Four Brief Critiques of SlutWalk’s Whiteness, Privilege and Unexamined Power Dynamics
Many websites have devoted pages and pages to SlutWalk, an event that has popped up in several North American cities. More criticism is emerging about the privilege, self-involvement and whiteness of perspectives forwarded in the action.
Clearly much of the media, a lot of men and society itself are deeply misogynist and racist. But is the fixation with "slut-shaming" addressing the fact that white supremacy and misogyny remain strong? Or are we having easier conversations — e.g. don’t assault me or pick on me for my choices — in favor of much more challenging ones about sexism and lack of opportunity for women that cut the legs out from under ideals such libertarianism holds dear — meritocracy, the Protestant work ethic and the illusion that everyone regardless of race, class or gender has unlimited free choice?
My first reactions to SlutWalk distill from there…
1.) Reclaiming What?
According to its website, SlutWalk’s organizers “are tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result. Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless if we participate in sex for pleasure or work. No one should equate enjoying sex with attracting sexual assault.”
And that gets to one of the essentially problematic things of privileged white folks attempting to define for everyone else what works for them personally or because they want a satirical device. When events are about everyone individually for themselves defining whatever they think is good for them, regardless of its impact on other communities (especially communities of color, who disproportionately face the brunt), do communities of color really need to define themselves in such terms?
I thought to myself, after hearing of SlutWalk, about how much language and empowerment is racialized. How would the Mexican-American mothers I know feel about their daughters calling themselves whores? Or the Black mothers of friends react to their daughters calling themselves sluts? Probably not well. Many communities of color have had growing movements against anti-woman language for good reason. For communities of color, even those who aren’t expressly political, there’s a visceral reaction to name-calling aimed at women of color, who are seemingly always the targets of names whose historical, cultural, social and political edge white women will never confront. From ‘welfare queens' to 'unwed mothers,’ images are almost always racial. As a Latino male, people who look like me (and Black men as well) are often the ones visualized when people think gender oppression. But white supremacy means Caucasians do not, for the most part, need to think about messaging regarding normalcy and deviance, or that people of color, especially women of color, have been subject to these issues all our lives. Historically, the masses of white women have not fought with women of color, but instead sided with white men in exchange for their own freedoms.
In addition, there’s a painful history in which Black women were the sexual property of white men as legacies of slavery, which white women don’t have as part of their collective memory.
When I consider reclaiming pejoratives, I’m often reminded of what communities of color contend with. The use of racial slurs to empower communities of color has been advocated by some for many years. Yet can anyone really point of a single social, political, cultural or economic advance that is a direct result of Blacks, Latinos, Asians, etc. referring to ourselves as epithets? Have young people been given important tools to self-actualize and change their objective conditions by calling each other words racists use? Are communities of color more empowered when white people can ironically use racial taunts as reputed endearments? Does anyone seriously entertain the idea that the shock value once derived by using racial slurs in music and media exists in any other fashion now but one in which the power people thought such actions might take away from institutional racism instead got submerged into selling points of “credibility” to consumers?
To a similar point, Kristen Powers sardonically remarks, “Just what the women of the world have been clamoring for: to call themselves sluts. No wonder a 2008 Daily Beast poll found that just 20 percent of women call themselves “feminists,” and only 17 percent would want their daughters to use the label…. SlutWalk defenders say that they’re being ironic, that it’s supposed to be funny that women are turning a word used to dehumanize them into a badge of pride. If you don’t like the slut walks, then you just don’t get the hilarity of women debasing themselves in the name of empowerment.”
2.) Personal Versus Political
One of SlutWalk’s biggest problems is its active effort to decontextualize patriarchy to a super libertarian wet dream of personal preference, without really seeing that the stubborn I’ll-do-whatever-I-want individualism is one of the primary contradictions women face. In reality, women’s disempowerment is institutional, and no amount of visioning the world as one of doing whatever women want takes away the self-doubt women are taught and the limits on what a society that is still anti-woman places on them.
One SlutWalk blog post is typical of so much of this discourse: I like to look attractive to men, I like porn, etc. and this is about others not telling me what to do. Critique whiteness or the idea of the sex industry (porn, prostitution) and its impact on communities of color? You’re a 'disgruntled misogynist rapist.' Ask for community accountability for the privilege involved in a terminology that women of color don’t have the same freedoms related to. 'I could really care less.'
