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.

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15 Comments

  1. Posted July 22, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Some excellent commentary here. I don’t have anything new to offer except that I support these walks and find them effective. I think that needs to be accentuated with a strong follow-up point, but I think its potential is immense.

  2. Posted July 22, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Really loved this commentary and I think it was particularly valuable for Rebecca to respond to the critiques. Maya’s point about how we proceed when faced with sexual injustice really resonated with me.

    …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.

    I do think, though, that Traister’s insight that “there is still no way for women to tell stories of sexual injustice that allows them to bypass character assassination” – even in the face of her wish for more precision – walks this same line very well. While I, too, am a fan of finally saying “fuck it” and plowing ahead since we know what’s coming anyway I find not only beauty in nuance and precision but also a way to open ourselves up to people and groups who are potential allies. In other words, I think there is a certain grace to being a badass. This is not to devalue the bravery of attempts we might label as “clumsy”, though, and I don’t think Traister’s piece does this either. Anyway, like I said, loved the commentary!

  3. Posted July 22, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    “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.”

    Like when people hold up fetus pictures and deliver screeds outside of Planned Parenthood? That kind of theater, noise, and exaggeration is good, too, right?

    Sorry, but the Feministing line on this string of glitter stuff is just wrong. If it was fake blood at a women’s center I doubt that this site would appreciate the theatrics of it all. Some kinds of protest are ethically wrong, and as such cannot be forgiven regardless of the intent of the practitioners.

    • Posted July 23, 2011 at 1:13 am | Permalink

      We may not agree with the substance, but it is effective, is it not? Like it or not it leaves an impression in people’s minds, which is the whole point. The anti choice crowd has been pretty effective in their political tactics (seen the amount of anti-choice legislation lately?), so just because we disagree with them it doesn’t mean their tactics don’t work. Besides, what we’re discussing here is a lot more mild than huge photos of bloody fetuses.

    • Posted July 23, 2011 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      Let’s keep the discussion of glitterbombing as a tactic to a minimum on this thread–unless you have something new to say in relation to the issues discussed in this post. Otherwise, there are plenty of other posts on which to voice your general disagreement with glitterbombing. Thanks.

  4. Posted July 22, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Rebecca seems to have anticipated my own feelings about the matter when she writes:

    “I found myself again wishing that the young women doing the difficult work of reappropriation were more nuanced in how they made their grabs at authority, that they were better at anticipating and deflecting the resulting pile-on. But I also wondered if, perhaps, this worry makes me the Toronto cop who thought women should protect themselves by not dressing like sluts.”

    I don’t want to try to thread some tricky needle where I want to be openly sexual, but I’m not allowed to wear anything that might be too close to “sexy stewardess Halloween costumes” because that could be capitulation to a demeaning view of women. It’s hard enough for me to create a sexuality that I understand to be mine, and good, and assertive. Now you tell me that if anyone else misinterprets that sexuality, I’ve done it wrong?

  5. Posted July 23, 2011 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    While it’s great to hear each of the differing views on the article, I think that Zerlina definitely nailed how I feel about the SlutWalks. Thoughtful analysis, thank you!

  6. Posted July 23, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    @Zerlina: you’re missing a huge point in your comparison of the N word to “slut”: White folks CAN’T SAY THE N WORD ANYMORE. Not popularly, and they all know it. They can argue it, but there’s no non-racist need to for a white person to say it and that is also obvious.And black use of the word is the official demonstrations that white opinion on the matter is irrelevant. Word officially taken back.

    That that flies over many heads, in this era is kind of ironic, but harmless, as it concedes the point.

    • Posted July 23, 2011 at 10:37 am | Permalink

      About that circularity, as well, I’m with Traister. I’m also gonna go ahead and lazily ask without researching: anyone thought about the triple-sticky problem that the word “slut” already implies a form of agency and that that is the problem with using it as an insult? And that it’s clear that no other forms of sexual agency even get words where women are concerned?? Or that the only alternative language available, “sexual aggressor,” is inherently anti-woman in context as well? Men use “aggressive” to shame women into passive behavior just as much if not more.

