#SlutWalk and the politics of re-appropriating words

As submitted to The Daily Maverick.

When a representative of the Toronto Police said that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”, it’s unlikely that he intended to foment extensive debate on the meaning of words, and which of these words could and could not be “reclaimed”. However, while people all across the globe are participating in SlutWalks in order to highlight and protest a culture of victim-blaming, others are choosing not to do so – exactly because they think the word “slut” cannot be reclaimed, and that the SlutWalk movement might be an obstacle to its own stated goals.

What are those goals? The website of the original SlutWalk in Toronto tells us that “the Toronto Police have perpetuated the myth and stereotype of ‘the slut’, and in doing so have failed us … survivors have now been given even less of a reason to go to the Police, for fear that they could be blamed. Being assaulted isn’t about what you wear; it’s not even about sex; but using a pejorative term to rationalize inexcusable behaviour creates an environment in which it’s okay to blame the victim.”

“Historically, the term ‘slut’ has carried a predominantly negative connotation. Aimed at those who are sexually promiscuous, be it for work or pleasure, it has primarily been women who have suffered under the burden of this label. And whether dished out as a serious indictment of one’s character or merely as a flippant insult, the intent behind the word is always to wound, so we’re taking it back. “Slut” is being re-appropriated. We are tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result.”

There are two separate issues being addressed here, and while there is significant overlap between them, they should not be carelessly conflated. It’s entirely possible to agree that victim-blaming is a genuine problem, but to disagree that protesting this by attempting to reclaim the word “slut” is a good idea. To forestall one possible reading of what I’m about to argue, let me make one thing clear: People should be able to call themselves what they like, and to wear what they like.

Whether it is the suggestion that women who dress provocatively (an idea that of course merits further interrogation) invite sexual assault or the decision by a government to ban clothing that expresses religious belief, the fact remains that we should all be able to define our own identities. And we exhibit those identities partly through what we call ourselves and what we wear. Respecting our liberty to do so is one part – and no small one – of what it means to be free.

However, this cannot be allowed to obscure the fact that words and actions have consequences. I doubt that there is any way of putting this point that won’t result in outrage, but while rapists are the only criminals in a rape, and while dressing in a manner that highlights your sexuality should never be interpreted as consent, none of us should be surprised if we were to find a positive correlation between rape and the amount of flesh the victim was revealing.

This doesn’t mean it’s the victim’s fault, in that the abovementioned freedoms would ideally be secure and universally respected. Eliminating the sexism that tells some men that women who embrace their sexuality somehow lose their discernment and their ability to exercise it through what they choose to wear is part of securing those freedoms. But we don’t yet live in that world and sadly, perhaps never will.

One way of getting closer to it might be to highlight the absurdity – and inherent offense – of blaming the victim instead of the perpetrator. This is an aspect of what the SlutWalks intend to do, and they seem to be doing that rather effectively – in part by highlighting the fact that rape happens to all sorts of women dressed in all sorts of (not plausibly provocative) ways. More simply put, SlutWalks highlight the fact that to some men, simply being a woman can be provocation enough.

This is an important campaign with an important message. And this is why it’s a pity that the goal of highlighting and eliminating victim-blaming is being obscured by the linguistic minefield of reclaiming the word “slut”, and the infighting that this attempt at reclamation has caused. It’s also a pity that – in South Africa at least – the Slutwalks have been blighted by association with the questionable claim that South African women are more likely to be raped than to learn how to read. Trying to remedy one problem (sexual violence) through exacerbating another (innumeracy) is unfortunate, especially when the prevalence of rape doesn’t need any exaggeration to be considered a social crisis.

“Slut” is a gendered word, and one that is often used pejoratively. Some women may find themselves able to reclaim it, but others might not. However, all victims of rape (and their sympathisers) would agree that the rapist rather than the victim should be blamed for the rape. But they might not want to say so publicly, as a participant in a SlutWalk, because whatever the word might mean to you, it might remain inescapably hurtful to someone else.

Instead of being a challenge to sexist thinking, naming these protests “SlutWalks” could have the unintended consequence of sending the message that it’s actually progressive for men to call women “sluts” – after all, that’s what they call themselves now. When the Toronto SlutWalk started attracting criticism for using a word that has often been abusively deployed, they pointed out that it was an attention-grabber, and this is certainly true.

But the attention it grabs is partly from those who fear that reclaiming words is not as easy as one might think, and that the long-term goal of eliminating the use of gendered epithets might be impeded by this highly popular campaign. Perhaps worst of all, many defenders of the word “slut” in this context have been quick to accuse objectors of being gender-traitors (if they are women) or unreconstructed sexists (if men), thus alienating potential supporters of the broader message that we shouldn’t look to excuse rapists through blaming the raped.

In 2001, George W. Bush asked whether “you’re with us or against us” in what has become a textbook example of a false dichotomy. With SlutWalk, the same false dichotomy is suggested, and it’s just as false now as it was then. Perhaps words cannot be reclaimed as easily as some would like to think – and perhaps you’re no less sympathetic to victims of rape in saying so.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.