Rant the 3rd: Slutwalk – Can We Reclaim the Feminist March?

Posted on 23 August 2011 by

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The SlutWalk in Manchester had a party atmosphere and an inclusive outlook, but I felt a long way from reclaiming anything, not the Night and not a word traditionally used to mean a lazy maidservant, now inextricably linked to sexual promiscuity, always an insult specifically to control women’s behaviour.  The Reclaim the Night march I attended some weeks previously in Edinburgh (that almost didn’t happen because the council, with not a trace of irony, decided it was “unsafe”) was a little more militant, but maybe that was just because it was so heavily policed it felt like we were being drilled.  I sometimes think we’ve lost sight of what we’re trying to reclaim these days, but I can’t help feeling that if it involves being escorted by police in case of rowdy Rugby fans or marching over cobbled streets in stilettos, it must be even further from our grasp than it was in the 70s.

Back in 1976, the Italian feminist groups Lotta Feminista and Rivolta Feminile began organising the mass marches of women that became ‘Reclaim the Night’, for much the same reason that the Slutwalks began in Toronto.  Police were advising women that, if they didn’t want to be raped, they’d best not go out alone after dark.  So they went out alone in their thousands, unchaperoned and unpoliced, marching past Fascist Party headquarters dressed as witches and chanting slogans about destroying the family.  Now that’s the subversion of a stereotype originally created for patriarchal control, right there.  These days if you asked for witches to march on a party HQ they’d come chanting aura-cleansing spells and waving healing crystals.  You go to the trouble to reclaim an identity used against you, make it a badge of pride, and what happens?  Within a couple of years you find it marketed back to you with its teeth pulled.

I wouldn’t mind, but we’ve done this with the S-word before.  Riot Grrl era punk bands scrawled “slut” across their bodies in an effort to take its power to themselves.  Now?  At your local Grin store you can buy pre-ripped punk skinny Ts with “slut” neatly emblazoned in pink sequins, size extra small.  We’ve reclaimed the means of our oppression so many times it’s starting to taste like an astronaut’s water supply.

I can entirely understand the need for something new, to shake up the old routine.  All organised marches, not just the women-only ones, have become foot- and mind-numbing affairs, A to B chanting of the same slogans with one or two words changed, with a police escort and a speech by a bureaucrat at the end.  Even the breakouts and radical blocs take you through a proscribed process of kettling and carefully limited damage.  As for feminist marches, it’s rare they happen even late enough to Reclaim the Teatime, let alone break our unspoken curfew, and routes are decided in advance and OK’d with every city’s finest so as not to inconvenience any innocent bystanders with having to actually see us.

It’s true it was time for something more popular, more original, more subversive.  But is this it?  Male voices on the megaphones and a glorified Hen Night making its way through the streets?  The SlutWalks may have garnered more attention and participation than the traditional feminist marches, but what are they actually saying?  Is it just Reclaim the Night in fishnets?  We chant: “Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no”, while men leer unchallenged as we pass, and women cheer and flash their breasts from bar windows, and the men leer at them, too.  Yes means yes and no means no, but we’ll refrain from actually saying “No” if it might spoil the party atmosphere, if it means we might have to challenge the notion that women’s sexuality only exists when it’s on display for men.

The reason, the purpose behind Slutwalk is a good one.  “I’m a slut, I enjoy sex, I’m not ashamed of it.  Don’t think that means you can rape me”.  It’s a good message.  But I miss the old message, the one that went more along the lines of “Don’t define me by my sexual activity, don’t use it to categorise me, and don’t then use that category as an excuse for raping me.  Whether I enjoy sex or not, whether I have lots of it or not, whether I’ve overcome the shame and embarrassment I’m conditioned to feel about it or not – is irrelevant and none of your goddamn business.  Don’t rape me – that’s all.”  OK, it’s not as snappy – but it makes more sense.

Maybe we can Reclaim the Slut (again), but to what end?  It galls me to be buying into the fantasy of different kinds of women, and the stereotype of different kinds of feminist, the ones who wear heels and find pole-dancing empowering and the ones who wear Birkenstocks and burn pornography.  Yes, I know, we’re only buying into the sexual category of Slut in order to subvert it, to remove its power to hurt us, and so reclaim it – it’s a very seductive logic, because it’s so much easier than challenging the existence of all those categories (slut, virgin, whore, prude, cougar, princess, gold digger) and having to start again, reject the ready-made options and rebuild your sexual self-image from scratch based on nothing but who you really are.  It’s easier to make it fun to be a slut, to revel in it, to try and reform it into something with more power, than to find out what it means to be a human and risk losing even the little power you were lent as a slut.

Walking the streets in our underwear might feel a little bit subversive, but if that’s what we want isn’t it more subversive to point out that all the comforting stereotypes on which we’ve founded our identities in order to oppress each other are lies?  It’s not as fun, it doesn’t make for a carnival atmosphere, it’s not as easy to get into the papers and gather public support for; but it strikes at the heart of our internalised patriarchal identities instead of just fighting one head of that hydra.  That used to be the message of Feminism, but Feminism’s a dirtier word than slut now and nobody seems that interested in reclaiming it. There’s no fun costume or sense of subversive naughtiness attached to finding your independent humanity.  It’s all introspective and difficult and serious.  It’s uncertain and intimidating and scary, not least because if you don’t spend enough time reassuring everyone of how much you love sex you might be one of those Sex Negative feminists who team up with Vicars’ wives to burn old issues of Playboy and don’t let men on your marches because you hate them.

So we find that this is the choice we’re offered, transphobic 2nd Wavers permanently stuck in the 80s or “Sluts”.  Why should we be either?  Both are illusions, inventions of the patriarchy used to shame and control us, to make us apologise before we speak and spend so much time placating and reassuring everyone about what we’re not that we never actually get around to saying what we are.

A Human Walk, that’s what we need.  A march of people who’ve been subject to sexual exploitation, assault, harassment and stereotyping, walking together wearing whateverthehell they feel most comfortable walking in, to say there’s no excuse for objectifying us and making us into your fantasies, to say we don’t need gimmicks to get your attention because we’re here demanding it, that if the police try to make us change our route, we’ll ignore them, if they try to arrest us, we’ll resist them, that they’re not invited on our marches and they’re not welcome, that we can take care of ourselves and each other, that if you leer at us or try to attack us or shame us as we walk down the street, we will make you sorry.  That would be reclaiming something: our anger, our solidarity, our humanity.  I don’t care what you call it or what you wear, let’s just get out there and march.  Never mind the Night or the Slut, let’s start by taking back the will to actually oppose our oppression.

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