Politics of Slutwalk


Slutwalk, a feminist rally scheduled to take place in Melbourne tomorrow, 28 May, is a mass response to victim-blaming in cases of sexual violence. The movement originated in Toronto, sparked by a police officer's comment that 'Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order to not be victimised'.

It has spread globally, engaging a generation of women and men that older feminists forever lament have shirked their political responsibilities; who have enjoyed the privilege and forgotten the rage.

Guy Rundle's now infamous article published in Crikey last week pointed out that Slutwalk is indebted to the Reclaim the Night movement feminist anti-rape movement , which dates back to 1976.

Although Reclaim the Night marches operate differently in various locations, they are, for the most part, women-only rallies that articulate the right for women to move freely in their communities without fearing, or enduring, harassment or sexual assault. Radical feminists captured the movement in 1978 to also articulate and oppose the gender-based violence inherent in the sex industry.

As such, Reclaim the Night marches tend to embody some of the characteristics of radical feminism: 'separatism' — the political segregation of women — and 'women dressing for women', the rejection of historically 'feminine' clothing and behaviour.

Slutwalk, as Rundle states, is in a sense a 'rebranding' of Reclaim the Night. Where Slutwalk differs is that it attempts to transform the language of oppression into a language of autonomy, men are welcome to participate, and participants are free to dress provocatively or not, as a public declaration of their right to safety regardless of their attire.

But his differentiation of the two movements fundamentally misunderstands the cultural distinctions between generations of feminists, branding it a war. 'Slutwalk uses feminist themes as a cover for young women to wage war against older women,' he writes, thus dismissing the political import of Slutwalk. Where he observes power in the form and solidarity of Reclaim the Night, he slights Slutwalk as spectacle.

The movements are necessarily different. Older feminisms have failed to engage younger generations due simply to our different historical experiences of gender. The 'separatism' of earlier feminisms, although grounded in convincing rhetoric, have little currency for women feminists whose only relationships with men are respectful and loving. Women's experiences of gender cannot be universalised.

This is not to say that women in the developed world do not experience political, material, sexual, cultural and legal inequity — Britain's conviction rate of reported rapes is below 7 per cent — but that redefining women's movements is essential for ensuring that women have the space to articulate their own experience of gender.

Women and feminists of my generation are products of a conflicted culture that older feminists may appreciate. Our position is from inside a culture where, for many of us, feminism has been naturalised, but where the sex industry has also been mainstreamed. The emergence of Proud queer identities has also shaped our understanding of sexuality. These are powerful differentiating factors between the Slutwalk movement and earlier movements such as Reclaim the Night.

The way the sex industry has altered sexuality in the public and private spheres is perhaps the most uncomfortable aspect of Slutwalk, and puts Slutwalk under a cautious scrutiny that Reclaim the Night is not subject to. Detractors argue that Slutwalk supporters are mistaking their sexual subjugation for liberation. They appeal to the horrors of the sex industry, conflating bodily integrity with subjugation to violent and degrading sexual constructions.

That assumption entirely misses the point. Slutwalk is one attempt to repossess what the sex industry has consumed. Degrading constructions of female sexuality are only legitimised by male violence, which are in turn legitimised by victim-blaming and shaming.

Another point of difference between older and younger feminists is that older feminists were responding to an environment hostile to them in every way. My generation, although some deny being feminists, have been cultured in a more feminist (albeit not feminist enough) environment, and as such do not require a rejection of old modes of femininity per se to secure whatever political or material goals they aspire to.

But I think the most interesting differentiating factor between Slutwalk and Reclaim the Night is Slutwalk's symbolic references to the Pride movement. This is what makes Slutwalk a uniquely contemporary 'spectacle' with political import.

Pride rallies, the Sydney Mardi Gras being a famous example, combine sexual politics and celebration of diversity, inclusion, safety and autonomy. They are framed in a carnival atmosphere, and have successfully transformed historically imposed shame into pride.

Slutwalk, using the theatricality and parody that Rundle dismisses, performs an inversion of the Madonna/Whore binaries that harm all women, and as well employ a fierce solidarity that Rundle seems to think us incapable of. 

Ellena SavageEllena Savage is a Melbourne writer and the immediate past editor of the Melbourne University student magazine, Farrago

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Slutwalk, Reclaim the Night, Guy Rundle, feminism



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Existing comments

I was raped and I don’t support Slutwalk. They’re not subverting the word ‘slut’ they’re reinforcing the sexual objectification of women - the slut or ‘temptress’ is a powerful cultural archetype, and always will be, which lawyers in particular use as a well-worn legal tactic that’s about money not human rights. Should they use it? Of course not! But an ideology doesn’t stop having negative social connotations or ramifications overnight just because people say it should. Misogyny is rampant in our culture and the pornification of women dominates popular media. It’s so deeply disappointing that young women have bought into their own objectification to the point whereby they’re willing to reinforce it and promote it because it’s been marketed as cool. Raising money for rape services or walking against rape would have been much more useful than fighting for their right to be a sex object. I’m pleased the sensationalism has stirred wider debate about victim blaming and I believe feminists can learn from their clever marketing techniques to communicate more valuable messages. But those who walk are not walking, or speaking, for me.

