The Oxford English Dictionary dates the earliest recorded use of the word ‘slut’ in English to 1402, when the poet Thomas Hoccleve complained of ‘ye foulest slutte of al a tovne’. 609 years later, the term is still being used as a sexual epithet against women, with the additional insult of the word’s alternative connotations of dirt and squalor. A notable example of this came from the mouth of a Canadian police officer in January – addressing a safety meeting at a Toronto university, he responded to a question on how to steer clear of sexual harassment with:
‘Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.’
Not only did this dispel the myth that all Canadian police are essentially replicas of Benton Fraser in Due South. It also pissed a lot of people off. And rightly so. The officer’s comment played upon two of the nastiest stereotypes surrounding female sexuality. Firstly, that it is essentially shameful and perverse – the ‘dirty slut’ trope – and secondly, that unwanted sexual attention is the responsibility of the (female) recipient, rather than the (male) aggressor. In response, SlutWalk was born – a series of protest marches and rallies calling attention to the iniquity of the double standard in sexual autonomy, and the hugely problematic issue of rape culture. It started in Toronto… it spread around the world… and last Saturday, it ended up in London (on the same day as the International Naked Bike Ride!).
I want to talk about my reasons for attending the London SlutWalk, and my experiences there, but first I think that it’s worth addressing the issue of the movement’s name. Obviously it’s provocative, inasmuch as it directly references the term ‘slut’. But the real issue with it is its relative ambiguity. It’s not clear whether the SlutWalk movement attempts to reclaim ‘slut’ from its use as a term of harassment, and neutralise its impact by aligning it with sex-positive feminism; or if it’s an ironic use of the word intended to highlight the viciousness and violence at the root of sexual harassment. This lack of clarity definitely affected responses to the walk, as evinced by several discussions I’ve had with women who didn’t want to attend because they disliked the idea that doing so would somehow label them as sluts. Certainly, it does give rise to the notion that, whether or not it’s a good thing or a bad thing to be called a slut, it’s still the main thing. That is to say, it subtly implies that women are primarily defined by their sexuality, which is one of the root causes of harassment and victim-blaming in the first instance. It’s also problematic in the context of press coverage, as it seems to have given rise to the inevitable lazy journalism that surrounds any vaguely sex-adjacent event. ‘Scantily Clad Women March On London’, and so on. Essentially, I don’t love the name, as I feel it’s paradoxically limiting.
Nonetheless, the actual event was incredibly broad in terms of attendees and their respective motivations. It was clear that individual marchers had different reasons for attending – some to speak out about their experiences of harassment and rape, some to protest harassment of LGBT people, some to promote a sex-positive agenda. Perhaps the very ambiguity of what SlutWalking is all about actually prompted this, though I can’t of course be sure. Speaking on a purely personal level, I wasn’t there with a desire to reclaim sluttishness as a feminist discourse, and I wasn’t engaging in the whole dress-up-as-a-slutty-stereotype game. I was there to take a stand against the idea that women are passive sexual objects, which is something I’ve addressed in detail in a recent post. Being able to actually march against this, with thousands of other women (and men) felt genuinely empowering, because to some extent it negated the extreme powerlessness and humiliation I so often feel when cat-called in the street. This time, I was the one whose voice was being heard, and the one with support at my back. It really hit home as the march progressed down Piccadilly, and we passed a group of workmen digging up a gas main by the side of the road. Maybe the workman is a much-maligned stereotype when it comes to harassment, but I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of more than a few builder’s whistles and smile-darlins from blokes in hi-vis vests. Had I been walking down a street alone, I probably would have quickened my pace to get past this kind of group as quickly as possible. But, flanked on one side by a gorgeous androgynous lady with DYKE written on her arms in lipstick, and on the other by a gaggle of students in cosplay costumes and bunny ears – with another 3000 fabulous people around me – I had no fear. Today, I was in charge. I almost wanted one of the workmen to call out to us, just to see the undoubtedly hilarious response.
However, we got to the rally in Trafalgar Square without (major) bloodshed, yelling all the way However We Dress, Wherever We Go, Yes Means Yes And No Means No! (I do love a good collective yell). The speeches were a mixed bunch, actually. There were poems and personal experiences, many of which were inspiring and interesting, even harrowing. If you’re interested, a lot of the transcripts can be found on the SlutWalk London website http://slutmeansspeakup.org.uk/. I did feel, though, that a couple of the speeches were more akin to political posturing than anything else. As far as I’m concerned, speaking out against sexual harassment is an issue in its own right, and it shouldn’t be co-opted by broader political movements and ideologies as a means of scoring points. I know not everyone will agree with me in this respect – though I did notice that quite a few people had taken the NO MEANS NO signs handed out by the Socialist Worker and pulled off the SW logo before carrying them, which I think bears out my point somewhat.
So, in the end, was it worth it? From a personal perspective, it absolutely was. It felt good to be part of the movement and, more importantly, to know that so many people are willing to speak up for female sexual autonomy. Looking at the SlutWalk as a movement, I think it’s certainly succeeded in pushing the anti-harassment message back on to the public agenda for a while. But whether or not it will have a significant impact on sexual attitudes remains to be seen. After the rally ended, I was walking through London when a man holding a beer yelled over to me, ‘Scuse me, sexy, can I ‘ave your number?’ (and I was wearing a bloody ankle-length skirt, dammit!). I told him to fuck right off, naturally, but it just shows that we’ve still got such a long way to go.