#Slutproblems

On October 1st, 2011, the NY Chapter of Slutwalk organized a protest in solidarity with Toronto Slutwalk, the largest grassroots feminist march in quite some time. While there was a flurry of outsider media response at the time, around the problems and successes of Slutwalk, ITF felt it was pertinent to directly confront the organizers of Slutwalk. Though the original march took place over a year ago, we at ITF believe that the importance of the issues that Slutwalk raises, reclaiming words, and the place of sex positivity in an anti-rape movement, should continue being talked about. What follows is an excerpt that highlights a much longer conversation between ITF and a Slutwalk NYC organizer. The organizer in question chose to remain anonymous.

Dear X:

Again, my criticism was not against you in particular, and I believe that I gave props to Slutwalk for creating a space for survivors, and for starting a dialogue, for getting people in the street. I am happy that there seems to be something happening. What I was writing about was more a broad feeling that I got from Slutwalk. That feeling was not “disorganized”, marches are always slightly chaotic and it’s just great to be around the energy. I get that. But I also saw problems in the general tone, and felt the need to critique, the way the Crunk Feminist Collective, Black Women’s Blueprint and others felt the need to critique. Critiques that you seem to have benefited from in the way you now contextualize Slutwalk.

My main issue with Slutwalk is the linkage of the Sex-Positive strategy of reappropriation (We’re all sluts! Now what?) with making a platform about sexual violence. Because, as you said, one really doesn’t have anything to do with the other. Rape isn’t about dress, it has nothing to do with how one expresses oneself sexually. We agree about this. But the framework the march set up forces us to mix the two in an uncomfortable way, i.e. not on our own terms. The confrontational value of the word slut that you speak of would have been successful if the march were about sexual expression, freedom, perverts united, etc. etc. But it wasn’t. It was about sexual violence, with the word slut thrown in for shock value. The link was made in Toronto because it was a direct reaction to a city cop’s comment, the first one to make that link. That’s fine. Once decontextualized though, the framework of Slutwalk actually doesn’t make any sense, and it becomes impossible to remain coherent while linking these two ideas. My question was why did these two ideas remain connected for the march in New York? They should never have been. Either you want to talk about sexual violence, or you want to reclaim a word that is used to isolate and shame people and discredit their authority. You can’t do both, because you fall into that beautifully laid trap : That it’s sluts who are raped.

I don’t actually have a strong feeling about the word slut. I didn’t really grow up with it, but I recognize the power that the word seems to have in American culture.

Slutwalk was what got me thinking about reappropriation and I decided that on its own, it could be very powerful, even though not all women identify that way, and many have a more directly painful relationship to the word, (re the sexualization of black women’s bodies). I don’t know that the valid critiques made by BWB and CFC actually have to push us away from the power of reappropriation. Which, to quote Pat Califia, is this (keep in mind this is dated, from the 80s, and has not taken the argument of racialized sex-slurs into account but I will bring that in after) :

“It’s a feminist cliché that women are divided into virgins and whores, and set against each other. There is no mention in anti-porn rhetoric in how much the hatred voiced by “respectable” women puts the slut in danger, how much “nice” women’s jealousy and fear of being identified with her isolates the slut and makes it possible for her to be exploited and abused. Some of us hate this polarization, and would like other choices, between virgin and whore. Sexual exploration would be so much easier if this wasn’t such a highly charged arena. But it is, so even if we ask for “just a little freedom”, even the slightest bit of sexual agency, experience, desire or speech, we are going to be branded as sluts and whores. And so most women remain identified with the virgin, the woman who looks on and suffers, who refrains from action, who always forgives, who heals wounds and gives birth, but will do nothing to halt violence or murder. It’s too frightening to be the brazen hussy, the woman who travels, who goes where men go and sees what men see, who wears their clothes and appropriates their pleasures and mannerisms, who carries a razor, who has a hustle of her own going, who dresses to attract attention to herself, who will take care of her friends and stab her enemies in the back. She is not free but she deserves to be.”

