The word ‘slut’ as an empowering and liberating thing for women?

By Zoe Bush

First published by the NUS Women’s Department

When attending the SlutWalk rally on Sunday, FAN was deeply inspired by the bravery of women who shared their stories of sexual assault and agitated for their own liberation from the awful ideas that exist in rape culture. The criticisms in the following blog are in no way directed at the courageous organisers who committed a lot of time and energy to the event, but are rather offered as constructive commentary on how FAN believes we can better serve our mutual goals of liberation for all women.

It is not hard to see the appeal in SlutWalks – in an age where feminist activism often appears dead, women taking to the streets and demanding that enough is enough is exciting and empowering.

The fundamental message behind SlutWalks is also an absolutely essential one – that responsibility for sexual assault always falls on the perpetrator, and that how a person looks or acts NEVER explains or excuses sexual violence. The recent decision by a Manitoba judge to not sentence a rapist to jail time because his victim wore high heels, a tube top and was generally “inviting.”, reveals that this message is one that we still need to fight for (still!).

However, many members of FAN had serious concerns about how SlutWalks goes about making this demand, particularly surrounding the attempt to reclaim the word ‘slut’. But we decided to go – who were we to criticize SlutWalks without even attending the event and seeing for ourselves?

Initially hopeful, we arrived at the event hoping to be pleasantly surprised. However, what we found was an event saturated in post-feminist ideas of individual choice that only confirmed our initial criticisms and hesitations in supporting the event.

Not it’s time for me to stop alluding to all these ‘criticisms’ and actually explain.

By endorsing the word ‘slut’ as an empowering and liberating thing for women, SlutWalks facilitates neo-liberal, postfeminist discourses of ‘liberated’ women as  those wearing mini-skirts and high heels in/on their way to professional jobs. It buys into the commodification of women’s sexuality under capitalism, and simply repackages sexist imagery and actions in ‘empowering’ clothes, under the post-feminist façade of choice. It’s time we debunked these neo-liberal ideas of ‘anything-goes-so-long-as-we-call-it-a-choice’, and remember the role that choice plays in feminism.

Choice has been, and continues to be, essential to the feminist movement – it is thanks to feminists pushing for women’s right to choose that I am now able to vote, have a much greater deal of reproductive freedom and can go to university. However the idea of choice that I have to thank for these rights is a different one to that which is used in endorsing practices that have worked to sexually objectify women for decades as suddenly empowering because women ‘chose’ to participate in them. This re-appropriation of choice is done in an un-feminist way – in this discourse, choice is solely about individuals and is removed from any larger context. Not only does this understanding of ‘choice’ fail to address the structural oppression that prevents women from making free choices, this rhetoric is also dangerously easy to manipulate in order to actually limit choices for women.

One person’s freedom to make ‘choices’ may represent his or her feelings of personal empowerment in his or her own life, but in no way does this liberate anyone but that person and, in fact, his or her ‘choice’ may exist at the expense of another woman’s oppression. It is necessary to consider just who gets to ‘choose’ that being a ‘slut’ is suddenly a positive thing, who gets to ‘choose’ to play around with the idea of sexual objectification? These ‘choices’ are only available to those who feel safe enough and privileged enough to ‘play’ with these ideas. As expressed by the BlackWomen’s Blueprint:

As Black women, we do not have the privilege or the space to call ourselves “slut” without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the Black woman is.  We don’t have the privilege to play on destructive representations burned in our collective minds, on our bodies and souls for generations. [1]

Therefore these ‘choices’ are much more available to those women who already experience privilege.

This criticism of neo-liberal and post-feminist ideas of ‘choice’ is very relevant to SlutWalks. While the ‘choice’ by an individual woman to embrace the word ‘slut’ may be empowering for her in her own life, not only do I fail to see how this ‘choice’ liberates and empowers others, but the danger this poses to other women appears obvious. I’m afraid that I cannot see how embracing the word ‘slut’ presents a challenge to sexist imagery and discourse around women and female sexuality. Further to this, creating a space where it is not only acceptable, but progressive (!) for men to call women sluts seems like a very dangerous thing to do.

Let me use an example.

