Are SlutWalks Good For Women?

Do they challenge dangerous stereotypes, perpetuate them, or maybe a little of both?

In this week's New York Times Magazine, Rebecca Traister discusses the SlutWalk. For the uninitiated: SlutWalks were a series of protests, spurred by a Toronto cop telling college girls that they shouldn't dress like sluts if they don't want to get raped, in which young women reclaimed the word slut by marching and wearing not a lot of clothing.

I'm a young woman. I'm a feminist. I sometimes wear not a lot of clothing (have you been to New York in July?). I for sure don't buy that cop's logic -- rape victims never "ask for it," no matter what they're wearing. And I'm all for reclaiming hurtful words and turning them into something celebratory.

But until now -- despite eloquent defenses by Jessica Valenti and Amanda Marcotte -- the SlutWalk movement has left me cold. And until I read Traister's piece, I wasn't sure why. She writes: "To object to these ugly characterizations is right and righteous. But to do so while dressed in what look like sexy stewardess Halloween costumes seems less like victory than capitulation (linguistic and sartorial) to what society already expects of its young women. Scantily clad marching seems [...] inhospitable to scads of women who, for various reasons, might not feel it logical or comfortable to express their revulsion at victim-blaming by donning bustiers. So while the mission of SlutWalks is crucial, the package is confusing and leaves young feminists open to the very kinds of attacks they are battling."

Yes. SlutWalks demand a degree of in-your-face body confidence that just don't work for every woman. Though it should be noted that many pictures of SlutWalks, like those here, show women in jeans and sweatshirts -- the naughty nurse costumes are optional. But guess which outfits make the most headlines?

And any time we push a line of body rhetoric too emphatically, we run the risk of making the same mistakes all over again. "You should dress slutty!" can become just as restrictive as "nice girls don't show cleavage!" when it's the result of aggressive group-think. Women need more freedom to decide for themselves how they want their bodies to look -- not more rules about how sexual they can or can't dress, and what it means if they do.

It turns out SlutWalks pose the same risk as body positive photo blogs: Women's bodies may end up objectified despite all good intentions to the contrary. That's the ingrained cultural response -- what happens right now, in 2011, when you post images of women's bodies in public forums. That's how the "she asked for it" defense developed any legs in the first place.

Of course, our culture will never stop objectifying women's bodies like this until we become more comfortable with women's bodies in all shapes and sizes and in all states of dress. And to get there, we have to see a lot more of women's bodies in contexts where they are celebrated and accepted, not mocked, labeled, airbrushed, or judged. 

Which is why SlutWalks and body positive blogs and any other forum that accepts women's bodies are all good things. But they are also messy and prone to rubbing people the wrong way and leaving women open to "the very kinds of attacks they are battling," as Traister explains. That's why I've been uncomfortable with them. But it's also why I shouldn't be -- because this is how progress gets made. 

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