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Saturday, July 9, 2011

SlutWalk, Women, Talk! Taking Back Public Spaces

From a Ms. magazine blog on a planned slutwalk in Delhi, India:

Delhi women aren’t marching for the right to walk down the street dressed in barely-there clothes, as critics suggest. They’re fighting for the right to walk down the street. Period…“Women can wear whatever they want [when marching]. … The point we’re trying to make is that it is not the clothes you wear that cause harassment,” said SlutWalk Delhi organizer Umang Sabarwal to The New York Times.

Many of you are familiar with the slutwalk concept. Slutwalk was triggered by the comments of a Toronto police officer. According to the Toronto Star, the officer commented at a public safety meeting at Osgoode Hall (one of my alma maters!) in early 2011 that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” The officer later apologized, but his comments were something of a watershed event.Women in cities the world over have gathered and walked (sometimes dressed in provocative clothing) to protest against the notion that sexual assault is caused by the victims’ clothing or appearance. In part, protesters want to reclaim the word slut, in much the same way that other groups have attempted to reclaim slurs that have been wielded against them (see e.g. the n-word, which is not entirely rehabilitated, or queer).

Slut, however, has perhaps a different discursive imprint than other slurs. One of the concerns about slutwalk is how it translates across cultures, customs or national borders. This is the point made in the Ms. blog article about the planned walk in Delhi. Many women in the West have long taken for granted the right to go out into public unaccompanied. This is emphatically not the case for women in some other parts of the world, or even for all women in Western countries. As one women notes in the Ms. blog in discussing the situation in Delhi, “On the street … you’re never called ‘slut’”. Indeed, it’s not necessarily what they call you. It’s how they treat you.

Even women in Western countries who go out alone or travel alone are often subject to certain forms of treatment that imply that they are not quite proper. I’m thinking of some of my recent travels wherein I stayed in hotels alone and managed to be harassed by a hotel guest, hotel workmen, and a hotel security guard. The guest looked like a perfect model of an American businessman and father. We chatted briefly and innocuously in the lobby while standing and waiting for an elevator. He chuckled amiably as we stepped into the elevator together. He then took out a large billfold of money and started counting it slowly and talking pointedly about how “lonely” it is when traveling for business. I looked down, tightened my grip on my briefcase (the better to whack him with) and went silent; much to his credit he reddened and put his money away. In another hotel the security guard who responded to my room when I called to complain about jeering workmen in the hallway suggested that I looked as if I was ready to go “on a date” and asked if I wanted him to give me a tour of the hotel. I am sure I looked quite ready for a day in the office in a boxy business pants suit and glasses perched on my head. No matter. It’s clearly not what you wear. The whole discussion of women in hotels raises the specter of DSK—but I won’t go there now. I will remark that the idea that women traveling alone are “suspicious” in more ways than one is a pretty old one and still holds sway. I was watching So Long at the Fair some weeks ago (it was Jean Simmons night!) and in the film, set at the 1889 Paris Expedition and said to based on a partly true story, a woman’s brother and traveling companion goes missing at their hotel. Part of the undercurrent in the film is that she was somehow tainted by the mere fact of being alone.

Some people are prone to draw a sharp line between sexually-tinged remarks and actual sexual assault. And yes, there is a huge difference. But such remarks are along the spectrum of harmful behaviors, and because they are too often deemed “minor” or even “charming” and "flirtatious", they go undiscussed and unaddressed. I am encouraged by events such as slutwalk even despite the difficulties of translating it across cultures. Slutwalk helps to air a problem that has proven intractable despite years of take back the night marches—women’s ability to be free from sexual assault or harassment in public spaces. The only way we will make any headway is for women to talk openly and honestly about the problem.