Of SlutWalks, Perfect Storms and Getting Out of the Way

From SlutWalk Manchester by Man Alive!On Monday, I talked about some of my own life, and the central, very personal, issue which kept me from attending one of the SlutWalks, an issue which is also central to the walks themselves. On Tuesday, I brought up what appears to be a clear misrepresentation by the media, especially visually, of the walks. In both pieces, I expressed unwavering support for the walks.

While I did not agree with a good deal of it, I appreciated Rebecca Traister writing in the New York Times magazine last week.

But at a moment when questions of sex⁠ and power, blame and credibility, and gender⁠ and justice are so ubiquitous and so urgent, I have mostly felt irritation that stripping down to skivvies and calling ourselves sluts is passing⁠ for keen retort.

To object to these ugly characterizations is right and righteous. But to do so while dressed in what look like sexy stewardess Halloween costumes seems less like victory than capitulation (linguistic and sartorial) to what society already expects of its young women. Scantily clad marching seems weirdly blind to the race, class and body-image issues that usually (rightly) obsess young feminists and seems inhospitable to scads of women who, for various reasons, might not feel it logical or comfortable to express their revulsion at victim-blaming by donning bustiers. So while the mission of SlutWalks is crucial, the package is confusing and leaves young feminists open to the very kinds of attacks they are battling.

The above is, from everything I can gather, not a critique of the walks, but of the way the walks have been represented, more by the media than by the organizers or the majority of attendees of any of the walks.

In fact, when she wrote, "The most sophisticated attempts elicit just as much derision and, frankly, receive a fraction of the attention," I thought she was going to address that what she was criticizing was the media representation. But then she didn't, which confounded me. It seemed like she became part of the media misrepresentation herself, and took part in solidifying that simplification and misrepresentation. I also wondered if she was asking the organizers or attendees to somehow control the media, something none of us have the capacity to do, and even when we try, our efforts are most typically in vain. We can respond to the media -- and I do think more response is something missing from this picture, a part of the movement that could stand some work -- but that's all we can really do is respond. Activists are not responsible for how the media chooses to portray them, especially when the media chooses to misrepresent. Are we even remotely surprised that a movement in which young women are making themselves visible around issues of sex, violence and appearance has gotten the kind of coverage it has? If we are, how can we possibly still be surprised by reactions that are such literal representations of exactly what the protests are about?

She calls these efforts clumsy (but also necessary: "while clumsy stabs at righting sexual⁠ -power imbalances may be frustrating, they remain necessary.") I'm not so sure that they are. Rather, I'm not so sure that they are any more clumsy than a great deal of activism tends to be and has always been. By all means, I think more advance and in-depth organizing with this could have been helpful, especially strategies around dealing with the highly predictable media response. At the same time, sometimes effective activism is about seizing a moment -- a moment like Sanguinetti's comments -- and moving as fast as you can. Taking more time to organize can be of real use, but it can also happen that in doing so, you lose essential momentum. It's a call that is easy to err with either way.

Traister also says, “I found myself again wishing that the young women doing the difficult work of reappropriation were more nuanced in how they made their grabs at authority, that they were better at anticipating and deflecting the resulting pile-on. But I also wondered if, perhaps, this worry makes me the Toronto cop who thought women should protect themselves by not dressing like sluts.” I appreciate her honesty and her introspection.

I do think there have been some possible missteps around the walks, though I don't think that's about how some attendees of the walk have chosen to dress. And like Traister posed in that last quote, if we start thinking that way, I do think we have to take a good look in the mirror, whatever we're wearing, and look for how much of the harmful and patently wrong-headed messaging about dress, "asking for it" and sexuality we've internalized.

Samhita brought the issues around the media up in the Feministing response to and roundtable of Traister's piece, and I agree with what she said there in saying that "Activism and social change are not as much about what you meant to do, but instead what you do do, and what is Slutwalk doing in the mainstream media? Are people rethinking the role victim-blaming plays in sexual assault⁠ or are people too caught up in the term “ slut⁠ ?” I am not really sure." Media pushbacks are important to assure your message doesn't get lost or you don't wind up letting the media rewrite your aims. This is something Courtney also brought up in her commentary at Feministing.

