More about that later. First, let’s examine the merits of the question. It’s become part of a spirited debate within the feminist movement, triggered by the recent surge of marches known as SlutWalks. A lively downtown forum on the subject attracted a crowd of 110 on Wednesday, four days after Washington’s first SlutWalk on the Mall.
If you’re unaware of the phenomenon (which means you missed my Aug. 11 column), demonstrators have staged dozens of SlutWalks in numerous countries. They march to oppose “slut shaming,” or blaming victims and their clothing or behavior for provoking sexual assaults or harassment.
The first rally, in April in Toronto, adopted the provocative word “slut” because the protest was sparked by a police officer who told university students to “avoid dressing like sluts” or risk being raped. Many marchers, though typically a minority, embrace “sluttiness” by wearing skimpy or otherwise alluring clothing.
SlutWalks have opened fissures — partly generational — in the women’s movement. To begin with, many activists can’t tolerate the title. They view the word “slut” as hateful and irredeemably anti-female.
“It’s a violent word. I don’t think it’s possible to reclaim it,” Erin Prangley, who identified herself as “a 41-year-old activist,” said at the downtown forum. Prangley said the young marchers reminded her of herself two decades ago, but she warned, “I wonder if winning the battle is worth losing the war.”
(Prangley is an associate director of the American Association of University Women, which sponsored the Wednesday event. She was speaking for herself, as the AAUW took no position on the issue.)
Others defended “slut” because it has proved so effective in attracting publicity and stimulating a burst of grass-roots activism.
“The big S-L-U-T word is what got us here, so I’d say it was pretty successful,” said Aiyi’nah Ford, a radio commentator and activist, who is in her mid-20s.
The controversy includes disagreements over whether it’s appropriate for feminists to flaunt their sexuality. Some activists think it’s self-indulgent and trivializes important issues to make a show of displaying cleavage or wearing spike heels.
The D.C. Rape Crisis Center faulted the Washington SlutWalk on those grounds, even though it endorsed the rally as positive overall.
SlutWalks risk “getting lost in a focus on a frivolous and individualistic message of the ‘right to wear what I want to,’ ignoring the deeper societal structures that support sexual violence,” the center said.
But promoting the right to be openly sexy helps attract younger women to the movement. Supporters say sexuality is more visible in mass media today than during the feminist activism of the 1970s, and young women want to be a part of it.
“Feminists of today are functioning in a much different culture, and it’s one that is a lot more sexual,” Carmen Rios, 21, an American University student who was the media liaison for SlutWalk D.C., said in an interview. “I think sex positivity in the feminist movement is something that we’re working on now. It’s what’s now relevant to women’s lives.”
I side with the SlutWalkers, and I hope other women’s advocates ultimately accommodate them. The movement can’t afford disunity, and I applaud the younger generation for its healthy attitude about sex.
Moreover, activists need to come together so they can focus their energies on the real source of the problem, which, after all, is men. Not all men, of course. But it’s almost entirely men who rape. Who fondle when it’s unwelcome. Who catcall and leer. Who, when challenged, insist that a woman was “asking for it” because she looked so hot.
The fact is, a flirtatious outfit can, indeed, mean a woman is “asking for” something – attention, perhaps, or even a polite approach from an admirer. There’s nothing wrong with that.
What’s wrong is when a man goes further than the woman wants in providing such attention. That happens far too often.
Men should be happy that women want to look sexy. Men should return the favor by treating women with respect, and they should back off instantly when told no. That’s a cause worthy of support from both sexes.