What’s the point of Slutwalk Chicago? Let’s ask its organizer, Jamie Lauren Keiles:
It has to do with agency for me. A half-naked lady as a form of protest feels a lot different to me than a half-naked lady as pandering to the male-gaze. I think there is something somewhat terrifying, somewhat jarring, about a person, especially a woman putting herself out there as a “fuck you” as opposed to a “fuck me.” That said, this event isn’t about getting naked. Some people might identify with that type of protest. Others might not. This isn’t about making a spectacle of your body, it is about giving people control over their own identity, whatever that entails. This is an event about ideas, not about clothes.
Using mass protest to establish personal identity? Doesn’t that seem wrong?
Let’s start again. A cop in Toronto says women shouldn’t dress like sluts if they don’t want to be raped. Toronto feminists organize a “Slutwalk” to protest rape culture – i.e. the notion that rape victims had it coming. Protesters dress up ‘like sluts’ and march with signs denouncing victim-blaming. That’s all fine – the cop was stupid. But protesters wouldn’t be protesters if they saw themselves as the conscience of society. Slutwalk can’t just be a dope slap on the cop – it has to mean more than that.
So Slutwalk becomes a vehicle for women to establish identity. Except that’s not possible because Slutwalk is a protest against victim-blaming – the only fact about yourself you can establish attending Slutwalk is your opposition to victim-blaming. Keiles says as much herself – the point of the protest is to establish that a woman can say “fuck you” as well as “fuck me,” and the point of protesting is to establish that you personally have that choice.
Take note of the elision there: The initial protest was about rape. The final protest is about control of your sexual identity. What is it Keiles is really saying? A woman who dresses as a slut to say “fuck you” is all right in her book. A woman who dresses as a slut to say “fuck me” is pandering to the male gaze. The protest argues that women can dress like sluts without wanting sex. A rapist, then, shouldn’t try anything with a woman who dresses as a slut just in case she’s one of the “fuck you” types. But does that mean that a “fuck me” woman is still asking for it? Does dressing as a slut with the intent of sex constitute general consent?
“Of course not!” cry the Slutwalkers. “The only consent to sex is verbal consent. The clothing has nothing to do with it.” Well then what does the clothing have to do with it?
A categorical colonization model seems appropriate here – in the realm of clothing, some subset of clothes impose on the wearer the category slut. It’s not an altogether invalid categorization – there is some intersection of women who wear slutwear, regularly seek sex, and use the clothes to get it. The problem occurs at the boundaries – there are women in slutwear who aren’t out for sex but are thought to be because of the category’s monopoly. The Slutwalkers’ reclamation of “slut” is in some sense a defense of this group of women. Their goal is to establish a subcategory of “feminist” over precisely the same territory as the category of slut – to establish a category of woman that wears the same clothes as a slut but does it in opposition to the culture that produced the idea of a slut.
The first thing to say in response is that this new category does not avoid the boundary problem of categorization – there is still a class of women that falls into neither category. The reclamation of slutwear has simply imposed on that group a choice of category without any sort of freedom to avoid the debate altogether.
The second thing to say is that this reclamation of slut has nothing to do with rape. One can argue that reclaiming slutwear will protect a class of women who would have been raped under the old category. But that’s not really the point – leaving aside the empirical question of rapist response to social framing, the notion that Slutwalk objects to isn’t that women are endangered by the category of slut but the notion that a woman can be known by her choice of dress. That’s why identity comes up at all. Keiles wants to establish an identity for herself without the constraint of others’ judgment.
Slutwalk aims to establish a new category of woman in slutwear because its organizers believe that their enemy is the particular social meaning inherent in clothing. But their real enemy, the reason why they aim for “control over identity,” is the very idea that objects convey social meaning. This is the fundamental contradiction underneath Slutwalk – its organizers want to deny others the power to impose meanings on the objects they carry while retaining the power to name those objects themselves.
There is no victory at the end of this fight. Writing about Slutwalk Paris, Marx sees a broader parable:
Man emancipates himself politically from religion by expelling it from the sphere of public law to that of private law. Religion is no longer the spirit of the state, in which man behaves, albeit in a specific and limited way and in a particular sphere, as a species-being, in community with other men. It has become the spirit of civil society, of the sphere of egoism and of the bellum omnium contra omnes. It is no longer the essence of the community, but the essence of differentiation. It has become what it was at the beginning, an expression of the fact that man is separated from the community, from himself and from other men.
If Slutwalk succeeds in reclaiming the notion of slut, it will not open any doors for women’s identity. It will succeed in establishing a new category of woman’s identity and it will legitimize the notion that identity can be built from objects. It will not win women freedom to craft an identity. It will impose on them a choice of cultural fiefdoms and a balkan fight that nobody needs.