If you wanted to make a march about sexual freedom and agency, reappropriation, when thinking about it from this angle, would be an interesting way to go. I understand your issue with the word “reappropriate”, when coming at it from the virgin standpoint when women of color especially, are sexualized and exoticized immediately in a “white” space. When I talk about reappropriation I don’t think it has to be talked about in that way, I think anyone can “wear” the word for an event, regardless of the starting point. Yes we need to acknowledge that first layer of the virgin/whore dichotomy between white women and women of color. How we deal with it needs to be thought about more (How are we going to address each other in the march? What words are we going to reclaim? What are our associations with them? Are there any meanings that can be viewed as positive once we strip away the WASP bourgeois values?). But the main reason for reappropriation is that very problem: no one who has been branded as a slut has chosen it, regardless of race. Because within patriarchy across all cultures, there is always one, one woman in a community who is just a little too easy, a little too active, or perceived as being that way. It might look different across communities, but the myth is made flesh. The idea of choosing to wear the word for an event, to take the idea of the slut, an isolated, discredited individual, and keep her company, is inherently de-stigmatizing. To say, you know what, this word has all these other meanings that actually can be positive and the isolation that the slut (or ho or whore or pute or puta) suffers is what is really horrific, so let’s be sluts today. Let’s support her. Let’s take the morality out of it. I think that reappropriation or “wearing the word”, has its place. It’s a strategy. A sex-positive one that Slutwalk misused. The word has both violence and power in it, and when linked with sexual violence, the word loses the possibility of confrontation, we are no longer the ones holding its power. We lose control of it because we lose ourselves in the spiral of “slut-rape” set-up by patriarchy, we can’t take empowerment in that way.

You know, it’s not like I feel we are on different sides, I have critiques, but I think we want to push the same thing forward. I do feel that you  ignored most of my arguments about the complication around shame and desire, but I think I didn’t clarify my first issue enough so I can see why. I understand wanting to end humiliation and powerlessness, and those feelings being a massive stumbling block to sexual empowerment. Of course I do. Why are we here after all? But sex is so tricky because there are so many powerfully intimate, life and death things involved. Confronting desire, your own and others’, is the issue. Making a space where that is possible. I think we differ on what we believe makes a positive space. That can be another conversation. Fundamentally, sex is about risk, but it’s easy to be on the defensive because it all gets subsumed by the puritanical bullshit. If anything, I think this means we need to try again, refine the issues we want to talk about, break the machine apart and build it up in a way that affirms us. My opinion is that Slutwalk failed to do this, and that the link they consciously kept ended up sacrificing a lot of complexity and forcing out a lot of people. Maybe that’s what was needed to get enough bodies on the street. I don’t know. It was a first step, let’s try again.

—ITF

Dear ITF:

Can I just say I think this conversation is a lot of fun to think about?

You stated, “But the main reason for reappropriation is that very problem: no one who has been branded as a slut has chosen it, regardless of race. Because within patriarchy across all cultures, there is always one, one woman in a community who is just a little too easy, a little too active, or perceived as being that way. It might look different across communities, but the myth is made flesh.”

I agree with this point– hetero-patriarchy is a fixture in most societies, as is “slut”. We should de-stigmatize, and trivialize the shit out of it! Although I think it still alienated a lot of people, who have different levels of cultural acceptance for certain things. That’s why it’s not really okay to say “Patriarchy is everywhere! Let’s use the same tactics to fight it!” As you can see, I still feel a residual guilt about this. I also feel crappy that most of my family cannot ever know that I even organized it. A woman from BWBP suggested that if we try the whole Slutwalk thing again, we reframe it: The “Who You Callin’ A Slut?!” Walk, to make it less alienating. And though the shock factor is still there, the aim for reappropriation isn’t. (Which kills the attempt to de-stigmatize it, much less be sex-positive, right?) While it struck me as a great idea at first, now I see why I wouldn’t want that.

You said, “If you wanted to make a march about sexual freedom and agency, reappropriation, when thinking about it from this angle, would be an interesting way to go. I understand your issue with the word “reappropriate”, when coming at it from the virgin standpoint when women of color especially, are sexualized and exoticized immediately in a “white” space. When I talk about reappropriation I don’t think it has to be talked about in that way, I think anyone can “wear” the word for an event, regardless of the starting point.”

Let’s take the reappropriation of “queer” for instance. Like “slut,” it alienates plenty of people, and has violently isolated many as well. But a growing number of people love it. To adopt “queer” is to adopt a political stance, to belong to a radical community of which most people under capitalist hetero-patriarchy are too afraid to touch. Whereas “slut” falls short of that. One can politically be a slut. Plenty of people have created communities of proud sluts. But of course, at risk of being exploited by capitalists and scumbags. Because it’s about sex, and “sex sells,” it’s a hard radical position to take without further sustaining a culture that disadvantages us by objectifying, packaging and reselling “slut.” Oof. So how do we build a radical community of people who feel a sense of belonging under the banner “slut”?