Maya also voiced something in that roundtable I really appreciated about the Traister piece when she said, "to some extent, it’s inevitable that a grassroots protest movement, organized entirely on the local level, and filtered through a mainstream media that latches on to the word “slut” and images of half-naked young women, will struggle with message control. (My own limited experience with protest organizing definitely reminded me why I, like Traister, embrace a medium like writing that allows for so much more precision.) I just wish Traister had acknowledged that inherent challenge more, instead of reinforcing the idea that SlutWalk is just about women “stripping down to skivvies and calling ourselves sluts” – when she clearly knows that it’s about more than that and, at most protests, the hoodies probably outnumber the skivvies."

There's the issue of if a "dress code" should have been suggested or enforced. I can see how, when we're working around the issue that "slutty" dress has zip to do with sexual assault,some being playful with that can be seen as sending a mixed message, or as reinforcing the message being protested. I do personally think that someone presenting like this creates a more powerful statement about dress and victim-blaming than someone showing up without a sign, who isn't a survivor, wearing the kind of clothing most often considered (in the west, anyway, and even though it's often an error) to signal indiscriminate sexual availability.

Yet, at the same time, suggesting or enforcing a dress code for the walks stands counter to the core aims, like making clear there is NO way of dressing or not dressing which will "get you raped" or protect you from rape⁠ , but also no way of dressing or not dressing in which someone cannot or will not perceive you as sexually available. As well, it's clear that some attendees who came to the walks in whatever their "slutwear" was experienced something powerful in doing so. We always have to remember that when a movement is made up of people it is also attempting to serve, that what experience the activists have is no less important that what impact it has on those who are not directly participating.

Again, people are sexually assaulted wearing everything, anything, and nothing a person can possibly wear, and there is no one way of dressing which makes rape a victim's fault or responsibility because there is NO way of dressing which makes rape a victim's fault or responsibility. If any way of dressing really, truly protected us from violence, don't you think we'd all have tried dressing that way already? We only need one victim's story about how the way they were dressed didn't make any difference for them. We have millions of these stories: they are all of our stories.

As a feminist and activist who works primarily with sexuality but also with sexual violence, I also know how tremendously challenging it can be to try and address both of these things at once, and the ways that they intersect, especially in a world and a culture which often does not recognize that -- and sometimes even purposefully blurs and obscures -- consensual sex and sexual violence may not be things we can completely separate from one another, but they are also incredibly different, usually for the perpetrators of this violence, and most certainly for victims. We are going to stumble, because it is rocky terrain. The only way to avoid that completely is to not take steps at all, which is just not an option if we want any kind of change. Could folks organizing have asked for more help with that tricky balance? Probably. Would the walks and SlutWalk as a movement have benefitted from that? I have no idea.

As another maybe-critique, I've heard people voice a wish that there was, for all of the walks and their various self-produced web media as a whole, some shared, stated core values and aims. I, too, can see how that could be valuable. At the same time, I wonder if the lack of that was what allowed this to become such an international movement, with communities, cities and cultures feeling a flexibility to adapt the walks to suit who they were and what they wanted and needed to address. Unilateral core aims, especially if done without an exceptionally diverse group of people taking part, could have created very real barriers to that, barriers which have long been problematic within feminism and other social justice⁠ movements.

I keep saying possible missteps, because the fact that myself, or Traister or any number of people think errors have been or are being made, or that all of this could be done better or worse doesn't mean we're right. We could be. We could also be wrong. It could be that despite it seeming like this thing or this other way of doing or saying that would have been the better move, that doing a given thing differently would have less impact.

I've been part of activist efforts and movements myself that fizzled, crashed or burned, even one or two that blew up in my face; actions or movements which were planned to death, actions or movements which were very spontaneous. I experience activism as being an awful lot like working in chemistry with elements and formulas which are experimental, untested or not entirely understood. You can try mixing things via various formulas we already have, and sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn't: it makes a huge mess of things or does nothing at all. Sometimes you try new formulas, with the same array of results. When we're working in and with activism, we are usually working with unstable, unpredictable elements.

