Since time immemorial, women have used what is sometimes the most powerful tool — and, at other times, the only tool — to get a message across: their bodies.
When Lady Godiva took pity on a heavily-taxed public under her husband, she stripped naked and rode through the streets of Coventry in protest. When women suffragists were fighting for the right to vote, the “bloomer” pants they wore shocked and incensed onlookers. And when large crowds of women decided to protest the 1968 Miss America pageant, off came the bras.
(By the way, the power of the female body to elicit a reaction isn’t always used to transmit a message of female empowerment: Housewives in Malaysia are suggesting women should greet their husbands with “sexy clothes and alluring smiles” to curb domestic violence and visits to prostitutes.)
SlutWalks, the 2011 movement against rape and sexual abuse, appears to be putting to use the body-conscious lessons of its predecessors. During the walks, women take to the streets in suggestive clothing to make the statement that what women wear should have no impact on how men treat them.
Self-described feminist evangelist Jessica Valenti hailed SlutWalks as the future of feminism in a June 3 opinion piece in The Post’s Outlook section. Valenti, who points out that today’s feminist organizers, such as those who volunteer and work for organizations like Planned Parenthood, are often on the defensive. Valenti acknowledges that SlutWalks is a bolder alternative for obvious reasons, but adds that the events’s biggest strength doesn’t revolve around the female body. Rather, it’s that women are using an online message board to springboard feminist anger into a global movement.
SlutWalks is also addressing familiar questions: Does suggestive clothing mean a woman “asked for it”? (Research indicates no.) Does a woman asserting her sexuality in such a way reclaim a world like “slut”? (The feminist community is divided over whether slut is a word it really wants to own.)
Washington Post readers are also divided over the issue. Appropriate or not, it’s notable that a number of this article’s readers drew comparisons between property theft and rape in the comments.
“For example, let’s say I own a brand new car with an awesome stereo and I leave it parked, unlocked with the keys in the ignition in a very bad area of town ...” user andrew23boyle wrote.
(You can guess how this scenario ends.)
As a woman interested in sex and gender issues — but one who stops short of the “feminist” label — the question for me is this: Will the viral nature of SlutWalks burn the movement out before a wider cultural dialogue takes hold? And, to that end, has the similarly themed, longtime event “Take Back the Night” survived because it’s, for lack of a better word, quieter? I’d like to ask Valenti herself those questions when she joins our site for a chat today at 2 p.m. What would you ask?
Some updates from the chat with Valenti:
Q: I know a lot of people who respond to discussions with “Sure, women shouldn’t get raped for what they are wearing, BUT they still shouldn’t dress like that.” What do you say to them? Is there anything valid that could follow that “but”?
I tell folks who talk about rape in this way that clothing has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not women get attacked. There is no research showing a link between clothing and sexual assault. I also think it’s telling that you very rarely (if ever) hear this argument about clothing directed at male victims of rape.Q: Do you think the focus on the word ‘slut’ and the organizers’ claim to have ‘reclaimed; the word has derailed the conversation and distracted from the real issues (i.e. fighting rape culture, ending sexual assault and victim blaming)?
This is a really great question - and it’s something I worried about when I first heard of SlutWalks. I figured that the majority of media coverage would miss the point, but I have to say I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I think that the marches have gotten coverage that make it clear that they’re about battling rape and victim blaming. If anything, I think that the marches and the attention they’ve gotten have created more conversations about how we can stop rape culture.