Sunday, May 15, 2011

Is Slutwalk Advancing the Feminist Cause?

(photo (via Flickr) by Rick Carroll)

There's an excellent post over at The F Word on this topic. I encourage everyone to read the post and to check out the site (although I have to admit that I haven't yet figured out how the comments thread works over there yet).

Given that I agree with most of the premises that the author puts forward (i.e. that blaming-the-victim is toxic, that women are justified in being angry, that we need to fight back, etc.), I was struck by the fact that she arrived at a different overall assessment of the event than I did. Though the author herself doesn't put the point this way, I think it's fair to say that she concludes that we should answer the above question in the negative. Or, at the very least, she gives us reason to think that the politics of using (or, if you like, re-deploying, reclaiming, etc.) the word "slut" are questionable.

She begins the post by saying a lot of things that I strongly agree with:
Victim blaming is one of the most insidious, abusive, and traumatic experiences a woman can go through. Not only have we been assaulted, had to come out and admit/describe the assault (terrifying in and of itself), but then we are treated as though we somehow instigated, deserved, or imagined the assault. It is sick. I have witnessed it and I have experienced it. No woman should ever be told that she must stay inside in order to ‘avoid being raped’ or that her clothing or her actions or her behaviour or her level of intoxication somehow made her deserving of sexual assault. With this in mind, I can certainly get behind Slutwalk’s message. I am glad that we have had enough, and I am glad that we’re getting pissed off.
But, she suggests, there is more to Slutwalk than the above suggests. One of her worries is that the discussions surrounding Slutwalk (on the facebook discussion threads in particular) seem to avoid the issue of feminism as such. Moreover, she detects a thread of "post-feminism" in the discussions as well. As she puts it:
I saw numerous attacks on radical feminism and radical feminists and I witnessed the reinforcement of negative and untrue stereotypes about feminism (you know the ones: man-hating, misandrist, no-fun, sex-negative, etc). While I do believe the organizers had good intentions, desiring that Slutwalk be inclusive to all, it began to look a lot like the ‘funfeminist’ – NO NO WE’RE THE CONVENTIONALLY ATTRACTIVE FEMINISTS. THE FUN ONES. WE’RE OK. WE LIKE PENISES AND PORN AND LOOKING SEXY kind of feminism that, in the end doesn’t successfully challenge much of anything, and simply repackages sexist imagery in ‘empowering’ wrapping paper.
Again, I agree on all accounts here. This maneuver of reinforcing false stereotypes about second-wave feminism while pandering to the status quo should be criticized and challenged by the Left. This frustrating ideology (what I derisively call "post feminism") attempts to appropriate many of the hard-fought gains of second-wave feminism while caricaturing and distancing itself from the very political movement that won the gains in the first place. Though the author doesn't mention it, there's also a close cousin of this regressive "post feminist" ideology, namely, the "feminism just means whatever individuals want it to mean" view. I've criticized this view elsewhere, but I digress.

The second main point of criticism leveled at Slutwalk concerns the politics of the word "slut". This is an instance of a difficult, delicate political question for which, I think, no general answers are available. That question has to do with whether to appropriate or redeploy originally oppressive terms (e.g. queer) for emancipatory purposes. Personally, my view is that the question of whether "strategically re-deploying" certain words is politically sound can only be answered in concrete, particular contexts. Still, the concrete question of whether to redeploy "slut" in the present context remains.

I must say that I'm conflicted on this question. To be sure, I think that the notion of "re-claiming" the term is wrong-headed. It was never claimed in the first place, so it can't very well be re-claimed at this point in time. The question has to be whether to appropriate it and, in a "Bulterian" fashion, "strategically re-deploy" it in order to disrupt the slut/virgin ideology by exploding it from within. At the very least, it has to be said that the "Bulterian" position has the virtue of recognizing that the social meaning of contested political concepts is itself political, up for grabs, etc. Still, I don't think this concession answers our question. Is using the word "slut" a progressive move?