Unquestioned is the desire to be unaccountable to one other, but only ourselves, our moods and personal likes as an organizing aspiration. Corporate media takes no issue with promoting and featuring women perceived to be sexually available to men and seemingly liberated. Such is in part due to the fact that women’s sexuality is a commodity, and that extreme libetarianism (i.e. the idea that the ‘right’ to do, be, and define one’s happiness is the ultimate objective of a social order) is a political ideal under capitalism. We’ve all been sold this idea for “freedom” for years.
But has any successful sociopolitical movement sustained any gain when its primary attraction is the freedom to define yourself by whatever institutionally constructed image you “want”? As I Blame the Patriarchy reminds us, calling oneself a slut in a society that is patriarchal does little more than reinforce men’s ideas of their superiority.
A problem with initiatives where one’s work is all about everyone defining for themselves what’s best is that, as feminist organizer Jo Freeman wrote, the only ones who ever actually benefit are the connected, the privileged and the cunning. History bears out that, in a white supremacist society, those individuals are most assuredly white, and, in a women’s grouping, such are generally white women.
Because we have Western epistemology, some think freedom is being able define our realities. Yet if our realties and dreams are dictated to us by a colonial mentality, then you are asking only to empower yourself in the market. Thus you are only fortifying what you claim to be destroying. Without a thorough understanding of how capital functions in the lives of women and actively rejecting that, one merely supports a set of values already in existence.
Moreover, the SlutWalk drive battles against the social justice basis in which radical feminism has sought kinship by declaring this battle isn’t about institutional violence against women, but one’s right to do a particular thing or two in a society whose anti-woman basis does not change.
3.) White Privilege and What Communities of Color Face
A lack of understanding of practical political realities, especially for cross-sections of communities of color, seems evident related to SlutWalk.
As noted previously, some of this is about language that is racialized. More is about privilege. Rebecca Mott writes about the uncritical adoption by those with the privilege to do so of word ‘slut’ and obscuring the brutality of the sex trade — an underground industry impacting largely women of color in North America. Mott notes embracing prostitution without understanding what such means to women trapped in the business has dangerous implications.
If you want to know what it to be a Slut, a Slut without freedom of movement, freedom of speech, freedom of safety – then place yourself inside the skin of the Ultimate Slut.
Women and girls inside most aspects of the sex trade are raped, battered and murdered whatever they wear, whatever environment they are placed in.
What does any Slutwalk do that makes any practical difference to that?
Instead too many who join Slutwalk say that women – avoids the messiness of girls – choose to be inside the sex trade. That for those women being a Slut is just their work.
So they march in proud solidarity to keep the sex trade running business as normal.
If I am feeling nice I would say that is turning a blind eye to any violence that is the norm inside the sex trade. But today I don’t feel like being kind – I would say it a deeply privileged and selfish attitude, that sees women inside the sex trade as sub-human who are good only to use as propaganda.
How many women who go on and on about being inside the sex trade is just “work”, have done it full-time for several years, with no power or choice over what punters will use them?
How many women who go on and on that it just work, have been in conditions where rape is so normal is cannot be known, where it is normal that women disappear, where no has no meaning?
Mott adds on a comment at We Won’t Submit about a discussion with a leader of the Devati anti-prostitution movement in India. In that country, the writer says, Indian feminists, who have negated the Devati experience as Third World women who in turn have long simply chattel for mens’ sexual desires, support the Toronto-created protest. Yet it is lower caste women who don’t have those luxuries. And rather than fight back and organize to defend the Devati and change the abuses such women face, the idea devolves into simply normalizing their abuse as “sluts,” without understanding such actions could be deeply offensive to these communities, which have long been objectified by the globalized gaze.
In a just as important vein. To The Curb calls to account the idea of cultural imperialism, and to whose benefit.
According to SlutWalk’s website, the event is slated to be reproduced in Argentina sometime this year. It’s the country I was born and raised in, among Spanish, Guaraní and Portuguese speakers – and I can assure you that the word “slut” is not used by anyone there. This is not what we need. I do not want white English-speaking Global North women telling Spanish-speaking Global South women to “reclaim” a word that is foreign to our own vocabulary. To do so would be hegemonic, and would illustrate the ways in which Global North “feminists” have become a tool of cultural imperialism. I will be going back home in about a month, and want to do so without feeling the power of white women bearing down on me from 6,000 miles away. We’ve got our own issues to deal with in South America; we do not need to become poster children to try to make you feel better about yours.
