Sunday, May 29, 2011

How Slutwalk runs counter to other feminist action

How do feminists protest and is it for attention or for power?

Whilst it is heartening to see young women being active for women’s rights, and embracing feminism, the means of the Slutwalk protest begs some questions.

Any one feminist protest can’t be all things to everybody. All feminists support the main message; ‘no-one deserves to be raped’, while some feminists question the attempt to embrace the word ‘slut’. However, it is likely the protest would not have garnered the attention it has without the use of the word. This isn’t a problem specific to Slutwalk.

There is a group in the Ukraine called Femen which initially formed to protest against the growth of prostitution and sex tourism in their country. They protest by being topless. They have since campaigned about other issues, using other means, such as mud-wrestling. Most of the members of the group are young; the average age is 22. They are the most known feminist group in the Ukraine, where one in eight sex workers are university or school students. The problem could be looked at as funding for students, or availability of work, but the message is muddled by the means of protest.

Although some feminists believe the means of protest does a disservice to women, that is, reinforce sexualised stereotypes, a spokesperson for the Femen group says “We don’t want to be traditional feminists. Women’s organisations and groups here only write papers and nothing more. We need activists who will scream and leave their clothes in the street.”

Fair enough. They don’t see the point of writing papers, but don’t they see that they need to be more creative? Protesting about the sexualisation, stereotyping and sale of women by taking off your clothes might get attention, but not serious attention. It doesn't get you power. It plays by the rules of the game that you are objecting to. Time for a new game with new rules.

There are many other ways feminists are taking action.

France is considering joining other European countries such as Sweden, Norway and Iceland, in making the buying of sex illegal. This means the client will be charged, fined and/or imprisoned. Some object to the move, saying it will simply make prostitution more dangerous for sex workers. Iceland has also banned sex clubs and profits from nudity, so, no lapdancing and no topless waitressing. The prime minister is a lesbian woman. She has married her female partner, because same sex marriage is legal there. Almost half the parliamentarians are female. Iceland ranks fourth, behind Norway, Finland and Sweden, on the international gender gap index. The message is clear: women are not for sale.

As a younger woman I may have marched at Slutwalk. But as a mother, I have to run these things through a daughter test. Would I want my daughters walking with me? Do I defend the right for my daughters to identify as sluts? No and no. The answer would be the same if I had sons. Calling a woman a slut is an attempt to denigrate her. Identifying as one is more problematic. How about saying a person’s sexual preference or history is nobody’s business? How about sticking to the slogan that no-one deserves to be raped? Slutwalk runs counter to the good work feminist mothers have been doing to change society for their children.

Maternal feminists, along with child health experts, are campaigning against a range of gendered issues: child beauty pageants, violent video games that denigrate women, gender stereotyped clothing and toys marketed to children, sexualised gender stereotyped advertisements on billboards, magazines with pornographic images displayed in public places, language in public discourse that denigrates women, music and costumes in dance schools that are too sexualised for children. Feminists are talking back to businesses and advertisers. These issues come together in forums such as the Right2Childhood conferences. Mothers are directing their children to toys, clothes, performers, musicians and artists who do not play the slut card to get attention.

We need more of them. We need more female designers, writers, directors, musicians. And many more women in advertising and business who can take their feminism to the places of power where decisions about our culture are made. Without taking off their clothes.

Many women around the world are working in advocacy and agency, that is, investing in women and girls in developing countries to assist their family’s and community’s move out of poverty and into dignity. The newly appointed head of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet, has real power to make change. Women working as health workers in rural communities are making change happen. Women who insist on being part of peace talks are making change happen. Women working to help the 1100 women a day who are raped in the Congo identify as feminists. Women who help women and girls escape the sex trade are feminists. Women who work with infant and maternal health in developing countries are feminists. And women who give money to charities and NGOs who work for change are taking feminist action. None of them are campaigning to identify as sluts.

There is much more work to be done. We need more action. Surely there are better ways to claim power and make change happen than take off your clothes and take to the streets.


Melissa said...

Great post. This really resonates with me.

Sigh, we've come so far but we've got so far to go. And we can't even agree on how to go about it.

So you mind if I tweet this or FB it in the morning?

Motherhugger said...

Melissa. Thanks for your comment. Feel free to share.

Miriam said...

As a lesbian, I dislike the notion that you would not support your daughters' rights to identify as sluts.