As I say, I'm conflicted, so my answer is "yes and no". I say no because I worry about the "post-feminist" problems discussed above. Moreover, I'm not yet convinced that it really is effective to simply pick up the word as it is and try to do emancipatory things with it. I'm not convinced that "re-deploying" the concept in this context really will have the effect of disrupting the way that the oppressive slut/virgin dichotomy functions. I'm worried that precisely the opposite will happen.

But I also think that the use of "slut" by Slutwalk has progressive potential, but not because of any Bulterian story about redeployment. It has progressive potential because it completely shifts the burden of argument off the backs of victimized women and onto the sexists who insist on focusing the discussion of sexual violence on what women wear, etc. That is, given its most progressive interpretation, Slutwalk in effect says: "Fine, suppose I do dress like a "slut". Suppose I do it intentionally. Even in this case, it's still absolutely absurd to suggest that I am somehow to blame for being violently assaulted. It doesn't fucking matter what women are wearing -that's entirely beside the point. What matters is shutting sexual violence down by any means necessary." In other words, Slutwalk aims to completely shift the discussion from what individual women are wearing to the social and political problem of sexual violence in contemporary capitalist societies.

Also, one final point of friendly disagreement. Social movements are messy and the politics in them are up for grabs. Not everyone in the anti-war movement, for example, opposes the war for the right reasons, some people are against some wars and not others, etc. In short, the politics in social movements aren't always consistent, progressive, or plausible. So, radicals, feminists, socialists, etc. have to know this going in. We cannot refuse to participate on the grounds that too many in the movement are presently of a "post feminist" persuasion. That's something we have to do our best to change through discussion, argument, and participation in the movement. In fact, the more radicals involved in Slutwalk who are ready to change peoples minds and challenge them to reject facile "post feminist" politics the better. Even progressive movements are sites of political struggle. Dominant and ruling class ideas are present there as well- and it's the job of radicals to participate and agitate within those movements to encourage them to be as confident, ambitious, and radical as possible.

So, while I agree with many of the criticisms of Slutwalk put forward in the post, I think participation is crucial for radicals. There hasn't been much of anything in the way of feminist-esque acticism in the US for too long. Very recently there were some mobilizations by pro-choice groups against the assault on Planned Parenthood. I think one basic task of radicals right now has got to be to help draw the connections between Slutwalk and those recent marches. We have to put forward the argument that the US desperately needs another women's movement that is organized and willing to fight for a complete and total dismantling of gender oppression and sexism. We won't ever win that argument unless we're on the front lines talking with the participants in Slutwalk, many of whom may have never participated in a political event in their lives. Their views are still in the making, and radicals can make a difference in winning new folks to ideas that have been marginalized since the 1960s and 70s.


Arvilla said...

Great assessment of the Slutwalk. I'm never all that convinced by claims of re-appropriating a word. No, I don't like to call myself a bitch to suggest that I am strong or call my girlfriends the c word as a form of affection. Call me old fashioned but it doesn't exactly feel empowering...

That said, I understand the point you're making, which is, hey, even if I am a slut and I dress a certain way or I even sleep with a lot of people, I don't deserve to be assaulted. And I think there is some power to that. But it doesn't seem to do the work of rejecting the label of slut itself. It seems the group would need a little more feminist consciousness to take that step.

t said...

I agree with you about appropriation and "redeployment" as a political strategy, and I also agree with your uneasiness about the way in which Slutwalk doesn't do enough to reject the ideology of slut/virgin itself.

I guess I just feel that an important way to increase feminist consciousness is to participate in the movement and make a hard argument for a reinvigorated movement o the basis of feminist politics. There are going to be tons of young people involved who recognize that sexual assault is a political (not individual cosmetic) problem. And they may or may not have even come into contact with feminist politics before- so this is an opportune time to start conversations with people who are being politicized by this phenomenon. Helping to link the people politicized by this movement to the recent pro-choice marches and activism is also key. A problematic march against sexual violence is better than no march at all (from an organizational perspective). I don't think we should withold any criticisms of the event itself- but I think those criticisms are going to be most effective within (rather than outside of) the event.

