Slutwalk redux with Rebecca Traister and Feministing writers

Photo from Rebecca Traister's NY Times article of Slutwalk participant with Proud Slut written on her cheek
The writers at Feministing all felt so many different ways about Rebecca Traister’s controversial piece about Slutwalks in this week’s New York Times Magazine, we decided to do a roundtable about all the different things we feel about the piece and Slutwalking in general, with Rebecca generously joining in. So here you go:

Samhita: I actually agreed with a lot of the Traister piece, or appreciated her candor in expanding a point of view that is kind of taken for granted–that all feminists agree with and support Slutwalks. And I think she is right in explaining that the way Slutwalk is understood in the mainstream media is not necessarily about victim-blaming–even if that is the intention of the marches themselves–but instead gets focused on the use of “slut” or reinscribing normative bodies to female sexuality (at least I think that’s what she meant). Activism and social change are not as much about what you meant to do, but instead what you do do, and what is Slutwalk doing in the mainstream media? Are people rethinking the role victim-blaming plays in sexual assault or are people too caught up in the term “slut?” I am not really sure.

But the point I think Traister could have elaborated on more is something I realized when writing about the gay glitter activism at the Bachmann clinic on Thursday. Sometimes the purpose of activism is in the theatre, in the noise and in the exaggeration. LGBT activists throwing glitter on homophobic politicians is hilarious, it may not make quantifiable policy change, but it makes headlines that are funny, ironic and dramatic and sometimes that is enough to get people to change their minds or rethink taken for granted assumptions about sexuality. Women marching around in “slutty” outfits (when they do, I have heard they don’t completely and the point is really about wearing what you want) yelling about injustice is in a way a type of mockery of conventional ideas about sexuality that is wholly refreshing. For many a young woman, a Slutwalk could be the gateway drug to other feminist thought and activism and we can’t deny the power and importance of this.

Courtney: What I adore about Traister is that she always seems to have the wisdom to wait until the dust settles on a kerfuffle, take a deep breath, and then write a truly reflective and nuanced piece. There simply aren’t enough opinion journalists willing to keep things complex in their writing—largely because public debate these days is framed as us vs. them, black vs. white, yes vs. no, no matter how far that is from reality. Traister resists that consistently and I deep appreciate it and hope to emulate it in my own approach.

What I didn’t adore about this piece, was that Traister took her time responding to the Slutwalk controversy, with lots of other recent flame ups throw in, without offering a truly new insight. Yes, women still can’t talk about their own sexual agency and/or assault without being shit on. Yes, the Slutwalk framing is, in some ways, short-sighted and easily misunderstood. Yes, young feminists are in danger of being seen as replicating the very stereotypes they have resisted in writing.

Instead of rehashing the analysis of so many before her, I wish she’d entertained questions like these: Now that momentum has been building, what strategies might we borrow from past generations and/or other movements to keep it going? What are the most effective ways to leverage the growing consciousness over the media’s pathetic treatment of sexual assault victims? And as always, how can we create a movement around this momentum with more diverse leadership?

And finally, where are the Slutwalk founders’ voices!? It strikes me as strange that so many famous feminists have been talking about them without making it possible for them to speak for themselves.

Zerlina: Just like Rebecca Traister I wanted to love SlutWalks. I’m a natural supporter for a movement that seeks to end victim blaming and sexual assault. I was infuriated by the police officers remarks about women’s clothing contributing to their rapes. That being said, I remain ambivalent about Slutwalks for a couple of reasons.

First, I have no desire to reclaim the word slut. I understand why supporters of Slutwalks have used the term to name their movement and I know why they want to take the misogynistic power out of the word slut, I just am not sure they can. To be clear, it is not so much about the question of what should be achieved but what is achievable. The N word is still the N word no matter how many rappers say it in their songs or young people say it among friends. Perhaps compared to its potency historically, black youth using the word has removed some of the sting but not all of it. A white person calling a black person the N word is still not acceptable, meaning the racist power has not all been reclaimed from the word and that’s okay. What that means is it isn’t as much the word itself but who is saying it and in what context. I wish the goal of Slutwalks were to change the minds of misogynistic men and victim blamers and reclaiming the word slut isn’t an effective part of a strategy to get to those ends.

Second, as Traister says in her piece the movement and the image of scantily clad marchers (although not all participants are scantily clad) doesn’t appeal to all women, particularly women of color. Simply, the terminology doesn’t necessarily appeal to them as women of color are more often referred to as “hoes” instead of sluts. Less simply, the importance of public dignity emphasized in specific cultures doesn’t allow them to march in the streets in a bra. The same rules don’t necessarily apply to everyone. Furthermore, many of the most disadvantaged women of color who are the very first to be labeled a slut, ho, or trick, may be the least likely to support this type of movement. It is still essential for some women to be in the streets making a statement, my point is that not all women are comfortable joining this specific movement even if they do want to put an end to victim blaming.

