My Mixed Feelings about SlutWalks

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This Sunday I read with great interest Rebecca Traister’s insightful piece in the New York Times Magazine about SlutWalks. Last spring, when the movement took off and images of barely clad women around the world flooded the Web, I was immediately intrigued. I was tempted to write about it then, but I didn’t for one reason: I wasn’t sure how I felt.

On the one hand, wasn’t it inspiring that young feminists were reclaiming “slut” as a way to attack myths about sexual assault? I admired the energy and creativity. I appreciated the barefaced humor. But, like Traister, SlutWalks also made me crabby and uncomfortable. It seemed narrow and naïve. Was donning lingerie really going to change the victim-blaming mentality of rape? Or would it just encourage an unintended backlash from critics, as in: Sure, wear that bustier, but don’t expect guys not to hit on you.

One of the problems with SlutWalks is how deeply entrenched notions about female appearance and sexual assault are. As Traister points out, even The New York Times included quotes about an 11-year-old girl who was reportedly gang-raped intimating that she dressed like a slut. In other words, she asked for it. The story stirred a furor on feminist blogs about the media’s role in advancing victim-blaming. So at least it raised the issue. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the narrative went away. Far from it.

As I wrote last week, the Guinean immigrant who accused DSK of rape was denounced as a money-seeking fraud because of lies she told on her asylum application. In a thinly sourced story, The New York Post proclaimed her a hooker. This week the maid fought back. In interviews with Newsweek and ABC, she recalled for the first time her attempted rape by DSK. She broke her silence in the hope that the powerful French leader will be punished. Yet even The Daily Beast showed its cluelessness about sexual politics and power when it referred to her as “The DSK Maid.”

Men, even supposedly the most enlightened ones, still don’t get it. On Twitter not five minutes ago, Esquire magazine tweeted helpfully “How to get a better blow job than #DSK—we think” with a link to the story. The furor it provoked was immediate. “OK seriously, rape and a bj are not the same thing. Does this need to be said @Esquire Fucking really?” fumed one commenter. In a flash, the tweet vanished. But how could it have been there to begin with? I love Esquire, but it disturbs me that they can be so dim.

Progress is painful. One of my first thrills as a young feminist was at UC Berkeley, where female students and faculty successfully fought for a women’s studies program. At a time when gender studies are deemed superfluous and being cut, those heady days seem like a distant mirage. Then, we were trying to crack the door open to professions that were rigidly shut, and to upend traditional notions of female identity.

Like young feminists today, we also fought to dress the way we wanted and not to be seen as sex objects. In our case, though, it was for the right to wear overalls and Birkenstocks in lieu of make-up and high heels. That grim determination to claim our identity through style seems silly now, as if by not shaving our legs we could pass the E.R.A. But I can't be too critical of those energized efforts. It was a start.

Then we also hoped to change the way society views women and sexual assault. But it was a battle. There were no rape kits, no specially trained police units to deal with sex crimes. Most cops were men. Most rape victims were too ashamed or frightened to come out. They also knew something that rape victims and anyone who's ever seen "Law & Order: SVU" still encounter: They probably wouldn’t be believed. They’d probably be blamed. The vocabulary was still so unformed we couldn’t even identify date rape then. Incredibly, there was no name for it. Thirty years later, I’m still ashamed of my own date rape. Why didn’t I fight back?

Things are better now. But until we stop equating how women dress with their likelihood of being hit on, sexually harassed, or raped, maybe SlutWalks has a place. As flashy as it is.

sexual assault

Credit Image: © Brian Jordan/UPPA/ZUMAPRESS.com/

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