SlutWalks v. Ho Strolls

By Guest Contributor Crunktastic, cross-posted from The Crunk Feminist Collective

Today, we had initially planned to bring you a review of the new groundbreaking book Hey Shorty: A Guide to Combatting Sexual Harassment in Schools and on the Streets. And you can read it here. But in light of the SlutWalk movement that broke out in Toronto earlier this year and the embrace of the movement in U.S. feminist mainstream over the last few months, I would like to add a few more thoughts to the discussion, in light of recent and much-needed calls on the part of feminists of color for a much more critical race critique in the SlutWalk movement.

SlutWalk Toronto started as an activist response to the ill-informed, misguided words of a Toronto police officer who suggested that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” Women in Toronto were enraged and rightfully so, and SlutWalks have become a way to dramatize the utter ignorance and danger of the officer’s statements. And on that note, I fucks very hard with the concept and with the response, which is creative, appropriate, and powerful.

What gives me pause is the claim in SlutWalk Toronto’s mission statement of sorts that because they are are “tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result,” they are reclaiming and reappropriating the word “slut.”  Um, no thank you?

Here’s the source of my ambivalence: as I read the mission statement, I was struck by the righteous indignation these women had over being called slut. While that indignation is absolutely warranted, it also feels on a visceral level as though it comes from women who are in fact not used to being fully defined by negative sexual referents.

Perhaps my cynicism reflects my own experience as a Black woman of the Hip Hop Generation in the U.S., or a Black woman who’s a member of the Western World period. It goes without saying that Black women have always been understood to be lascivious, hypersexed, and always ready and willing. When I think of the daily assaults I hear in the form of copious incantations of “bitch” and “ho” in Hip Hop music directed at Black women,  it’s hard to not feel a bit incensed at the “how-dare-you-quality” of the SlutWalk protests, which feel very much like the protests of privileged white girls who still have an expectation that the world will treat them with dignity and respect.

The first activist response I ever heard to such mistreatment was Queen Latifah’s 1993 Grammy-winning song, “U.N.I.T.Y.”

It energized a community and opened a space for much needed conversation. But sisters did not line up to go on  symbolic, collective ho strolls. And for good, and I think, obvious reasons.

So maybe the best way to deal with the debates about re-appropriating the term “slut” is the way I deal with the whole n-word debate. As a Black person, who occasionally uses the n-word (with an ‘a’ on the end), I am admittedly ambivalent about whether or not the use of the term among Black people really does constitute a reappropriation. I’ve heard and read most of the arguments, and I remain…ambivalent but generally think the word is unproductive. That said, I balk at older Black folks who act as though the Hip Hop Generation are the first Black people to toss the word around. Read any 19th century Black literature and you’ll know different. What I’m clear about, however, is that to use or not to use is a decision that  lies solely within Black communities. White people simply don’t get a say; the word is off-limits to them. Black folks have surely won the right, long held by white folks, to struggle and determine amongst ourselves how we will refer to and define ourselves. Period.

For me, so it is with the word slut. It is off-limits to me. But for those who have been shamed, and disciplined, and violently abused on the basis of its usage, they have the prerogative to determine whether to reclaim or not to. As a word used to  shame white women who do not conform to morally conservative norms about chaste sexuality, the term very much reflects white women’s specific struggles around sexuality and abuse. Although plenty of Black women have been called “slut,” I believe Black women’s histories are different, in that Black female sexuality has always been understood from without to be deviant, hyper, and excessive. Therefore, the word slut has not been used to discipline (shame) us into chaste moral categories, as we have largely been understood to be unable to practice “normal” and “chaste” sexuality anyway.

But perhaps, we have come to a point in feminist movement-building where we need to acknowledge that differing histories necessitate differing strategies. This is why I’m somewhat ambivalent about accusing my white sistren of being racist. If your history is one of having your sexuality regulated by the use of the term “slut” for disciplinary purposes, then SlutWalk is an effective answer.

What becomes an issue is those white women and liberal feminist women of color who argue that “slut” is a universal category of female experience, irrespective of race. I recognize that there are many women of color who are participating in the SW movement, and I support those sisters who do, particularly women who are doing it in solidarity and coalition. But rather than forcing white women to get on the diversity train with regard to the inclusivity of SlutWalk, perhaps we need to redirect our racial vigilance. By that I mean, I’d prefer that white women acknowledge that they are in fact organizing around a problematic use of terminology endemic to white communities and cultures.

In doing so, this would force an acknowledgement that the experience of womanhood being defended here–that of white women– is not universal, but is under attack and worthy of being defended, all the same.

