Today, we had initially planned to bring you a review of the new groundbreaking book Hey Shorty: A Guide to Combatting Sexual Harassment in Schools and on the Streets. And you can read it here. But in light of the SlutWalk movement that broke out in Toronto earlier this year and the embrace of the movement in U.S. feminist mainstream over the last few months, I would like to add a few more thoughts to the discussion, in light of recent and much-needed calls on the part of feminists of color for a much more critical race critique in the SlutWalk movement.
SlutWalk Toronto started as an activist response to the ill-informed, misguided words of a Toronto police officer who suggested that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” Women in Toronto were enraged and rightfully so, and SlutWalks have become a way to dramatize the utter ignorance and danger of the officer’s statements. And on that note, I fucks very hard with the concept and with the response, which is creative, appropriate, and powerful.
What gives me pause is the claim in SlutWalk Toronto’s mission statement of sorts that because they are are “tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result,” they are reclaiming and reappropriating the word “slut.” Um, no thank you?
Here’s the source of my ambivalence: as I read the mission statement, I was struck by the righteous indignation these women had over being called slut. While that indignation is absolutely warranted, it also feels on a visceral level as though it comes from women who are in fact not used to being fully defined by negative sexual referents.
Perhaps my cynicism reflects my own experience as a Black woman of the Hip Hop Generation in the U.S., or a Black woman who’s a member of the Western World period. It goes without saying that Black women have always been understood to be lascivious, hypersexed, and always ready and willing. When I think of the daily assaults I hear in the form of copious incantations of “bitch” and “ho” in Hip Hop music directed at Black women, it’s hard to not feel a bit incensed at the “how-dare-you-quality” of the SlutWalk protests, which feel very much like the protests of privileged white girls who still have an expectation that the world will treat them with dignity and respect.
The first activist response I ever heard to such mistreatment was Queen Latifah’s 1993 Grammy-winning song, U.N.I.T.Y.
It energized a community and opened a space for much needed conversation. But sisters did not line up to go on symbolic, collective ho strolls. And for good, and I think, obvious reasons.
So maybe the best way to deal with the debates about re-appropriating the term “slut” is the way I deal with the whole n-word debate. As a Black person, who occasionally uses the n-word (with an ‘a’ on the end), I am admittedly ambivalent about whether or not the use of the term among Black people really does constitute a reappropriation. I’ve heard and read most of the arguments, and I remain…ambivalent but generally think the word is unproductive. That said, I balk at older Black folks who act as though the Hip Hop Generation are the first Black people to toss the word around. Read any 19th century Black literature and you’ll know different. What I’m clear about, however, is that to use or not to use is a decision that lies solely within Black communities. White people simply don’t get a say; the word is off-limits to them. Black folks have surely won the right, long held by white folks, to struggle and determine amongst ourselves how we will refer to and define ourselves. Period.
For me, so it is with the word slut. It is off-limits to me. But for those who have been shamed, and disciplined, and violently abused on the basis of its usage, they have the prerogative to determine whether to reclaim or not to. As a word used to shame white women who do not conform to morally conservative norms about chaste sexuality, the term very much reflects white women’s specific struggles around sexuality and abuse. Although plenty of Black women have been called “slut,” I believe Black women’s histories are different, in that Black female sexuality has always been understood from without to be deviant, hyper, and excessive. Therefore, the word slut has not been used to discipline (shame) us into chaste moral categories, as we have largely been understood to be unable to practice “normal” and “chaste” sexuality anyway.
But perhaps, we have come to a point in feminist movement-building where we need to acknowledge that differing histories necessitate differing strategies. This is why I’m somewhat ambivalent about accusing my white sistren of being racist. If your history is one of having your sexuality regulated by the use of the term “slut” for disciplinary purposes, then SlutWalk is an effective answer.
What becomes an issue is those white women and liberal feminist women of color who argue that “slut” is a universal category of female experience, irrespective of race. I recognize that there are many women of color who are participating in the SW movement, and I support those sisters who do, particularly women who are doing it in solidarity and coalition. But rather than forcing white women to get on the diversity train with regard to the inclusivity of SlutWalk, perhaps we need to redirect our racial vigilance. By that I mean, I’d prefer that white women acknowledge that they are in fact organizing around a problematic use of terminology endemic to white communities and cultures.
In doing so, this would force an acknowledgement that the experience of womanhood being defended here–that of white women– is not universal, but is under attack and worthy of being defended, all the same.
Perhaps, also, if white women could recognize SlutWalk as being rooted in white female experience, it would provide an opportunity for them to participate in coalition and solidarity with similar movements that are inclusive and reflective of the experiences of women of color.
One example is the Stop Street Harassment movement– a multiracial movement that has led to “Stop Street Harassment” campaigns throughout the U.S. and abroad. It is that movement which is the subject of Hey Shorty! This movement, too, works from the premise that streets and schools should be safe for women, but it recognizes that challenges to that safety while similar in some respects, can differ across race and class. And as I said, earlier, different histories necessitate different strategies. In that regard, I don’t think sisters will be lining up to go on a symbolic “Ho Stroll” anytime soon.
We’d like to hear from you. What are your feelings on these two movements and the connections and divergences between each?