As Struggling to be Heard says, white women have the privilege to think of women of color as an afterthought, a people who implicitly are receptacles for their ideas. “It is white supremacy and its very ideals and systems that make these disputes possible. That make it so that it takes hordes of women of color to say something before white women begin thinking about how they can be more pro-active.”
Criticism of women of color who have spoken out, including in an important piece on South Asian women, has been typically nasty. On its Facebook page, SlutWalk organizers claimed critics called them white supremacists (without ever presenting where such happened), and implored — almost on cue, if you’ve been through the political trenches before —that they’re not white supremacists and that people of color need to speak out about the criticism.
What most white people don’t understand is that critiques aren’t about them getting their feelings hurt about a criticism or the ability to find a person of color to legitimize their ideas to the politically immature. Such is an old tactic many movements have used to divide people of color and pit us against each other (and for some people of color to curry favor for their own gain). More importantly, communities of color have long memories and have seen played out many times this sort of advantaging the people of color who will defend the white people or who the white folks like. Almost never do any of these erstwhile defenders of white privilege have any legitimacy, role or relationship in communities of color (even though they’re happy to pull a POC card when defending whites) or any actual institutional power in white organizations. And at the end of the day the only people who are impressed by such compradors are the other white people.
Seriously. Asking your brown friends to defend you, rather than sincerely and substantively addressing concerns from communities of color, really doesn’t win you any points with communities of color. At all. In fact, you end up looking like the manipulative white people you think you’re not, and ones we’ve seen before.
4.) SlutWalk as Anti-Feminist Battering Ram
Lastly, I have found some of the SlutWalk approach most problematic related to an ahistorical understanding of women’s organizing. Ironically, or maybe not so much, SlutWalk advocacy has come at the expense of the feminist movement, demonizing a struggle that has many hard-won victories to its credit.
To turn social justice and women’s self-determination into what one story refers to as an approach of “look, but don’t rape" seems fine to many. But why draw a line against feminists who don’t favor exclusionary language; believe women’s media representations (e.g. porn, advertising, sexualizing girls, etc.) shape people’s perceptions of women; and who fought for the rights you now enjoy? Does dismissing their criticism, especially when it’s shut down with uber-libertarian fuck-the-world-it’s-about-my-needs rhetoric, genuinely serve the people who need to have these conversations, or a cause you believe in (unless the cause is oneself)?
Moments like these prompt me to measure justice movements by other struggles’ starkest disagreements. To give an extremely brief synopsis of one instance I regularly consider, the mainstream and radical ends of the civil rights movement clashed mightily about integration, and more broadly the right to be in places at which one was unwelcome. What would the radical movement (whose threat of rise indubitably forced institutional concessions to the mainstream movement) have become had Malcolm X said, ‘I not only disagree with Rev. King, but I oppose his approach enough that I will stand with those who oppose him’? In spite of disagreements, Malcolm X defended King’s right to fight, confronting people like George Lincoln Rockwell in support of King.
And while, among SlutWalk folks, none have even a hint of a shadow of civil rights pioneers to claim, how they’ve responded to the feminist movement’s questions says a lot about who they are, their aspirations, and their regard for those who are peers.
In talking about her exposure to SlutWalk, Meghan Murphy at The F Word zeroes in on some of SlutWalk’s anti-feminist underpinnings. “Instead what I found, over and over again was, not only a refusal to align with feminism, but often, an outright aversion to it. I saw numerous attacks on radical feminism and radical feminists and I witnessed the reinforcement of negative and untrue stereotypes about feminism (you know the ones: man-hating, misandrist, no-fun, sex-negative, etc). While I do believe the organizers had good intentions, desiring that Slutwalk be inclusive to all, it began to look a lot like the ‘funfeminist’ – NO NO WE’RE THE CONVENTIONALLY ATTRACTIVE FEMINISTS. THE FUN ONES. WE’RE OK. WE LIKE PENISES AND PORN AND LOOKING SEXY kind of feminism that, in the end doesn’t successfully challenge much of anything, and simply repackages sexist imagery in ‘empowering’ wrapping paper.”
In short, it’s an old game: me versus a movement.
Special thanks to Gunjan Chopra for suggesting this topic, as well as editorial review of the article. Thanks to Ikonoklast for the reminder on epistemology.