Perhaps, also, if white women could recognize SlutWalk as being rooted in white female experience, it would provide an opportunity for them to participate in coalition and solidarity with similar movements that are inclusive and reflective of the experiences of women of color.

One example is the Stop Street Harassment movement– a multiracial movement that has led to “Stop Street Harassment” campaigns throughout the U.S. and abroad. It is that movement which is the subject of Hey Shorty!  This movement, too, works from the premise that streets and schools should be safe for women, but it recognizes that challenges to that safety while similar in some respects, can differ across race and class. And as I said, earlier, different histories necessitate different strategies. In that regard, I don’t think sisters will be lining up to go on a symbolic “Ho Stroll” anytime soon.

We’d like to hear from you. What are your feelings on these two movements and the connections and divergences between each?

 

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  • Lisakay

    You are one smart cookie!! I think your analysis is spot on, and I especially love the piece about redefining who this “slutwalk’ really represents and then moving forward to support THAT demographic… well done , I look forward to reading more of your publication.

  • Chris CB

    This is a really important discussion to raise.  While i understand some of the critiques here, i think the over riding message was that of a call to understanding that our communities represent a diversity of histories, which lends context to our collective decisions to participate in or endorse a particular response or strategy given to the oppressions we feel our communities face.  i think it’s insightful when addressing a call to poc feminist participation to a particular movement/cause to recognize that given our differing histories, to participate for many would require a certain awareness of this differing context, I.E. this word that has come to be a rallying call for predominately white women to rally behind holds a very different meaning for many women of color who have not been threatened by this term as a justification of violence historically, but historically DEFINED AS in justification of violence, in contrast to the stereotype of white women.  IN CONTRAST TO.  that’s an important distinction to recognize if understanding on all sides is really sought after.  These aren’t just loaded terms, these are loaded histories.  meaning,   THe chaste and immaculate victorian model of white  femininity developed around its defined opposite being POC/ black femininity.  FOr poc women, it isn’t a question of, act a certain way and we are justifiably subject to violence, it was and has been, we in our essence and being, essentially are, sluts, which, in our very being, independent of dress, clothing taste, manner and action, simply by virtue of our not being white, we demand abuse and violence.  Poc women have historically been white femininities ‘whipping girl’, or ‘pocket slut’.  So, when asking poc feminists to come and rally around this term, one must understand, that our histories, associations, and relationships to this term, was and is quite different.  what i think this article is stating, is that we have to acknowledge these differences if we want to move forward and understand our collective struggles.  this is specifically important in regards to the slut walks, or ‘ho strolls’ as referenced in the article, because the term slut is bound in its differing histories, in communities that were constructed and defined in opposition to each other.

  • Mymelody95

    I really don’t see it merely as ”a problematic use of terminology endemic to white communities and cultures.” As a hispanic woman, my experiences have been that the term slut has been used within our own community, largely Catholic and Conservative, to keep us in our place. The whole virgin/whore dichotomy is excessively present within our culture (I’m generalizing here). However, I have also felt a lot of the “we have largely been understood to be unable to practice ‘normal’ and ‘chaste’ sexuality anyway,” to differing degrees by people outside the community, especially the dominant white culture. Were does some one like me fit in?

  • Faith

    It troubles me to see another black/white dichotomous perspective, as presented in this article, which is very limiting and exclusionary. Black women’s experiences are not the same as Latinas, API, or Native women’s experiences in terms of sexual policing, standards of “womanhood”, or femininity. I tend to get weary whenever anyone tries to speak for a whole group of very diverse communities. What I am reading from this article is that because the slut walk may not represent black women’s experiences with sexual policing, it is therefore a white woman’s experience. When in fact, the shaming of women’s sexuality (reinforced by the useage of the words slut, ho, etc.), is hyper-prevalent in many cultures other than the white dominant culture. 

  • http://tigergray.blogspot.com/ Tiger Gray

    I think this is a great article. It sums up what I think about the whole thing so much better than I could have. Thank you for that. I remember when that song came out and I remember it as one of the first times I heard a woman’s voice really calling out that entrenched sexism. I think we shy away from talking about different but similar experiences because we’ve become very sensitive to anything that sets up a separation–and we should be wary, mind you–but I embrace this difference in a certain way: when communities organize around an oppression specific to them, we lessen the oppression in the world (best case scenario, of course) on multiple fronts. We also have orgs like the one you mentioned that attack the problem from yet another angle, which is the angle of interconnectedness. I can’t think of any of this as a bad thing, only that the white women participating in slutwalk not mistake their experience as the SAME as that experienced by women who are NOT white. (an experience that differs from ethnicity to ethnicity as well, as you pointed out) The similarities are potential avenues to further dialogue and my silly hopeful ass really thinks we can all embrace that one day.   