It’s true that the name and women wearing little clothing during Slutwalks gets a lot of attention, but attention is only the first step in a successful movement. A clear and concise relatable message is also important. In order to spark a broad coalition that extends beyond your standard feminist supporters, re-considering the name or sharpening the message can make a movement to end victim blaming even more powerful. Coalition building requires you don’t alienate people who add value to your cause. A movement must evolve in order to remain effective. A successful movement must also consider cultural differences that may discourage specific groups from participating and, while it is true that this is one way to respond to misogyny and sexism, it may not necessarily be the best way.

Maya: I appreciate Samhita’s point that it does matter how SlutWalk is being perceived in the mainstream media. If the message seems confusing to many, even to a smart and engaged feminist like Traister, then we need to figure out how to more clearly articulate the point. That said, I think the problem is more about a lack of nuance and precision to the medium, not the message or the “packaging.” To me, at least, the message itself seems to strike a promising balance between being simple enough to be understood, broad enough to resonate with different kinds of people, and provocative enough to get attention. (Zerlina, and other smart critics, would probably disagree on that second point, and I do believe that finding ways to make SlutWalk relatable to more women, particularly women of color, should be a major priority for organizers of future protests.)

But, to some extent, it’s inevitable that a grassroots protest movement, organized entirely on the local level, and filtered through a mainstream media that latches on to the word “slut” and images of half-naked young women, will struggle with message control. (My own limited experience with protest organizing definitely reminded me why I, like Traister, embrace a medium like writing that allows for so much more precision.) I just wish Traister had acknowledged that inherent challenge more, instead of reinforcing the idea that SlutWalk is just about women “stripping down to skivvies and calling ourselves sluts” – when she clearly knows that it’s about more than that and, at most protests, the hoodies probably outnumber the skivvies.

I thought Traister’s attempt to connect SlutWalk to Mac McClelland’s essay was a bit of a stretch (the types of “reappropriation” going on in a mass movement like SlutWalk and McClelland’s deeply personal essay seem pretty different to me). And I found her assessment of McClelland’s piece a little too harsh–I don’t think it suffered too much from “imprecision” and, as I’ve written before, I believe most of the criticism it received was not very reasonable at all. But the conclusion Traister ultimately reaches about the limitations of worrying about nuance and self-preservation echos my own views. Traister admits that she finds herself wishing young women “doing the difficult work of reappropriation” were “better at anticipating and deflecting the resulting pile-on,” but ultimately recognizes that “there is still no way for women to tell stories of sexual injustice that allows them to bypass character assassination” and so even “clumsy” attempts are “necessary.”

I agree wholeheartedly with that point – although I would suggest that perhaps sometimes it’s not that we don’t anticipate the pile-on, it’s that we do and then say, “fuck it.” The trick, I think, is knowing when it’s time to stop the deflecting and run full-steam ahead into the risk of being misunderstood. That can be clumsy, sure, but sometimes it’s not only necessary but also quite brave.

Jos: I was pleasantly surprised by Traister’s piece. Social change is a “complicated, messy process.” The organizers that came before us certainly weren’t perfect (or all bad), something that’s often forgotten both when discussing the past and leveling critique at contemporary feminists.

There’s a lot of internal policing within feminism, which we’ve seen in many of the critiques of McClelland’s essay that sound an awful lot like slut-shaming, like telling a woman her approach to sex and healing is wrong and shouldn’t be talked about in public. There’s also a common knee jerk rejection of any use of humor, as if social change is supposed to be all somber and measured and… boring. Like we’ve always got to take the high road in every response to people who want to turn women into baby factories or pray away the gay. Look, Feministing got popular and I think continues to draw an audience largely because of the use of snark by a bunch of the writers. Humor makes people think without realizing it, and that’s nifty!

I definitely think internal critique is a good thing and necessary to keep moving a movement forward (obviously, given the critiques I’ve leveled at national reproductive rights leaders). But there’s a thin line between critique with a purpose and critique as the default. It’s often easier to cut down someone who could be a potential ally than to encourage them to improve their work so you can move together against shared opponents, or even to do the work yourself.

Having said all that, like Zerlina I’m ambivalent about Slutwalks, though for some different reasons. I think their ability to garner so much media attention is great, because it does force a conversation around slut-shaming. And I am a fan of reclaiming language. I find a lot of catharsis in using words that have been thrown at me with hate, though I’m careful and deliberate about where I do this (like, not when I’m writing at Feministing, given the internet’s nack for misinterpretation and loss of context).