POSTSCRIPT: If you want to catch a fantastic discussion about the issues that are being summoned in the SlutWalk debates, but done a million times better, I cannot recommend The F Word’s recent sex show highly enough. The program forwards so many important points about the male gaze, patriarchy and female self-determination on issues that everyone really needs to hear it.
This post has generated several replies. A few common ones were replied to here. In brief:
- Some claim ‘reclamation’ of the word ‘slut’ here is not in the traditional sense of reclamation, but rather reclamation by exposing the lack of basis, consistency, the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t that characterizes the use of the word slut. Beyond what I find inaccurate (my understanding of the material I’ve read in fact makes the right to call onself a slut core to this conversation), I think clearly if the idea is to focus on a consistency of language, usage and perception, unexamined (and inherently problematic, since you’re setting yourself up to get used by a news media that goes for the most salacious thing possible as a ratings ploy) one has chosen to trade the basic notion of human dignity for attention. Slurs, by their very existence as slurs (racial, gender-based, etc.), have no actual practical basis or consistency that is in any form empowering. Using the word slut does not create a watershed moment that changes this dynamic.
- Some found the language critical of libertarianism and capitalism to be divisive and contrary to what feminists of color have emphasized. I must strongly encourage anyone presenting a reading of writings by feminists of color that seeks to obscure anti-capitalist and very openly critical approaches (toward white feminists and occasionally one another) to take another long (looooooong) look at the literature. Many didn’t see the plurality of the feminist struggle, the individualist approach or the capitalist one; in fact, they understood the particularlies of issues facing various communities, impacts of imperialism, et al. that didn’t affect white women in the same way, or at all. Anne Valk’s Radical Sisters is among many books that discusses these divisions and the struggles feminists of color raised. I’m all for unity, but not at the cost of sweeping aside the very real, open and honest contentions feminists of color courageously raised at a time many others wouldn’t… and helped us all grow in the process. I can only ask others to study this history, or at least not misrepresent it.
- I don’t have a lot of interest in dignifying retorts to things I never wrote (e.g. you’re saying I’m a tool of whites, that I can’t make my own decisions, you’re trying to make decisions for me as a woman, etc.), but I suspect most of us are busy enough that playing such a game is understood as pointless. If you don’t like my opinion or don’t think I have a right to one, I don’t mind hearing that, but would appreciate honesty in that regard. Happy to dialog on what I actually wrote as well.
In addition, I appended a two related thoughts in a comment below, but thought them important enough to note here. Many critiques of the feedback from women of color contain two key assumptions I believe must be questioned at every opportunity:
The implication that SlutWalk is creating/facilitating a conversation that critiques (e.g. racial justice, etc.) are distracting from. I believe it is at best grandiose and at worst outright arrogant to suggest SlutWalk is creating or facilitating a conversation around gender violence, rape, or anything else. All of these conversations were already happening, and it’s wrong and disrespectful to those who are in the community doing this work on a daily basis to suggest otherwise. A particular group of folks (mostly young, white, educated people to whom such daily work might not otherwise interest or appeal) just weren’t participating in them or were aware of such until recently. Moreover, implications critiques are distractions simply tap into such mythology.
Though I didn’t get into it in the original piece, I don’t believe SlutWalk is substantively contributing to a conversation against rape. Then again, I don’t think a particularly persuasive case has been made for how combating sexual assault is practically happening in the context of championing (‘reclaiming,’ etc.) the word “slut” — at least any more than if people of color adopted demeaning self-references in responses to the institutional crimes we face or how Westboro Baptist Church contributes to a conversation about gender by using anti-gay slurs.
Am I likening one to the others? No, though I do think some posturing becomes somewhat of a sideshow that doesn’t actually address the matters well- (or ill-) intentioned people may wish.
That merely getting posts, people, etc. talking about sexual assault even if people may not like the terminology is a good thing. Political organizers may recognize this approach from the at-least-I’m-doing-something school of praxis. Unfortunately, there are two problems. First, it’s not true — there is a good chance people talking about an issue using the worst frame won’t gain anything, and, even more problematic, may get a negatively skewed perspective on the matter due to the way language and bias via same stilts our collective understanding of an issue, any issue; or simply validate backward thinking in an anti-woman society. Second, such approaches are borne of low expectations of people, and of our potential to articulate complex matters into ways that result in action-oriented community organizing. SlutWalk hints at the necessity to grab attention and thus get people talking… about one’s project, and the words you use to get media attention. And though marketing is a wonderful thing, its service to outcomes is often elusive.
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