SlutWalking entered the UK on Saturday with marches in Cardiff, Newcastle and Edinburgh and Glasgow. I stood under Grey’s Monument in Newcastle, watching the protesters gather. As I write about SlutWalking, I first wonder if I can call the SlutWalkers “sluts,” without the ironic speech marks. I think I should. Isn’t this the point? To decontaminate the term through overuse? If I am repelled by repeatedly writing it — and you by reading it — perhaps we will learn whether the “reclaiming” of abusive terms is helpful, as the fight for equality stalls and porn culture swallows everything.
Grey’s Monument is a phallic column, commemorating the white male Charles Grey’s role in passing the Reform Act of 1832. So, as a symbol for female emancipation, it doesn’t work. A first generation feminist might say we were standing under a patriarch’s penis that is covered in pigeons. Some sluts, like me, are dressed in jeans or long skirts and jumpers, like Tories seeking labradors. Some wear spidery black underwear and bovver boots, like pole dancers in fear of broken glass. Others wear pink dresses and wigs and carry teddy bears. There are also some normal-looking men and a delegation from the Socialist Workers party, who for some reason don’t want to give their names. They carry signs, made from cardboard or sheets. “Feminism: Back by Popular Demand.” “Stop Telling Me — Don’t Get Raped. Tell Men — Don’t Rape.” “My Clothes Aren’t My Consent.”
The SlutWalk is the latest chapter in the story of modern feminism, perched between the Rise of the Fragrant Good Wife — Samantha Cameron, Catherine Wales [the former Kate Middleton] — and the Return of the Bunnies and Their Big Ears to the new Playboy club in London. The SlutWalk is not poised and it is not reticent. It is a scream of dirty, unfeminine rage ripping through conventional gender stereotypes, which seem more solid and irritating than ever.
It began on Jan. 24 this year, when policeman Michael Sanguinetti walked into the Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, to tell women how to avoid sexual violence. “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this,” Sanguinetti said. “However, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”
Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis decided to publicize this random example of women being damned for sexual violence by a law-enforcement officer. So on April 3, they organized the first SlutWalk. Thousands of women walked through Toronto, some with the word “slut” painted on their almost nude bodies. Their manifesto said: “We are tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result. Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless if we participate in sex for pleasure or work. No one should equate enjoying sex with attracting sexual assault.”
Sanguinetti duly apologized. But, eased by Facebook and Twitter and the overuse of the term “slut,” which the media adores for obvious reasons, the movement has spawned satellite SlutWalks. There were SlutWalks in Boston and Los Angeles. There will be SlutWalks in Buenos Aires and Delhi. A Facebook page says one is planned for Tehran, but I think this is a joke.
The name has caused much feminist headbanging. What is a slut? In her famous 1963 essay Sluts, Katharine Whitehorn described sluts as women who fish their clothes “back out of the dirty clothes basket because it had become, relatively, the cleaner thing,” and spend their money “at the beginning of the month like drunken sailors.” Then, sluts were merely disorganized women who failed to reach the polished ideal of 1950s housewife serfdom — gloves on fingers, husband in secretary, Valium in mouth.