Using slut in its reclaimed sense -if a label needed to be used at all- is to describe a woman as unashamedly sexually active and in control of her own sex life. Do you refuse ever to accept this definition? If so, then you're simply refusing to allow the word to be reclaimed because you associate it too strongly with "easy virtue".

I would NEVER say that reclaiming slut was the most important issue on the feminist agenda. But quite frankly, not everyone has the energy and steel to fight the bigger, global fight against ignorance and tribalism. Those issues are separate from the one at hand and bringing them up is, quite frankly, a cheap move.

That doesn't mean we should forget about even trying to make small differences at home. Can't we at least set an example?

Miriam said...

(When I say "if a label needed to be used at all", I only mean that labels will be used whether we want them or not. I don't think it matters to 99% of my life that I'm gay. But the label's gonna get used. I'd rather own it and be proud of it.)

Motherhugger said...

Thanks for for ideas, Miriam. I'm starting to think this is an age thing. For me, slut has been bad word for 45 years. My generation will die out and the word could have positive connotations.

I don't see how lesbianism relates to being a slut - I would be happy for my kids to happy with their sexuality however that's expressed. I'm not a prude - before I met my partner I had lots of sexual partners. Whether someone is sexually active or a virgin doesn't tell you how they feel about their sexual encounters or status - people are more complex than that. The labels are limiting either way. And those labels are used in name-calling to hurt people.

Anyway, I can't campaign to protect kids from sexualised imagery on one day and campaign for the right to be called a slut on the next. Wouldn't be consistent.

Motherhugger said...

I should add that my children are primary school aged. I'm at the stage of protecting them, and, I shouldn't have said sexualised imagery (because I don't shelter them from same sex kissing), but rather, sexually stereotyped imagery, or anything which is gender demeaning.
By the time my kids are sexually active, things may have changed. But for now, I believe no child should be called a slut.

Miriam said...

Lesbianism doesn't relate to insult-style sluttiness, but being an out-and-unashamed lesbian does bear similarities to being an open, proud sexual being.

It does, at first, feel a tad awkward announcing one's gayness. You sort of have to bring up the fact that "Yes I have sexual desire and I will be having sex and here's who with".

Sexual desire is a taboo subject amongst many types of people. Particularly women who'd prefer to convince their children that porn does not exist.

However, I see a clear line between protecting children from psychologically-damaging, anorexic sexualised role models in magazines, and preventing children from being able to recognise that their sex lives are not a shameful thing.

It could be said that the shame surrounding sex does more to damage children's minds than the photoshopped, CGI-ed sex and violence on their screens.

Miriam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Miriam said...

(sorry, reposted to fix huge weird grammar thing)

I don't see why any child of non-consenting-age *would* be called a slut. When was that an issue?

Motherhugger said...

Just pointing out that my kids are kids and don't sexually identify as anything.
How would you teach kids about porn? At what age? Why? How do you think that would be good for them? I think most parents are not trying to teach children that sex is shameful; just that sex is for adults.

Miriam said...

I can't really in good conscience tell you how to raise your kids, and I'm sure you're an awesome mum (you're obviously a very thoughful one) so I don't want to come across as giving you unwanted advice - please don't read this that way!

But I suppose my attitude to porn and sexuality is that kids *are* going to discover it, and you just gotta be prepared.

It's pretty much never a matter of introducing them to it. They find things. Kids are terrifyingly good at the internet. It's really about how you answer questions when they come up. And though I doubt tweens/adolescents who watch porn are likely to bring it up with their parents, kids do have embarrassing questions to ask. When parents react with horror, distaste or massive awkwardness, that in itself is a message that sex is shameful or just not something one discusses.

Your children are obviously too young for you to be happy with them being saturated with swearwords or M-rated content of any kind, so I understand your not wanting to associate them with the SlutWalk ballyhoo. That doesn't mean they aren't going to grow up into teenagers, then adults, with sex lives and sexual identities and the freedom to march for whatever they want.

I also don't want to scare you but I realised I was attracted to women at age 11. Sexuality doesn't take long to show itself, even if you're not ready to explore it.

Motherhugger said...

We do talk about these things as they come up. Today, in fact, we watched Happy Days and we had a talk about double standards when Fonzie wanted to marry a virgin but found he was engaged to a stripper (who wanted a career!)