Sisterhood Blog

'Slutwalks' Limit Vision of Sexual Empowerment

By Allison Gaudet Yarrow

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SARAH KARNASIEWICZ
Rebecca Traister

Slutwalks — the organized marches of mostly women to combat “slut-shaming” and sex crime “victim-blaming” — are happening all over the world.

Sparked by the comment of a Toronto police officer at a York University campus safety information event in January, who mouthed off that a woman was raped because of her clothes, the Slutwalks are finally receiving a deserved measure of scrutiny. Rebecca Traister’s uncertainty and discomfort about these rallies, which she shares in this week’s New York Times magazine, resonated with me, but I don’t believe her critique of the walks goes far enough.

According to this Washington Post story:

SlutWalks started with a local march organized by five women in Toronto and have gone viral, with events planned in more than 75 cities in countries from the United States and Canada to Sweden and South Africa. In just a few months, SlutWalks have become the most successful feminist action of the past 20 years.

Slutwalks are the theater of a movement that, I fear, narrow sexual empowerment to sexy dress and the promiscuity touted by many marchers. Even here on the Sisterhood: the stereotype of the prude J.A.P gives way to the self-actualized J.A.P slut. Traister is spot on that American culture struggles to label and frame sexual power dynamics, and that this predates “nutty slutty” Anita Hill. But isn’t it strange that out of this confusion has come a widespread sexual reclamation that is incredibly male-defined?

As Choire Sicha shows in this photo collage on The Awl, not all slutwalks feature women wearing panties. Marchers wear whatever they want to protest the linking of sexual assault to dress. Their goal is to end horribly pervasive slut-bashing and to rescue the word slut itself from being used as a weapon. That said, perhaps dress is not actually a step on the path to gender equality.

“Women have been manipulated by the media into believing that getting dressed is a form of self-expression. At best, it’s shopping,” said commenter Belinda Gomez in response to Traister on nytimes.com.

It’s a good analogy — traditionally male hypersexual expression has become what some women embrace as sexual freedom. And while clearly slutwalks and promiscuity feel authentic to some women, let’s remember that these forms are a kind of expression of sexual freedom and power. One kind.

Women can’t want to settle for just one. Where’s the gender parity in that? Sexual expression can but need not be loud, bold, naked or built through seeking multiple partners. In fact, sexual comfort, confidence and independence should not have to flaunt sex at all. That is a route that should be among the options.

Novelist Meg Wolitzer, who most recently wrote about middle-aged women whose sex lives were winding down put it well: “We are marinating in sexual imagery constantly. It’s almost a radical position to say there are vicissitudes.”

Being reduced to a single behavior, label or outfit is so very limiting. Women in myriad religious traditions cover their heads and dress modestly as a form of liberated self-expression. These are women who are empowered by adding layers of clothes.

Privacy concerns are real. Young girls need education and supervision, while proper sex education can’t be counted on in every state. If we only teach “slutwalks,” multiple partners and bikini culture, we are misleading young women about what it means to be strong and sexually liberated. We would do better to teach them that there is choice. A range. Even vicissitudes.


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