Insult to Injury: The Slut Stigma, Victim-Blaming, and The Fight to End It

Whether or not you think I’m a slut, I still don’t deserve to be raped.

And when you think about it…that’s all that those who participate in SlutWalks are trying to say: that no matter who you are, no matter how you dress, no matter what you do, you still don’t deserve to be raped.  

Okay, so that’s not ALL they are trying to say.  Actually, there are two messages that SlutWalks try to convey.  The first is that victim-blaming in rape cases is unacceptable, a concept which I discussed originally in my post “The R Word” several weeks ago.  This was the original intent behind SlutWalks, which began in response to a police officer’s remark that “If women don’ t want to be raped, they should avoid dressing like sluts”.

Image from SlutWalk Event

But then women started to see that maybe there was more to the story.  Because really, why is it that when a woman dresses suggestively, she’s a “slut”?  Why is there this stigma against women who dress a certain way, or who are more sexually active, more promiscuous, if you will?  In the movie Definitely, Maybe, Abigail Breslin’s character asks her father what the male word for “slut” is, and he says that he does not think they’ve come up with one yet.  The best we seem to be able to do is “man-whore”…but the thing is, no one seems to care about that.  The same stigma does not exist for the guy that sleeps around as the girl that sleeps around.

And my guess is that as this sank in, the SlutWalk movement embraced the idea that women should be allowed to choose their own patterns of sexual behavior, free from the purity myth that society still seems to cling to, the idea that women ought not engage as freely in something as “dirty” as sex.

People tend to misunderstand (and perhaps do so deliberately) this aspect of SlutWalks.  It is not so much that women are protesting for the right to call themselves “sluts” or to be called “sluts”.  It isn’t even so much an attempt at linguistic reappropriation (although that is part of it, as women fight against the stigma that comes with the “slut” label).  It is about the right of women to engage in sexual activity without the social backlash of a negative “slut” label slapped on them, especially when men are not subject to the same kind of sexual stigma.

These are both important messages, key ideas, which feminism in general does not necessarily eschew.  In particular, victim-blaming, the original problem that SlutWalks were designed to protest, has gained a lot more attention and has caused a lot of outrage, as various rape victims are blamed for the crimes committed against them, based on their clothing.

For those not familiar with SlutWalks, they are marches that are organized on a grassroots level, where women protest victim-blaming and skewed sexual stigma.  Some marchers wear normal street clothes, like jeans and t-shirts, while others dress suggestively, even wearing things like lingerie to prove their point.  The majority of participants are young women, college-age or recent graduates…and they are the most likely demographic to suffer from the stigma that they are fighting against.

There have been some thumbs up for SlutWalks, particularly in the United States.  The protests have spread like crazy, starting in Toronto, Canada, there have been SlutWalks in San Francisco, Washington DC, Chicago, and this past weekend in New York City, amongst other locations.  There have also been SlutWalks in London and even Delhi as the movement has caught on.  Back in June, an Opinion piece published in the Washington Post explained how SlutWalks are effective because of their controversial name, in-your-face tactics, and subsequent ability to get attention (which is essential if one is protesting something).  And SlutWalks DO target issues like a youth culture that accepts sexual experimentation within a larger social framework that rejects promiscuity, especially for young women, issues that might otherwise be easier to continue sweeping under the rug.  Prominent feminist Germaine Greer has also endorsed SlutWalks, pointing out that the idea that women should be purer than myth deserves to be challenged, and that victim-blaming needs to end.

SlutWalk London

Not everyone is stoked about SlutWalks, though.  Critics have attacked it for various reasons: they don’t deal with the added stigma that minority women face, they don’t escape the patriarchal context in which they are set, they are an exercise in “white supremacy”, that they miss the point that rape is a crime of violence instead of a crime of sexual frustration, etc.  Some feminists have said that this trivializes the feminist movement*, or that this is a sign that feminism is not really a part of women’s lives anymore*.  They point to the outfits that SlutWalkers wear and especially to the name, which has been the source of some controversy.

A lot of these criticisms can probably be answered, though some are legitimate.  The only one I’ll pause to address is the racial one, because we can’t just say that white women’s problems are irrelevant just because they are white.  That’s racism too, people.  But I’ll leave the accusations of hypersexualization and concerns about how SlutWalks relate to feminism in general alone and let you all make up your own minds.

In fact, I’m not even going to give my opinion on SlutWalks here, because the truth of the matter is, regardless of how I feel about the actual events, I agree with the message behind them: women should not have to define their sexuality by the standards of a patriarchal society with skewed expectations, and NO woman should be blamed for the violence enacted against her.  Nicole Sullivan, the organizer of SlutWalk Boston, was told that if she hadn’t owned a vibrator, she would not have been raped.  This is blatantly untrue, of course, but it is just one example of how far people are willing to go to blame women for what happens to them, regardless of actual culpability.

Remember what I told you in “The R Word”: victims of sexual assault are NOT at fault for what has happened.  Rapists and rapists alone are responsible for rape…and if SlutWalks are the wake-up call people need, then I think you know where I stand on them.

