When Gail Dines claims that the idea of a SlutWalk undermines feminist causes, she both conflates issues and misses the point. While her argument that women are excessively sexualised in society is not wrong, it is also not a new phenomenon we should be surprised about. It is perhaps true enough to argue that some of the manner in which this sexualisation of women occurs is different, but I think it would be challenging to argue that it is a massive or radical change. For example in the 1980s, Kellner and Ryan wrote about the “pornification” of mainstream movies that had occured from the late 1970s. Advertising from the 1960s and 1970s showed women in much more overtly sexualised way than current advertising can, due to codes of practice and community standards. And earlier than this women have generally been viewed as a dichotomy – sexualised or respectable, with men having the right to treat sexualised women however they like, with little fear of reprisal. The concept of “Raunch Culture” is a catchy title this used by those older to tut-tut at the younger, when really it is just an extension of an approach to women that has been around for an extraordinarily long time.
What Dines et al miss is the idea of a SlutWalk is not about longing to be sexualised, it is about saying that though women are sexualised, they should not be mistreated. It is an intensely radical act as a woman, to embrace the choice to be sexual but respected. By tut-tutting about women who embrace the sexualisation which is thrust upon them, Gail Dines and her ilk buy explicitly into the same attitude which tells women they should not be dressing like sluts if they want to avoid rape. Which puts the onus for rape on women, which forces women to police their own behaviour to avoid violence to them. These attitudes remove the responsibility for rape from men, giving the rapists a free pass.
It is disturbing also to see how early women are forced into a policing of their own sexual behaviour. At a sleep over for 7 year olds, I have had a girl tell me she couldn’t possibly “sleep near a boy”, while the boys are oblivious, and another girl report that she couldn’t sleep over because there are “too many boys who might be rascals.” These girls are already being inducted into the idea that it is their responsibility to avoid sexual assault, while boys miss out on this kind of social conditioning.
We don’t want to see 7 year olds overtly sexualised, but we also don’t want to see them fearing their own sexuality and feeling that it is their responsibility to avoid being a slut. A slut is a label given by others, making it one you can embrace yourself, while rejecting the oppressive intent, would be liberating.
To understand what a Slut Walk is really about, read the inspiring words from Jaclyn Friedman at the Boston SlutWalk. Similarly see the signs from another Slutwalk. Then I defy you to argue these are anti-women or oppressive.