Growing up in and around activism, being quite literally born out⁠ of it, watching it and taking part in it in various forms for four decades now, one thing I know is that effective activism tends to require a sort of perfect storm, an often, if not always, difficult to predict mix of timing and numbers and ideas and actions and people. Even the literal climate -- not just the social climate -- can matter sometimes, as trite as that can seem. My father engaged in one activist movement, the civil rights movement, that eventually seems to have had its perfect storm. Another he engaged in, dedicating years to, sacrificing liberties for, was the movement against the Vietnam War, which pretty much flopped per its ultimate goal. From all anyone can tell, the Vietnam war did not come to an end because of antiwar activist efforts. Even though both of these issues were vital and core human rights issues that highlighted incredible abuses of human rights, even though both involved the dedicated efforts of millions, they didn't have the same impacts, and I don't think that was just about the differences between the two movements and the two issues. I think a great deal of the why of those differences was outside the control of activists entirely.

Traister finished her piece with something I thought was intensely valuable:

Social progress is imperfect, full of half-truths and sloppy misrepresentations. After all, we celebrate the victories of a civil rights movement that was shot through with misogyny, and of a women’s movement riddled with racial, class and sexual resentments. Fighting for power is a complicated, messy process, especially for complicated, messy human beings. Often, the best we can hope for is that our efforts draw a spotlight. Which, I guess, is enough to make SlutWalkers of us all.

Something else I believe to be true about activism, and have found to be so during my life experiences with and around it, and my historical understanding of it more broadly, is that it is often very difficult to evaluate until we have considerable distance -- emotional distance, and the distance of time having passed -- away from it. Without that kind of space so we are better able to see the bigger picture of what progress (or not) or change (or not) and what kind of change it sparked, created or completed, making an earnestly accurate evaluation of an action or movement is precarious.

Frankly, I think those trying to evaluate the results of the walks are trying to do so much, much too soon and with far too small a scope.

Going back to the American Civil Rights Movement, some people will list that movement as being less than a decade long. We can also know that at any point during that movement, a given action was seen or felt as the central action, the apex at the time. But depending on your scope, what you know about, and what you're recognizing, the span of that movement could be more like 20 years, 50 years, a hundred years or longer. I tend to see it myself as spanning over 200 years. Before the March on Washington and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, for instance, there was the school desegregation movement, fifty years before that, the formation of the NAACP, before that the civil rights act of 1875, slave rebellions before that and on and on and on. That movement also was sparked and moved by more people than Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rosa Parks wasn't even the first to engage in her most historical action. In fact, she wasn't even the first to do it on that very bus line. There are so many activists who took part in actions that created the civil rights movement as a whole, people like Claudette Colvin, and like Octavius Catto, Gabriel Prosser, Bayard Rustin or Clara Luper, names few people know. There were people whose names we don't know or recognize and may never know. And for all we know, something one of those people did may have had more to do with the actions we recognize and the activists we know about. Trying to track a movement back isn't as easy or simple as it often seems, just like trying to evaluate what alchemy creates progress and change is not, and we are always going to see things differently depending on where we're at on the eventual (and often neverending) timeline.

This is some of what I mean when I talk about perfect activism storms and the scope of activism. When we're talking about activism around sexual violence towards women, already we have a timeline and a larger scope; we already have actions and activists and movements that reach back more then two centuries. Where do the Slutwalks fit on that timeline? What is their import in comparison to other activism around this issue? I don't think we can know that yet, nor do I think it's fair to ask that yet.

But I think that what we can know now, since people are asking, is that so far SlutWalk has been of value and has shown the potential to spark more than one kind of needed, important change.

Just a few relatively young feminists managed to spark numbers in-person, international activists movements largely made up of and led by young women all over the world. There have been largely attended walks, but there have also been so very many discussions, discussions and more discussions which have not been insular echo chambers, and where silences are being broken.

We have been able to hear, read and and be part of a real diversity of views, feelings and ideas. with a great deal of variance, many of which have involved a great deal of care, thought and positive intention. These discussions have generally been far more complex than simple yays or nays. These discussions are important, and often about more than either just sexual violence or just the right for women to be able to dress as they choose, and present or express their sexuality, when they do, as they choose without being held responsible for the violent actions of others when they do. From what I can gather, many of them have bounced off the issue of Slutwalks to get at some of the core issues that can create and have created divisions and exclusions in feminism and social justice that get in the way of women's rights and all human rights.