    I also don’t feel protest is a terribly effective method for change (I always wonder, what if everyone in that protest stayed home instead and, say, wrote a letter to their elected official?) on the whole, but I think it has value in that it fosters a sense of solidarity and probably does help increase visibility. I think for me a lot of the anger directed at Slut Walk is therefore in some ways misplaced, because no single event, protest, walk, charity etc can be all things to all people and communities, nor should it try to be, except in the sense of a commitment to social justice across the board even as the focus of the org is on a specific group. 

  • http://fairestcat.dreamwidth.org/ FairestCat

    Intersectionality being endlessly complex as usual, I think the racial dynamics of Slut Walks vary depending on the community they take place in. 

    Here in Ottawa, one of the big topics spoken about at our Slut Walk was violence against First Nations women.  The common stereotype about aboriginal women is that they are poor, possibly addicts, promiscuous, unreliable. This systemic categorisation of aboriginal women as “sluts” contributes to a wider culture in which violence against them is dismissed, minimised and often denied.

    This isn’t an issue that’s solely Canadian, but it is a topic that’s been garnering a lot of attention lately up here, particularly because of Stolen Sisters (http://www.amnesty.ca/campaigns/sisters_overview.php) and similar campaigns.

    Which is not to say there aren’t definite issues with how Slut Walk is presenting itself to potential participants and in the press. I am in agreement with much of the criticism I’m seeing on that front, but I think it’s important to draw a distinction between the motives and language of Slut Walk organisers and that of participants.

    I want to note that I can’t speak to how the movement has changed as it has grown, I believe the Ottawa Slut Walk was the 2nd or 3rd walk following the Toronto one and it is the only one I have attended.

    At least at that time my experience was that Slut Walk was a very decentralised and grass-roots movement and as is often the case with such movements there was a definite disconnect between the rather limited language the organisers were using in their advertising and the broader range of experiences and issues that brought walk-participants out to march.

    While the language of the Slut Walk organisers speaks of slut-shaming, the discussion I saw and the signs I read were less about that one word and more about the wider issue of victim-blaming and the way the power of language is used to restrict women’s behaviour and diminish and dismiss victims of rape and sexual assault.

  • Tamihester

    white women toss around the word “slut” at each other in a joking way, the same liberal way in which some blacks chose to use the “n” word.  that said, i don’t think either are appropriate words to use in any discussion/setting (self-proclaimed prude here). further, you don’t see now (perhaps there have been unsuccessful movements in the past) any protests or walk against use of the “n” word – why? because they’re unproductive, much like the use of the word itself.  the same holds true for the use of the word “slut” and walks against its usage. 

  • emma rosenthal

    in identifying this as a white women’s movement, what about women of color who might also identify with the movement? wouldn’t that language be an act of exclusion?   in los angeles it is my understanding that some of the slut walks have reflected some of the diversity of the city. 

    another concern raised by the slut walk is the perpetuation of narrow definitions of sexuality and beauty. something that has not been addressed in any of the critiques i’ve seen.  what role is there for women with non-conforming bodies (women with dis-abilities, larger women) to participate in  a movement where the dress code itself leaves women open to ridicule (and exclusion) not only by the sexist society but by their feminist “sisters”?  (i’m also thinking of code pink’s pink slips, and bikini demonstrations.  this reinforcement of the body beautiful perpetuates the marginalization of women with non-conforming bodies.)

    • crunktastic

      The movement against rape and sexual assault is relevant to every woman. The choice to organize that movement around the deployment of the term slut is legitimate but also limited in its applicability. I acknowledge that this movement will resonate with many women of color just as many of the concerns of mainstream feminism do. That doesn’t mean the language isn’t exclusionary and problematic. To me it’s a both/and. We can both acknowledge the limitations of this particular strategy and affirm and participate in all parts of the movement that are useful. That is what I attempted to do here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=299900020 Phylicia Sampson

    Ever since i could remember, i’ve been really conflicted with feminism, and how it has been perceived by mainstream western society…I think this piece addresses my main concerns in regards to racial issues within the feminist movement.  I would really love for SW organizers to acknowledge that this SW movement is in fact rooted with white women’s experience/oppression rather than lumping it into a generalized category of what feminism/womanism is.

  • http://twitter.com/Sayantani16 Sayantani DasGupta

    Brilliant and insightful commentary!