‘Cos you know how, like, nerds reclaimed the word nerd and Greeks reclaimed the word Greek? Like, anyone who’s been bullied, it’s become, like, a trend to reclaim the word’ (comment overheard at SlutWalk).
Has feminism become such a dirty word that it’s cool? I haven’t seen so many coolsies at a protest since the live music rally. SlutWalk was dominated by females in their 20s and 30s. Despite a few ripped stockings and short skirts, nobody really managed to look ‘slutty’, except in a contrived, costumed kind of way. I’d describe the predominant fashion as Fitzroy cool – you know, understated T-shirts and vintage dresses and colourful woollen scarfs?
In a way, it doesn’t really matter whether people get involved in feminism out of passion for the cause or as a fashion statement. Motivations for these sorts of things are usually mixed, and they change over time. It’s common for people to get involved in social justice issues because they think it’s cool or they want to make themselves feel shiny, but that’s not to say they don’t care about the issue too, and often as they get more involved, this passion solidifies. Why second-guess someone’s motivations when they’re trying to do good things?
Getting Gen Yers to attend the protest at all was a massive achievement. As my one of my fave feminists Monica Dux, who spoke at the rally, explains in her book The Great Feminist Denial, while many Gen Y women subscribe to feminist views, they’re reluctant to identify as feminists. They have capitulated to the propaganda perpetuated by the haters, namely, that feminists are hairy-arm-pitted, man-hating bra-burners.
While SlutWalk wasn’t marketed as a feminist event, I’d like to think that it was a first step towards roping in the youngsters. A big cheer went up when Ursula Benstead, counsellor from the Western Region Centre Against Sexual Assault, identified herself a feminist, and clarified that feminism wasn’t all about hairy armpits: ‘The principle is that women are entitled to all the same rights and privileges, including the right not to be sexually assaulted and not be blamed for being sexually assaulted.’
SlutWalk made feminism feel fun. In her speech, Monica Dux admitted that she wasn’t wearing any undies, but not because of the walk – because she hadn’t done the washing. She pointed out the double standards when it comes to what men and women are wearing: ‘Nobody says to a man, oh look, your jocks are a bit tight, better be careful.’ Someone in the crowd yelled ‘Tony Abbott!’
The vibe was fantastic, and if you got as far as showing up, the message – that it’s men who have to stop raping women, rather than women having to avoid being raped – was clear. Benstead talked about having to turn tell girls who’d been sexually assaulted that they had to wait for six months before seeing a counsellor, because the centre was so swamped with clients.
Clearly, sexual assault is still a huge problem, and so is victim-blaming, including self-blaming. I know several people who’ve been sexually assaulted, and in each case, they blamed themselves – for inviting the situation by being too flirtatious, or not fighting hard enough.
It was encouraging to see quite a few men there too. One of the key messages was that men need to take responsibility for tacking sexual assault. One of the speakers, Cody Smith, a trans man and victim of sexual assault, choked back tears as he called on men to take responsibility for changing the behaviour of their friends. He’s spot on – the most effective way to change the mind of men who think that, for whatever reason, they can take what’s not rightfully theirs, is for their mates to speak up against it. This is why behavioural change programs often use male role models to teach their mates about respecting women – for example, check out the Be the Hero project, which tried to get school boys to teach each other to be respectful.
As I discussed in my previous post, the protest was probably less appealing to older feminists. It seeemed that for some ‘old guard’ feminists, the flippant reclaiming of the tainted word ‘slut,’ and the protest’s ironic, faux marketing, would have been pretty hard to swallow. Nonetheless, it was disappointing to see Leslie Cannold criticise older women for failing to take the ‘activist baton’ that young women had commendably seized. Firstly, there were older women there, and secondly, reinforcing divisions between older and younger feminists doesn’t seem particularly helpful.
As I mentioned earlier, some of my friends, both young and old, refused to go because they felt that the term SlutWalk implicitly sexualised rape and put the focus on women rather than men. They were also confused about the protest’s intent – was it condoning porn? Prostitution? They didn’t want to attend something that might be supporting these things. It’s a pity that SlutWalk turned off potential supporters with its marketing, and in the future I hope they can come up with something equally sexy and media-friendly.
At the same time, good on the organisers for drumming up that kind of buzz for an issue which struggles to get the attention it deserves. And for those who actually showed up, the overriding message was pretty clear – that we need to teach men not to rape, rather than women how not to get raped. If you accept this basic premise, disagreement around the details isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Providing nobody gets hurt and people respect differing views, people learn through conflict. Debate and talking over the issues can help you develop a position, and sometimes, change your mind. As Benstead said, if SlutWalk creates a dialogue about sexual assault, misogyny, and social justice, that’s a good thing. And if equally, if we can use irony, controversy, or fashion to attract people who’ve never been involved in feminism before, that’s a good thing too.