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Reclaiming the word “slut” April 6, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International.
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If you are a woman, chances are, some culture somewhere will define you as a slut. Maybe you’ve had sex before marriage. Maybe you’ve had more than one boyfriend. Maybe you’ve held hands with an unrelated man. Maybe you have male friends. Maybe you go out in public exposing your bare arms. Even as I sit here in front of my computer in a t-shirt and skinny jeans, some cultures will define that as slutty attire – attire that suggests that I am asking to be disrespected by men, attire that means I deserve to get sexually harassed.

And that, I feel, is the crux of the matter: what society deems as appropriate attire and appropriate behaviour for women is purely subjective, and more often than not, defined by men. If a woman doesn’t comply with these arbitrary standards, she is defined as a slut – someone less than human, someone deserving to be victimised, and someone less deserving of empathy. The concept of a slut is socially constructed, designed to punish women who choose to express varying degrees of their individuality and sexuality, and to excuse perpetrators who might commit acts of assault and harassment against them.

Women in Toronto have grown sick of this form of oppression. In response to a police officer who claimed that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”, these women decided to reclaim the word “slut” by organizing a Slutwalk. 3,000 women of all ages – wearing anything they wanted to wear – marched down the streets of Toronto with pride and defiance, to reinforce the point that what a woman wears is not an invitation to be harassed and that they had enough of victim blaming/shaming. Most importantly, they wanted society to change from a culture that tells women not to get raped to a culture that demands that men do not rape.

Even now, I can anticipate the response from anti-feminist male chauvinist pigs (or anti-feminist females, who, though a rarer breed, tend to be more scathing and self righteous than their male counterparts). “If you don’t want to get groped, then why tempt us (men) to grope you?” To that, I have a few responses.

i) You are not an animal. You are a human being in control of your actions. Your hormones may tell you to touch or hump an attractive female walking by, but you have the ability and the responsibility to restrain yourself and respect the woman’s sovereignty over her own body. How she is dressed is no excuse for uncivilized behaviour, nor does it rationalize disrespecting her personhood.

ii) More often than not, it is the observer that is doing the sexualizing, not the “slut”. If you claim that a woman is dressed like a sex object, chances are, it is because you have defined her as one first. Let’s put it this way, if you saw a topless woman in Singapore, you would sexualize her, but you wouldn’t sexualize the topless tribal women on the National Geographic Channel, and you most probably wouldn’t sexualize a topless obese/ugly woman. Why? Because the role of a “sex object” has been projected onto her by the observer, and is not an inherent property of a woman’s attire.

iii) Believe it or not, most women do not make their clothing choices based on whether they will be able to tempt men. Looking nice makes us feel good about ourselves, and most of us enjoy it when others – both male and female – recognize that we look nice. The world doesn’t revolve around men and sex; it is not our intention to tempt you or invite you, and even if you make the mistake of interpreting it as such, please be a man and respect it when we say no. (And yes, I acknowledge that some women dress in certain ways solely to get male attention. But it’s just that – attention. Attention is not consent to groping or sex.)

iv) Rape has more to do with how the perpetrator views women than about sex. If it were simply an issue of sexual attraction, a man would take “no” for an answer. But to ignore a victim’s sovereignty over her own body suggests that the perpetrator has issues of power and control and is probably unable to respect women as equal human beings with a right to choose their attire and a right to not be touched without consent. What a woman wears is merely a convenient excuse to disguise the desire to dehumanize and possess a victim and to violate her bodily integrity against her will.

Back to the topic at hand: should we reclaim the word “slut”? It depends on how you define the word. If “slut” simply means a woman who dresses scantily, then I say by all means reclaim it. We all should have the right to dress however we want without having to be a victim of assault or harassment. But sometimes the word is more loaded than that – it has been used to justify rape, harassment and general assholery against women by making assumptions about their worth as human beings. We may hate it or embrace it, as long as we never let it be used as an excuse for the dehumanization and violation of women.

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