Additional Sources:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/20/slutwalk-united-states-city_n_851725.html

http://www.feministfrequency.com/2011/05/link-round-up-feminist-critiques-of-slutwalk/

*Sources could not be located at this time, but will be posted shortly

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~ by Randi Saunders on August 25, 2011.

5 Responses to “Insult to Injury: The Slut Stigma, Victim-Blaming, and The Fight to End It”

  1. This was an absolutely incredible post – I LOVED it.

    I heard about SlutWalk a couple months back, and was stoked to hear that they’d be having one in San Francisco (I live about 30-45min away). Unfortunately, somehow I missed their mailings and didn’t even hear about the event in time to attend! 😦

    “It is about the right of women to engage in sexual activity without the social backlash of a negative “slut” label slapped on them, especially when men are not subject to the same kind of sexual stigma.”

    Totally agree with this statement!

    It’s unfortunate that women are supposed to suppress their sexuality. I find the sexiest, most confident, and most comfortable women tend to be the ones that are the most open about their sex life.

    Sex is healthy and a necessary part of any good relationship. Unfortunately, we (females) are raised (at least in America) in a way that makes us feel like we are dirty for having it. We are often scared to express our sexuality because of what other people might say or think about us.It is my opinion that there needs to be more conversations, programs, and workshops that show woman how to embrace, enjoy, and understand their own sexuality. Being scared of intimacy creates a new set of problems, which is unfair both to ourselves and to our current and future partners. I commend SlutWalk for standing up and saying that females are allowed to be sexual beings that deserve protected from individuals who threaten their expression.

    “These are both important messages, key ideas, which feminism in general does not necessarily eschew…Some feminists have said that this trivializes the feminist movement*, or that this is a sign that feminism is not really a part of women’s lives anymore* ”

    Again, very interesting statement – what I have always found most frustrating about the feminist movement is that sometimes I feel like they want woman to be men. I agree that we deserve the same rights and equal treatment but the reality is that men and woman are fundamentally different (brains/bodies/hormones/etc. not in terms of values/personalities/interests/hobbies per say). The Feminist movement (to me… and I could be COMPLETELY WRONG, so please feel free to comment back) sometimes seems to deny the fact that we are sexual beings as well as child-bearing beings. I WANT to be a stay at home mom one day. I enjoy cooking, baking, organizing/cleaning, making a ‘home’ out of a house. It honestly makes me happy – but does this make me a horrible woman? I’m all for female empowerment, and I’m all for woman demanding the respect from males – I just feel that events like this are EXACTLY what feminists need to be standing up for. We deserve pleasure just as much as males, and to all those dumb males – we wear those outfits to gain confidence so we can do you better and for you to enjoy what your looking at! SO STOP TALKING SHIT! =P =)

    Alright, I rambled for much too long, but truly enjoyed your post. I thought it was very thought provoking and look forward to reading more from you.

    🙂

    • Thank you so much for all your commentary, I absolutely LOVE hearing what readers are thinking and I’m glad you enjoyed this post 🙂

      I don’t think that feminism somehow does not embrace the idea of a woman as a sexual being. On the contrary, I think that sexual rights are a major part of feminism. The thing about SlutWalks is that the real message gets lost in all of the shouting, and more established organizations like the Feminist Majority don’t want to be associated with this kind of flashy, sometimes angry feminism, and therefore in taking a step back seem to be disapproving of these tactics. But at the end of the day, SlutWalks are starting a conversation that NEEDS to be had, and underneath the necessity to appear legitimate and more moderate, these institutions ought recognize that the problems SlutWalks address are problems that the movement as a whole needs to be working on.

      There is a quote (and I forget who said it but I’ll look it up for you) that says “women don’t dress up for me, they dress up for other women. if women dressed for men, they would go out wearing little more than underwear”. Truth is, clothes are social constructs that send messages to EVERYONE, not just men, and you’re right, they are a way in which we mentally prepare ourselves and give ourselves confidence.

      Oh, and of course wanting to be a stay at home mom doesn’t make you a “bad woman” =) The difference is, you CHOSE that. YOU want it. It wasn’t forced upon you. There is nothing wrong with going after what you want, as long as it is in fact a choice, and that I think is at the heart of what feminism is.

  2. Alright, I admit – you definitely got me! But I’m glad. Honestly, I’m not extremely familiar with the feminist movements (unfortunately) but wish I was. I think part of the reason why I haven’t gotten involved is because growing up I never had many good relationships with females – it seems all too often we want to tear each other apart instead of work together and build each other up. However, I’m just beginning to realize that as we get older (I’m a junior in college) women tend to relax a little and not see everyone around them as competition. So thank you for showing me what the cause is really about.

    Also, you are absolutely right AGAIN 🙂 about the CHOICE part. and i’m glad that wanting to be a stay at home mom one day does not make me a bad woman (plus, it’s not completely what I want anyways…. I’m hoping to be a free lance journalist on the side)

    Anyways, thanks again for your wonderful post and having this valuable conversation with me. I look forward to reading future posts.

    🙂

    Ash

  3. […] Insult to Injury: Victim-Blaming, the Slut Stigma, and the Fight to End It (tied for 10th) […]

  4. […] guys saw this one coming.  You HAD to see this one coming.  The slut stigma helps perpetuate harmful practices like victim-blaming that shift the focus from the behavior of […]

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