      I haven’t seen much non-neutral or feminist coverage on the walks, but leading photos aside and broader response aside, does the majority of journalistic rhetoric end up eschewing slut-shaming or reinforcing it? We need to look closer at what we’re forcing the media to do. When the context forces a reporter to take a neutral stance on female sexuality instead of a negative, controlling, or ambivalent one, I think that is also progress. Did anyone notice?

  7. Posted July 23, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    If I participated in a Slutwalk, I’d wear a burqa and carry a sign citing rape statistics in Taliban Afghanistan.

  8. Posted July 23, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    What really irritates me about when the media talks about the slut walks is that they keep clutching their pearls about what the protesters are wearing. Which, ironically, is the whole fucking point. Half naked women actually deserve to be taken seriously. OMG. What? Should we only take the Victoria Secret’s Models seriously? But oh no, when we protest, that’s mucking it up.

    And for the record, I’m dressing up as Hester Prynne for the NYC Slutwalk, so take that.

  9. Posted July 23, 2011 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    Like Zerlina, I also have no desire to reclaim the word “slut.” However, I really do like the idea of “slutwalks” because like Samhita said, making a show of things makes people talk, and getting people to talk about the issues with victim blaming is the name of the game here. I wish we could rename Slutwalks “U.N.I.T.Y Marches” or something, after the Queen Latifah song “U.N.I.T.Y.” That song has one of my favorite verses ever–the one where she punches the guy for calling her a bitch and grabbing her butt–and I think the tone of the song (and video for that matter, look it up if you don’t know it) is great for the kind of activism that slutwalking is trying to get across.

    • Posted July 24, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      Liz–I agree! That is a much more empowering name than slut walk and also promotes unity in the feminist movement…which is sadly fragmented. Also, whatever happened to “Take Back the Night” marches? Wasn’t their goal similar to SlutWalk? Although I think its awesome that women are “taking to the streets” again to demand their rights, “slut” is very problematic word. In middle school, I was called a slut for having rather large boobs. In high school, I became a 4.0 student and got the new nickname of “smart girl.” I have to tell you, “smart girl” felt a lot better than “slut!”

  10. Posted July 25, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    I also agree with Zerlina in having no desire to reclaim the term “slut.” Some women already jokingly call one another sluts and whores, and it only takes the term even further beyond redemption. It’s not a term of affection!
    The other comment I’d like to offer is that even for women who may not feel comfortable participting in Slutwalk by walking around in their underwear, there are things to learn. I’ve recently joined a roller derby league in which many of the women dress in fishnets and hotpants and so forth, and I just wear athletic shorts and a T-shirt, but I think just being part of the league has really taught me not to judge other women by what they are wearing. I don’t know the other women’s motives- whether they dress that way as a form of empowerment and saying “I’m OK with my body” or whether they do it for male attention- but that’s kind of the beauty of it. I can’t judge them because I DON’T KNOW. I don’t know if the roller derby comparison will make sense to people, but the exhibitionism of women athletes dressing provocatively and then forcing people to acknowlege their athletic talent once they get on the rink strikes me as particularly “Slutwalk”-esque.

  11. Posted July 29, 2011 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    I want to reiterate, even though it has been touched on but I think it needs more emphasis, is that the SlutWalks consist of women, not only in ordinary everyday wear, but in the clothes they specifically were raped in, like house coats and jeans. This is powerful. This is the point.

    To focus on whether it is a powerful enough statement to wear “slut identified” clothes when the bulk of the protesters are NOT wearing said clothes, is to perpetuate the same sensationalism as the rest of mainstream media.

    It does not take much for our society to morph anything a woman is wearing, doing or saying if they disagree, into “she’s a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty”. What else is there to do but take their agenda and turn right back around on them? “You say I’m a bitch like it’s a bad thing.”

    I am with kayle on reclaiming the word ‘slut’ – dear ones, there is no other word in our language, like men who have ‘stud’, ‘Romeo’, ‘Don Juan’, ‘player’ (OK, this one can be used for women, but tends to take on the slut tones when transferred), and so on. All of the terms for a woman with sexual agency are slut shaming. ‘Cougar’ is the closest I think we can get here, and even that is up for serious questioning. We need to take this word for our own definitions of it, until we start filling the dictionary with better replacements.

    Any ideas?

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