Sons and Slutwalk

Signing the Slutwalk manifesto

Even before the whole Slutwalk issue came up, I have believed and said that I would feel I had failed as a (feminist) mother if my sons grew up to call women “sluts”. To denigrate women based on their perceived sexual behaviour. To view male and female sexual activity through different lenses, subjected to different standards. If they ever judge a women they have had sex with, I would despair and ask them – what does that make you?

I want my sons to grew up to understand that there are three important components to a great sex life: safety, respect and consent. I want my sons to have lots of safe sex and sex with respect. It can also be passionate, wild, outrageous, kinky, uncontained, joyous,with women or men (or women and men), but they need to understand that the best sex involves respect and consent. Without those things it is not something that is shared and enjoyed – it is imposed. And there is no joy in that.

So I’ll be taking my boys to Slutwalk in Canberra. They need to understand that labels are used as objects of violence and power, that they are there to oppress and to create an atmosphere where the unthinkable and unreasonable can be excused or tolerated. Reading the blogs and tweets about Slutwalk over the past couple of weeks has reinforced this belief. The visceral reaction so many of us have to “that word”, the fact that so many dismiss the protest as being about “dressing like a skank or a prostitute” shows just how much people fail to understand. As many women have attested over the past fortnight, we are called sluts when wearing jeans and t-shirts, for walking down the street and, quite often, for refusing the sexual attentions of a man. Being labelled a slut is not about sexual promiscuity, it is about power, just as rape is not about sex.

And even if women are sexually promiscuous, what of it? Who judges what is acceptable and what is not? Is “promiscuity” sleeping with one person, three, six, twenty, one hundred? All answers are arbitrary, all represent the imposition of one value system on someone else. All are again about judgement and power. When I was at university, I remember having a male friend imply that I was being promiscuous because a recent sexual encounter. At the same time, he’d had three times as many sexual partners as me in that year. Our view of promiscuity is subjective and results from in-built value systems. Or personal insecurities and inadequacies. That kind of judgement says more about the person making the judgement, than the person they are judging.

It is never OK to rape. Never. The arguments I have seen in comments on blogs and on Facebook that imply that going out dressed “sluttily” is the same as leaving your front door open and expecting not to be robbed are totally bogus and miss the point. Most rapes are by someone you know, and often in your own home. Should women lock themselves in a room and never see anyone or expect to be raped? As I have said before, most men are not rapists. Why can’t we put the blame on the ones who are, and not make women feel guilty for being raped, or live a life expecting that they may be raped at any time.

Like Catherine Deveny, I want my boys to grow up to be the ones who intervene, who say ‘that’s not cool”, who help the passed out girl home. I’ve had friends like that, I will treasure them for ever. I want my boys to be good sexual citizens, I want them to treat women (and men) with respect, no matter what they wear, no matter who they have (or haven’t) slept with.

The time to start learning respect is now. When they are 9,7 and 5. Not later. And that is why they’ll be coming to Slutwalk with me. And with my male partner.

* Update: So the 7 and 4 year olds came long to Slutwalk – the 9 year old was playing football, so had to miss out on this occasion. While the 4 year old was more interested in shooting droids, the 7 year old when to the front to listen carefully to the speeches. While I don’t think he fully understands the concept of rape, some concepts were very clear to him. He was very keen personally to sign the Slutwalk manifesto, engaged in some chanting, and, when asked what he had learnt from the experience, said that it was “important not to blame the victim.” A message clear enough that even a 7 year old can articulate it.

Power sluts

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.

Updated: For some further good commentary see It’s Not Rocket Science and The Red Pill Survival Guide