Monday, August 01, 2011

It's All About Women Being Naughty

I came across two very different blog posts yesterday, offering very different views on the SlutWalks, and why the people writing these posts were in one way or another supporting them. The differences between the two pieces are many. For example, the piece at Feministing is largely critical of the movement, for reasons that should sound familiar:
Slutwalk – in its slick branding – runs the risk of facilitating the dominant discourse of ‘liberated’ women as only those women wearing mini-skirts and high heels in/on their way to professional jobs. In reality, capitalism mediates the feminist fa├žade of choice by creating an entire industry that commodifies women’s sexuality and links a woman’s self-esteem and self-worth to fashion and beauty. Slutwalk itself consistently refuses any connection to feminism and fixates solely around liberal questions of individual choice – the palatable “I can wear what I want” feminism that is intentionally devoid of an analysis of power dynamics.

Historically, this has come at a great cost to low-income women and women of colour who bear the brunt of institutionalized sexism – from lack of access to childcare and denial of reproductive justice to stratification in precarious low-wage work and disproportionate criminalization. In the post 9/11 climate, the focus on a particular version of sex(y)-positive feminism runs the risk of further marginalizing Muslim women’s movements who are hugely impacted by the racist ‘reasonable accommodation’ debate and state policies against the niqab. This marginalization has, at least in part, been legitimized through an imperialist feminist discourse that imposes certain ideas of gender liberation and perpetuates the myth that certain cultural/religious identities are inherently antithetical to women’s rights.
I should note, for the record, that I agree pretty much completely, with this. Indeed, I find much of what passes for feminist discourse in the United States to be, whether conscious of it or not, class- and race-biased, an exercise in the newly-powerful making sure they pull the ladder up after them. From rhetoric about abortion (more on that anon) to discussions of jobs (see Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickled and Dimed for a marvelous example of truly stupid pseudo-leftist nonsense from an alleged feminist), the combination of ignorance, arrogance, and condescension among elite feminists is so thick you could cut it.

While harboring these, and many more, misgivings, the author of this piece, a community activist in the South Asian community of Vancouver, BC, decided to march. Here's why:
I attended for the simple reason that I am committed to ending victim-blaming. The Slutwalks in Toronto and Vancouver came out of the specific contexts of comments by police officers in Toronto and Saanich that were reinforcing to young women about how to avoid getting raped. In Manitoba, Judge Dewar commented that a young Aboriginal rape survivor acted “inviting”.

Even though I did not march under the banner of ‘sluthood’, I marched to mark the unceded territory of women’s bodies. I marched because language is a weapon yielded against the powerless. I marched because rapists causes rape and sexual assault can never be justified. I marched to end the policing of women by other women. I marched because that day, though understandable, I happened to be tired of the Left ruthlessly eating itself alive. I marched in defiance of right-wing pundits like Margaret Wente to make visible the staggering reality of rape and violence against all women in so-called civilized countries like Canada.
The other, at Feministe, is different in tone and approach, and comes from a speaker at the San Diego SlutWalk, a man who is an independent film maker and Planned Parenthood activist named Echo Zen. A speaker at the rally, he was stumped as to what to say:
Trying to think of a fresh angle from which to approach the issue of slut-shaming, I remembered the last time I debated an anti-choice, anti-rights activist who wanted to see women stripped of access to family planning services. Naturally the argument he ultimately resorted to after all his others had been debunked was: “If girls don’t want to get pregnant, they shouldn’t be opening their legs to everyone.”

“Wow,” I’d chuckled to myself, “he didn’t even wait 5 minutes before falling back on old-fashioned slut-shaming. Most anti-choicers at least pretend it’s about the fetus for a little while longer.” Suddenly I realised what I needed to talk about at SlutWalk – the intersection between rape culture and the anti-choice movement.
He then sets out the speech he gave, the key paragraph of which follows:
This is what rape culture looks like – the belief that what women do between their legs should have some bearing on what legal, medical and emergency services are available to them.

It is a reflection of a society where girls are taught in abstinence-only classes that men are such slaves to their hormones that girls are the ones who must take responsibility for keeping men out of their pants. It is a reflection of a society where a woman can be denied emergency contraception by her doctor, before being told, “Well, you should have kept your legs shut.”
While always dangerous, the attempt to reclaim and reimagine words that are ugly, hateful, and used by the powerful as weapons against the powerless (to quote Ms. Walia), it is also an important exercise. The word "slut" is an ugly word, used to demean not only women's actions, but to set a moral threshold by which society can and should determine our level not only of empathy, but legal and other services provided to them.

No movement is going to be perfect, no issue-advocacy pure, no statement of intent free from ambiguity and trouble. As these two very different pieces make clear, however, at the center of the SlutWalk movement is not a defense of privileged women to continue the privilege to define their sexuality and femininity at the expense of women of color and women of other cultures and classes. At the heart of the movement, as I have stated again and again, is the fight to ensure that women are treated by society, the legal system, and the medical services, as competent moral agents who are not responsible for their victimization.

The continuity between the SlutWalk movement and the pro-choice movement should be clear enough. Just as the leaders of the anti-choice movement are, at the end of the day, concerned far less with the fetus than they are with punishing women for being bad, so, too are efforts to redefine rape, to insist that women shouldn't dress or act slutty in order to avoid becoming victims of sexual violence, and the general effort to define what is proper, acceptable behavior and dress for women. The effort by various powers-that-be to police women's lives, bodies, and restrict their moral choice not only offend against the notion that women are capable of making informed choices about their lives; it also institutionalizes certain acts of violence against women as acceptable because some women, by choosing to dress and/or act in ways some would deem "slutty" deserve to be treated that way, and are not deserving of legal protection, or medical treatment.

Every effort to redefine rape, to restrict women's access to health care, to police women's behavior, comes down, in the end, to the belief by many powerful individuals that women, not being competent to make decisions about their own lives and bodies, are in need of protection from others. Failing to accept that protection - opening their legs, in other words - renders them outside the bounds of social empathy. This is why I support the movement, even for all its limitations. This is why, if I had the chance, I march. This is why I will continue to highlight efforts of supporters to make clear the stakes.

It isn't about being slutty. It's about taking that word away from the powerful as a weapon used to demean and further victimize women.

Virtual Tin Cup

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