Ruby | 27 May 2011  

I am a feminist and sexual assault counsellor and I will be attending Slutwalk on Saturday in Melbourne. I absolutely reject the notion that by re-claiming an ‘un-reclaimable’ word we somehow empower ourselves. All women are “sluts” in the eyes of a sexist society and there is real danger that by giving such language our stamp of approval, we end up “normalising” and “beautifying” our own oppression. I don’t believe the majority of women attending Slutwalk want to inject a sense of empowerment into the word slut. The broad interest in SlutWalk expresses outrage at the institutional victim-blaming mentality when it comes to sexual assault. But women are also joining the SlutWalk to demand their right to be confident sexual beings in their own right. Young women especially, are under immense pressure in today’s consumer society to conform to a narrow stereotype of a highly sexualised woman, who must look like a porn star and be ready to perform sexual acts any time for any man. This is the polar opposite to the kind of a liberating sexuality we are talking about, where women can be who they want and have sex safely with whoever they please. But we are also a lot more than just our sexuality. And it is up to us to define ourselves beyond the mainstream prism that sees women primarily as sexual beings and free labour. Reclaiming the word “slut” does not achieve any of that. Challenging deep seated systemic oppression demands creating the material conditions women require to become true citizens of the world and active agents for change. It means fighting for reproductive rights, equal pay and an end to imperialist oppression in the Third World, where the majority of the women on this planet live and suffer. So let’s join SlutWalk and inject a politics into it, which has nothing to do with re-claiming sexist words and is all about fighting for women’s liberation — a world where women can proudly be women.

Margarita Windisch | 27 May 2011  

Well done Ellena, As an older feminist, I agree entirely. Language, for me, engenders memory. I need to liberate myself with the word 'Slut. You present a helpful argument using Pride rallies. Thank you

Heather Marshall | 27 May 2011  

Interesting article, pity about the whorephobia. As far as I'm concerned the "horrors" of the sex industry consist of attacks by anti-sex work feminists and conservatives, who deny our personal and bodily autonomy, and insist that we are all victims; persecution and over regulation by unjust laws; and sexual assaults by scumbags, who consider that we are less deserving of respect because of our chosen profession. Sexual assault is not a workplace hazard, a calculated risk of working in the sex industry: it is a violent violation, just as it is for everyone else who experiences sexual violence. Sex workers will be marching in all Australian SlutWalks because we demand an end to the violence and victim blaming. We have been fighting to reclaim "slut" from the shamers for years now, because we choose to be empowered by our sexuality. And to profit from it. There is nothing "degrading" about using one's mind and body and skills to provide a highly sought after and specialised service. Some people may see certain forms of pornography as degrading, but then some people (eg Sheila Jeffreys) see "penis in vagina sex" as inherently violent and degrading. Is anything "inherently" degrading?

Lola Lolly | 27 May 2011  

You might find interesting the point of view of someone who goes back further than the 70s and addresses similar issues on feminism and the body: http://magazine.goodvibes.com/?p=17933&preview=true

I have been writing about migration and the sex industry for many years at http://www.lauraagustin.com and am constantly caught in cultural contradictions.

And as a matter of historic interest, the first Take Back the Night did not take place in the US but Europe .

Laura Agustín | 27 May 2011  

To Lola Lolly, who implies that the horrors of the sex industry are overblown.

Today in Vanity Fair there is an article on Sex Trafficking among American women. You'd do well to read it. Some quotes:

"[The pimp's] captives ... were not permitted to refuse a john any request, no matter how frightening, harmful, vile, or degrading—be it videotaping anal rape, beating them black-and-blue (the evidence of which would excite admiring comments from [the pimp]), or smearing them with puke. “Johns are even more dangerous than pimps,” says Caroline, who had her own close encounter with a necrophiliac. (Homicide is the No. 1 cause of death among prostituted females, ahead of AIDS.)"


Please, read it.

Peter | 28 May 2011  

Another quote, from the Vanity Fair article, to Lolla Lolly:

"Most of the johns were startled to learn that the girls were not acting of their own free will—75 to 80 percent of prostitutes don’t.

The men believed the ads, and the legend of the Happy Hooker. Each of them also assumed they were the one exception to the rule of the repulsive customer.

Says Karen Stauss, the former staff attorney for Polaris Project, a D.C.-based not-for-profit anti-slavery-and-human-trafficking organization, “Johns don’t understand what they’re contributing to. It never occurs to them that the woman who is smiling is being abused.

They really don’t know what’s going on—and they don’t care.”

I think that says a great deal about the sex industry.


I found the article to be horrifying. I don't believe it is sensationalist.

Peter | 28 May 2011  

Could women insist on absolute freedom of expression as planned for the proposed 'SlutWalk' and deny absolute freedom of expression to men.

Indebted to the works of Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer, I suggest that women focus on having an equal say in parliament, the professions, commerce, culture and the arts, rather than baring bodies to such an extent that no-one could contemplate friendship.

Joyce | 28 May 2011  

It seems to have been an event that appealed only to Melbourne's white, middle-class, young people and media pundits.

Yet rape, and all sexual violence, does not discriminate. Why was no effort made for a variety of voices to be heard? Or, why did only privileged people want to align themselves with 'sluttishness'?

Sure, SlutWalk got some media coverage thanks to their sensational name, which meant a reminder that rape is wrong and victims are never to blame. But what did they really achieve for victims of rape? Nothing.

Instead they alienated, silenced, and angered a lot of women who do not want to be called sluts because it's a word beloved by abusers and that isn't going to change overnight.

No one asks to be raped but the simple fact is advertising, media, and p-rn say that women who are dressed seductively want sex. The only way SlutWalk will fit into the grander social picture is by going away.

I Love Women | 29 May 2011  

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