Even comments and discussions which illustrate some of the most ugly ignorance shows up exactly what people are trying to address with the walks is of value. It's tough to get a house clean⁠ if you can't see where all the dirt is, after all.

There are still discussions to be had here, issues that are part of the big picture to be addressed, like, for instance, that while blaming a victim -- or blaming someone who isn't even a victim yet -- based on her style of dress is largely, if not exclusively about women, male victims and survivors suffer a similar kind of victim-blaming around they way they present -- or are accused of not presenting -- their masculinity. There's the fact of the matter that, as with so many things, the world at large is often far more concerned, when it is at all, with the victimization of upper-middle-class white girls than with everyone (read: most people in the world) outside those groups. There's also the issue of how groups being presented as without their own sexuality, namely, those with disabilities, are often at the highest risk of, and have the highest rates of, sexual victimization, but also have the least freedom to engage in healthy, consensual and wanted sexual relationships and interactions. As someone who works primarily in human sexuality and hears about people's personal sex lives every day, there is also the incredibly sticky wicket of addressing how many people have sexual violence, exploitation, coercion and lack of real consent⁠ -- and not just women -- as part of their ongoing sexual relationships without the realization or recognition it is abuse⁠ and assault: who earnestly do not know and can often not even imagine, what healthy sexual relationships and interactions are like.

I think the walks and all of the discussion around them have given us a really great jolt in the arm to start having those conversations more and having them more widely.

The experiences attendees seem to be having vary, and it's clear the walks have offered a range of experiences. Survivors of assault have deeply connected with other survivors, or found a place where they felt able -- and for some of them, probably for the first time -- to feel safe in identifying as a survivor. Others have experienced a powerful and increased awareness about those of us who have survived sexual violence. I expect that someone in a hoodie and jeans walking next to someone in a bustier might have been able to see some common ground they did not before. For others still, the walks have provided an avenue to experience a lightening of the load so many of us have walked around with living in cultures which enable or excuse rape and which make many women feel afraid of expressing their own sexuality or enjoying their bodies. They have allowed women to deeply connect with other women, something which remains a huge challenge for many. I expect that for many participating in the walks, they brought them out to engage in in-person social justice activism for the very first time (something older feminists have been accusing younger feminists of having no interest in doing for a while now, mind you).

We know that how women dress or don't dress neither causes rape, nor can it protect against rape. We know that telling women to avoid dressing a certain way is not about protecting women, it's about controlling women or scaring women (and also about suggesting men need women to try to police or control their sexualities), something anyone who works in or around sexual violence or had education -- or should, like a police officer -- knows. We know that calling women names like "sluts" or otherwise arbitrarily applying perceptions of someone's sexual life or history to suggest someone's value as a person may be lesser is also about social control and can enable sexual violence. We know victims remain held responsible for their assaults far more often than perpetrators of those assaults. We know that calling these things out and stating and restating the truths they obscure is essential to reducing, and ideally, eradicating rape, and also crucial for an environment in which survivors of assault can heal and where people, whether they have been victimized by sexual violence or not, can truly see sexual violence for what it is and learn real ways to be safer.

All of these are aims of the walks; all of these aims are of great value and import, potential avenues to positive social change that could benefit everyone. And I do think that, so far, the walks have provided new inroads and outlets to cultivating these changes.

When thinking about how -- and if -- I was going to get involved with our local walk, I was reminded of Thomas Paine's words about revolutions, to "Lead, follow or get out of the way."

I knew I wasn't going to try to lead: this wasn't mine to lead, so far as I could tell. There were already leaders, and it's also seemed to me that much of Slutwalk as a whole is being led by younger people than myself, something I always want to support and never want to get in the way of. I wasn't going to follow. As I mentioned, there were a couple relatively minor issues with our local walk that kept me away, but also a far more core matter of my feeling that the most powerful way I could take part involved doing something I did not feel strong enough to do.

Which left me with the third option. To get out of the way. Which is what I chose to do and felt best about doing. But after I did that, I realized I wanted a bit of an addendum to that quote, because we can get out of the way without also being disengaged. We can be supportive from the sidelines, which is what I hope I have managed to do with these three pieces this week, and which is what I intend to do -- and hope others who don't feel they can or should earnestly lead or follow will do more of -- as this movement continues.