JM said...

The originial post references an attack on radical feminists. I'd just like to say that I believe the complaint against some radical feminists for treating all porn and sex workers as victims is kind of apt:

t said...

You're opening a can of worms that can't be adequately addressed in a comment thread. But if we're going to accept the lingo of "Radical Feminism" (as opposed to, say, socialist feminism, liberal feminism, etc... I'm following the typology adopted by Rosemarie Tong and others) I'm happy to say that there may be space, internal to the feminist tradition, to criticize "radical feminism".

What I don't want to make space for, however, is the facile "post feminist" position which bars any political criticism of porn (or, indeed, of any cultural product of our societies). The "post feminist" position thwarts any such criticism by pandering to the status quo and siding with it against critics. A problematic critique is better than foreclosing the possibility of critique at all.

Finally, when I hear "radical feminism", I don't counter-pose it to "less radical" or "moderately radical positions". That is because (as I say above) I'm following a particular historical typology of feminist thought wherein "radical feminism" picks out a particular set of figures who wrote (mainly) in the 1970s who had a certain theoretical/political bent, etc. I'm all for radicalism. Let's just make sure we've got the right sort.

JM said...

I probably should have phrased that better, but I still think there are legitmate complaints regarding the second wave of feminism at least, like how many of the anti pornography activists collaborated with Christian censors.
There's some transphobia too:

JM said...

Sorry, here's some more explicit examples regarding Shelia Jefferies:

DolphStarbeam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Arvilla said...

JM, I think it's clear the second wave deserves criticism for a host of phobias (as does the third) and for their reaction to certain sex issues that didn't leave room for a lot of nuance. But I think my hesitance to just keep jumping on the anti-radical bandwagon is that it's a pretty tired debate that seems, on the flipside, to have left little room for any critique of porn/prostitution within feminism. Everyone's so afraid of being associated with that MacKinnon (fascist!) or that Andrea Dworkin (what an old fuddy duddy!), that many of their very valid points about sexual roles has been lost. Instead many feminists have just decided to loooove sex and never question anyone's sexual behaviors or portrayals.

JM said...

Thanks Arvilla. Sorry if I link spammed. It's just that while I'm far from a libertarian, personal freedoms are important to me.

Daniel Cardoso said...

«To be sure, I think that the notion of "re-claiming" the term is wrong-headed. It was never claimed in the first place, so it can't very well be re-claimed at this point in time»

Oh, if it was never claimed, then how/why does patriarchal society use it?

t said...

I meant that the term has not been used for emancipatory purposes, so it isn't quite right to say that we should "reclaim" it. It makes sense to speak of reclaiming something that one has lost. But it doesn't seem to me to make sense to speak of re-claiming something that has never been in one's control, that has always been used for the purposes of oppression, etc. I'm not sure a lot hangs on this question.

On the other hand, I do think it makes sense to talk about trying appropriate the word for critical purposes, or, if you like, to "parodically redeploy" it (this, I take it, is one of Judith Bulter's recommendations in Gender Trouble). But, as I and others argue above, I'm doubtful that such appropriating maneuvers are likely to have their intended effect. What we need is a new womens' movement, not a new way of marketing tired sexist concepts.

Daniel Cardoso said...

But the logics of reclaiming is precisely that: to use positively a word that was never positive. Hence «queer», «gay», etc. Those words were reclaimed precisely because they were insulting. So it doesn't make sense to say, I think, that some words are unreclaimable, linguistics doesn't differentiate between "gay" and "slut". This, I believe, is part of the redeployment that Butler mentions.

I think there are already quite a lot of women's movements doing a lot of good. It's not that we need a new movement, instead as Gayle Rubin said, we need a new sexual ethics. One where people can even feel all warm and fuzzy inside when they're called sluts, just as many around the globe feel when they're called "gay", "homosexual", "dyke", "queer", and so on... Because it can be a compliment.

To attempt to constitute a word as inherently derogatory is to prolong the standing sexual mores, those sexist concepts you mentioned.