly) obsess young feminists and seems inhospitable to scads of women who, for various reasons, might not feel it logical or comfortable to express their revulsion at victim-blaming by donning bustiers. So while the mission of SlutWalks is crucial, the package is confusing and leaves young feminists open to the very kinds of attacks they are battling.”
Traister also connects her opinion on SlutWalks to a controversial article that recently ran in GOOD magazine by human rights reporter Mac McClelland. McClelland suffered from PTSD after covering sexual assaults in Haiti and wrote about having a male friend enact a violent rape fantasy to help her overcome her anxiety. The GOOD piece concerned a lot of sexual assault awareness activists who say enacting a rape fantasy isn’t wise. In any case, Traister noted, SlutWalks and McClelland’s piece both sought “to regain sexual power through a controlled embrace of the dynamic that had initially rendered her, and women around her, vulnerable.”
I understand Traister’s point: leading with our sexuality to demand respect, dignity and the permission to be messy human beings sells us short. There is so much more to women than that. Still, I think it’s problematic to jump into other people’s protest marches or bedrooms and tell them they’re doing their feminism wrong. I also hate the prioritizing of what’s deemed “significant” or “insignificant” in terms of what gets people fighting for women’s rights. I might personally think a SlutWalk or a nurse-in (when breastfeeding mothers descend upon a place that kicked out a mom for nursing her kid) or even a Take Back The Night rally is silly, but if I’m going to reap the rewards of other people’s activism on behalf of my gender, I feel like I should shut up. One of my strongest beliefs about women’s rights activism — which has only gotten stronger over the years as I’ve had more personal experience with it — is that I don’t think feminists can afford to be dismissive of each other.
Because I know Traister personally, I’m pretty sure she knows all this stuff. Alas, that’s why I was kinda bummed at the outlook in her piece. How many women and men, whether young or old, felt detached from the state of feminism in 2011 until something compelled them to participate in, or at least think about, their local SlutWalk? My impression of the SlutWalks from reading about them on blogs and in the news has been that they were grassroots and tied to local women’s groups, especially at colleges. Traister might see SlutWalks as “clumsy stabs” at “righting sexual-power imbalances” but I would hope these “clumsy stabs” were actually meaningful moments of engaged activism which — god willing! — will be repeated. Activists are often accusing other activists of being clumsy. The feminist movement, like lots of other movements, is critical of its young participants and all-too-often declaire “You’re doing it wrong!” I myself have been dismissed by my elders, including being criticized for being “young.” While it hurts to hear criticisms like that initially, eventually I learned to take it in stride and realized there isn’t one “right” way to do anything. I’ve always seen how those very things that were dismissed resonated elsewhere with other people tenfold.
One last thought: her criticism about what some of the Slutwalkers wore during their marches — i.e. “sexy stewardess Halloween costumes” — also rubbed me the wrong way. No one was required to wear fishnets or short skirts at SlutWalks, for heaven’s sake. In fact, judging by photographs like the ones above, collected on The Awl, “slutty” SlutWalkers were in the minority. Most were just average folks in their hoodies and jeans. Anyway, we really can’t prove whether women who dressed “slutty” for a SlutWalk were vamping it up for the occasion or whether they dress this way usually. But does it really matter? Isn’t that the point? If we can all, as feminists, agree that all women and men deserve to be free from harm and sexual shame, why would we turn around and criticize their get-ups as “Halloween” costumes?
I’ve now written more about SlutWalks than I ever cared to and I hope not to again. If other women want to parade around in fishnets and bustiers in broad daylight for my rights, I’m OK with that. Generally I’m of the opinion that if other people don’t understand irony or aren’t in on the joke, that’s their problem — not mine. Instead of more SlutWalk talk, I’d like us to focus on those other pernicious problems that are slightly less sexy.