However, I think Slutwalks, like so much other feminist organizing, are missing a power analysis. There’s been some great commentary about the disproportionate way slut-shaming targets women of color. What hasn’t been talked about so much is that this cuts across a number of identity groups – trans women and sex workers are also disproportionately impacted by this sort of hate (and guess what, there’s loads of intersectionality going on there too). I wish organizers with (often slightly) more power and access would put more time into learning from the perspectives of folks who face some of the most marginalization and oppression around a certain issue, and shape their work with that in mind. And I’m committed to an organizing philosophy that’s not just about being relatable but centers and lifts of the voices of folks who are getting the most screwed (not in the good way).

Rebecca Traister: First of all, I just have to say how thrilled I am to read such a range of smart response to my piece. I am also really quite surprised that some of you feel as warmly as you do (or warmly at all!) toward the piece. One of the difficult things about writing this piece was knowing that I was writing in partial disagreement with people I often agree with. I really meant the piece to be an expression of my own conflicted feelings about SlutWalks, not simply as criticism of them, but I knew that the criticism would sound the loudest, and was girding for the response.

I can only chime in briefly, but wanted to touch on some of your specific critiques.

Samhita, your point, that “Sometimes the purpose of activism is in the theatre, in the noise and in the exaggeration” is what I was trying to get at, albeit briefly and less beautifully, at the end of my piece. The fact is that, no matter how confused and ambivalent and unrepresented we sometimes feel about it, activism – protest activism – is always flawed, by definition fails to include the perspectives of all those it hopes to serve; its success often comes down to its ability to draw a spotlight. When it comes to garnering attention, SlutWalks is one of the best things to happen to feminism in decades.

Which speaks to Courtney’s criticism, which I take to heart. There are a lot of questions and challenges that my piece did not take on. She feels like it was a rehash of issues that have taken up a lot of space in recent months, and that is a fair charge. I would argue that they have not taken up nearly enough space in big, mainstream publications. Those of us who spend our days in the feminist blogosphere feel like these analyses have been chewed over endlessly, but when I told people I was writing about SlutWalks, a lot of them had still never heard of them. Taking these issues to a broader audience requires a bit of what feels like rehash to those who have been focusing on these questions in life and in work not just for weeks and months but for years. Part of the problem is that too few mainstream places offer enough space to even the most basic – let alone the more nuanced – questions of gender and power. As for the fact that there were no SlutWalkers voices in the piece – yes. It was an opinion piece, not a reported one, and that was a choice I made and take responsibility for. The piece would have been a very different one had I interviewed founders and participants, and I take your point that it would be valuable to hear more from the participants and less from the sidelines.

Zerlina, one thing I didn’t have room to get into – but really wish I had! – was the question of the reappropriation of the word, comparing it with other “reclaimed” words, wondering at the efficacy or value of attempting to rescue pejorative language. Thank you for bringing it up. I also didn’t have room to dive into the specifics of the kind of racial, class, sexual issues that make SlutWalks forbidding or inhospitable to some women. Your writing here is such a valuable expansion on issues I was only able to nod at. I think the question of “why slut?” as opposed to other words is especially compelling. But I also think that the answer (aside from the specifics of the Toronto cop founding narrative) gets us back to Samhita’s point about theater. Slut is a word – perhaps because of its whiteness – that has helped garner these protests the attention they have received from the (white!) media. It’s a depressing circularity, but worth thinking about.

Maya, I will say that some of the best criticism of my piece has been from people like you, pointing out that the protests draw women in all kinds of clothes, that there’s no requirement that anyone dress in skivvies, and that my take reduced and misrepresented the vibe. That’s very fair criticism, though I would argue that while there are surely many women and men in sweatpants and hoodies, the aesthetic and the public spirit and certainly the media representation of the protests have focused on the scantily dressed, which does create a forbidding air, even if the spirit once you get to the actual marches is far more inclusive and varied than the coverage – or, to be fair, the publicity around many of them – would suggest.

Jos, your point about how this kind of diversity of opinion is not new, and in fact is a valuable part of the history of social progress, is one of the most important I wanted to get at in my piece. The false notion that feminism has ever been a unified front has actually been a weapon of anti-feminists, who like to portray themselves as bravely storming its walls. In fact, feminism has been a banner hoisted rather loosely by those who share an extremely broad and righteous goal, but who also are engaged in bubbling, raucous, often fractious discourse. In fact, in my opinion, disagreement, differing perspectives, competing priorities — these are not just the inconvenient side-effects of feminism, they actually often give it its form, its momentum, the energy to keep moving forward and changing and growing. We should be glad of them, even as they leave us exasperated and frustrated and sometimes at odds with those we respect most.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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