You said, “I think that reappropriation or “wearing the word”, has its place. It’s a strategy. A sex-positive one that Slutwalk misused. The word has both violence and power in it, and when linked with sexual violence, the word loses the possibility of confrontation, we are no longer the ones holding its power. We lose control of it because we lose ourselves in the spiral of “slut-rape” set-up by patriarchy, we can’t take empowerment in that way.”

That said, I understand how SW may be construed as “falling into the same trap” when explained to others. I got into a heated facebook argument with a bunch of my friends from high school (I’m from Jacksonville, Florida). It was infuriating that my “friends” were talking about Slutwalk in terms of “those dumb girls deserve to be raped if they’re gonna go out like THAT!” I pointed out how ironic it was that they would say that, since the point of the march was to say “it doesn’t matter what you look like, nobody deserves it.” Then it turned into a huge battle between me and a bunch of Southern, white Christian girls, in which I asserted that they shouldn’t be shaming women for being sexual. Instead, the point is to shift the attention to the most common, visible perpetrators and perpetuators of rape culture– rapists (who are majority cismen), politicians and police. (And all those who take their sides thinking it’ll make them more safe in such a culture, including slut-shaming women.) 

Granted, my points missed the mark entirely with these folks– like most people, they too conflate sex and rape, and couldn’t quite work out my attempts to distinguish the two. When we can’t communicate the points easily, that’s a problem. And when we can’t discuss desire without confronting shame, that’s also a problem. What is desire to these folks on facebook, and how do they talk about it without buying into shame? You might disagree with me, but in a world where rape is so prevalent, where the fear of it permeates our psyches, it’s really not an easy task to just open up and learn to project desire. Lots of women try to project desire through the simple logic of “just do what a man does, right?” Regardless of the problematics (i.e. gender essentialism) inherent in that logic, those who do it are immediately rebuffed by surveillance or threats of violence.

Anyway, I got a kneejerk reaction from your critique because it exhibited a sort of blindspot to me: why are we not ALL celebrating our freedom to desire? Well, you know what? I really wish I could. I wish I knew how. It took me many years, three different sexual-assaults and a Lacan reader to even dream up the idea of becoming a subject who actively wields desire. (And at this point in my life I simply cannot do this with straight, cis-men.) It seems that many folks have still never, ever found outlets for their own desire. Many still don’t frame desire as something which they actively DO, but actively receive. (This is my problem with a dominant/submissive rhetoric around sex.) They themselves do not recognize women as anything besides receptacles from which they receive the desire of men– which is why it’s so offensive, and subversive for women to go out and march in defense of “sluts.” Slutwalk fails to solve for any of these inhibitions to desire, it’s true– but if this was a response to someone saying simply “women can’t assert their desire” instead of “women can’t assert their desire, lest they get raped,” perhaps that would be its focus. Perhaps that’s why we shouldn’t leave it up to sex-positivity [alone] to battle something like rape. “Consent is sexy” is not enough to deter an entire world full of rapists who don’t give a fuck about what WE think is sexy, at all.

So if we really wanted a positive space to embrace desire for ourselves, us survivors, then was the proper space a public one such as Union Square? Now I don’t think so. But I also don’t think that people who attended this event and people who create those spaces are mutually exclusive. Some of us work it out with our partners, some people work it out at Bluestockings or other community workshops. Some of us work it out on stage. Some of us work it out in classrooms, or art studios. Because people have different levels of comfort with different spaces, it’s a choose-your-own-adventure kind of deal when it comes to discovering your own capacity to be vulnerable and to desire freely.

And lastly, you said: “Fundamentally, sex is about risk, but it’s easy to be on the defensive because it all gets subsumed by the puritanical bullshit. If anything, I think this means we need to try again, refine the issues we want to talk about, break the machine apart and build it up in a way that affirms us.”

If Slutwalk served any substantial purpose, it was to bring people together who are looking for communities that further investigate the issue of desire, power and violence. Again, I think this conversation was a lot of fun, and maybe we (as in you and I) can think about having an event to further discuss the place of something like sex-positivity in an anti-rape movement, without scrambling the two. I’ll go to the next coalition meeting (we’re trying not to be known as “Slutwalk NYC,” as that’s just one event of many we plan to organize) and suggest it. It provided me a lot of food for thought, and I thank you for that.

X