As the march progressed throughout the city and Northbridge, we were met with many jeers of ‘sluts!’, or ‘Good on ya, you sluts!’ from male passerby, laughing and thinking this whole fiasco was fantastic. Now I don’t know whether I was the only woman in the entire march who felt it, but when those words were tossed at us, it hurt. I did not feel liberated, and I definitely did not feel empowered. Yet in response to these jeers, one of the organisers would always respond with ‘Why, thank you!’.

I think this reveals the problem with Slutwalks. The word slut has been used to police, shame, guilt, objectify and hurt women. It is not our word. It has been a tool of violence against women. The danger is this – when a small group of predominantly white women decide that suddenly the word slut is a positive thing that they want to reclaim, their individual choices, while possibly evidencing empowerment in their own life, comes at the expense of those who have not been involved in that decision process. This can be seen in the anxiousness and resistance to reclaiming the word slut that has been expressed by women of colour. When that small group of predominantly white women take to the streets and inform the world that suddenly all women wear the badge ‘slut’ with pride, this normalizes the use of the word without changing its meaning for what I would imagine to be a vast majority of women, so that it may be used against them in hurtful ways.

Like every other post-feminist attempt to reclaim the sexual objectification women have been experiencing and fighting against for decades as a suddenly new and liberating sexuality for women, embracing the word ‘slut’ really is ‘drinking the systematic kool-aid’[2]. It degrades women to fuck objects – and who wants to give a fuck object rights? Who believes that fuck objects deserve equal pay? And who thinks that fuck objects should have the power to choose what happens to their own bodies? In only drawing attention to woman as sexual objects and ‘sluts’, Slutwalks fails to give women the full respect they deserve – as human beings with rights, hopes, ambitions and achievements. It seriously undermines women’s struggle to make gains in the workplace, the family, and every other aspect of their lives, and brings us back to square one where we are reduced to sexual objects.

But that’s not all – not only is an attempt to reclaim the word ‘slut’ problematic in how it buys into the dangerous discourses of post-feminism, I would argue that it is in fact nearly impossible. The word ‘slut’ only has meaning in the patriarchal ‘whore’ view of women’s sexuality. It is so saturated with the idea that female sexual energy deserves punishment that trying to change its meaning would be one serious uphill battle.

However, SlutWalks does not even attempt to change the problematic view of female sexual energy that the word ‘slut’ produces. At the march on Sunday, one of the placards stated that ‘A slut is a woman who likes sex, NOT someone who deserves to get raped!’. Let’s get something clear – it is not so strange for women to like sex that, when they do, they are different to ‘normal’ women and require their own label. Buying into the portrayal of women’s sexuality as deviant and troublesome is absolutely not the way to go about challenging the misogynist attitudes that perpetuate the risk of sexual violence that women face. To do this, we need to move beyond this redundant and extremely harmful stereotype.

And so slut is not a word we should (or I would even argue, can) reclaim.

As has already been said by many feminists, we already have a word for women who support a woman’s right to bodily integrity, who condemn victim-blaming, and believe that women should be able to express and experience their sexuality without being shamed or guilted, and that word is a feminist.  Feminism is a word and a movement that was created by women, it is ours. It is not sourced in an attempt to shame, guilt, humiliate and hurt women who exist outside the patriarchal capitalist ‘norm’ of women’s sexuality. Slut was never ours – it belongs to misogynists and was produced by the patriarchy.

Feminism is our word and our movement

Feminism is our word and our movement.  It does everything that the attempt to reclaim the word ‘slut’ does and much, much more.  Let’s take to the streets and demand an end to this bullshit idea that how a person looks or acts can explain or excuse sexual violence. But let’s do it in a way that does nor marginalize and oppress other women in that process. Let’s do it in a way that challenges the structural oppression faced by women as a collective. Let’s not drink the kool-aid. Let’s agitate for change without employing the discourses that are part of the problem. And let’s be oh-so-radical and demand nothing less than our full liberation.

[1] Accessible at http://www.facebook.com/notes/blackwomens-blueprint/an-open-letter-from-black-women-to-the-slutwalk/232501930131880.

[2] Megan Murphy, ‘We’re Sluts, Not Feminists. Wherein my relationship with Slutwalk gets rocky’, The F Word. Available at: http://www.feminisms.org/2585/were-sluts-not-feminists-wherein-my-relationship-with-slutwalk-gets-rocky/.

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