Tuesday, 7 June 2011

SlutWalking and Institutionalised Sexism

I had thought the SlutWalk phenomenon to be a fairly uncontroversial protest, however it seems I was being hopelessly naive. An acquaintance recently posted this article on the Slutwalk‘phenomenon’ on Facebook. It reads like a rant, and, let’s face it, it’s in the Telegraph which is rarely a source of enlightened debate in my experience, but having been challenged on why exactly I dislike the piece, I thought I’d attempt to deconstruct it in rather more depth than Facebook allows.  

My challenger has already pointed out what he thinks the key argument of the piece is, that “how you appear socially affects how people react to you in a social context”. This certainly seems to be the argument used in the article, with the extension being that the Slutwalk campaigners can thus be criticised for not realising the realities of social interaction, and of equating rape with unwanted sexual advances, which, it is implied, are a natural consequence of the way in which you choose to dress. It’s difficult to argue with this - unfortunately that is indeed the way our society works, and there’s an unfortunate correlation between inches of cleavage and amounts of bum fondles a girl gets. The problem I have with the article is the implicit assumption that this reality is in any way acceptable or not worthy of condemnation.

To take the original point then, “that how you appear socially affects how people react to you in a social context”. The statement is noticeable for not mentioning gender, an unusual fact given that this argument is engaging in an openly gendered debate. Because already, here is the flaw, the blinkered denial of sexism. The statement ignores that the way people react to you in a social context is shaped not simply by how you appear, but by your gender, and perceptions of gender. Judgments on how sexually available one is by what you are wearing, are also, essentially, gendered assumptions. A topless man in a club is not immediately judged as being sexually available, nor is one who is swinging his penis around. Why should it mean a woman is sexually available if she engages in equivalent actions?

Just because women know the norms of society, and know that dressing ‘sluttily’ is going to attract attention does not imply that these norms do not deserve to challenged. Who decided what ‘sluttily’ meant? Who decided the definition of attractive, or available women? Such social norms are a product of essentially sexist society (and I say that as a straight male). Those who would rather claim biology should examine topless tribal women in Africa or South America and study the social norms of propriety in those cultures to note that such definitions are not biologically determined.

Another commenter (male) on the same Facebook thread went so far as to suggest that these protesters are anti-feminist, in that they deny women the right to have casual sex. Excuse me while I scream slightly into my pillow. NO! Jesus mother fucking Christ. So, the protesters, by asserting the right to wear what they like without being subject to socialised sexism, are denying themselves access to casual sex? Because casual sex is impossible outside of women dressing attractively? These protests are not anti-feminist, they are extremely pro-feminist, in that they are a challenge to deeply embedded sexist assumptions within society. The anti-feminist attitude is to pretend such assumptions do not exist, or that they are biologically determined.

In response then, to the argument over social appearance dictating social reaction, does the author, and those who agree with him, really imagine that those social reactions are fair, non-discriminatory or non-sexist? That they do not deserve to be challenged? Note, this is not about finding women attractive when they dress attractively; it is about perceiving that in the context of sexual availability, of denying women the ability to dress how they please, feel how they please, without social judgements. This may be unrealistic, but that is no reason to condemn an essentially admirable aim.

If I am required to address the article itself, one can take this statement as a typical misunderstanding of the point: “Yet that is what some SlutWalkers seem to be demanding: effectively the right to dress provocatively without ever being looked at, commented on, whistled at or spoken to by a member of the opposite sex.”

No, SlutWalkers are demanding the right to dress the way they feel like, without it being perceived as provocative. They are debating the very definition of ‘provocative’. There is no objection to interaction with men; there is simply an objection to being defined by appearance. If male interaction is simply limited to flirtatious comments to a ‘provocatively’ dressed woman then us males are a rather sad and unsophisticated lot.

Again, to address the article more precisely, Mr O’Neil actually ends reinforcing the SlutWalk argument. That argument being that the norms of society are sexist, and there is a culture which supports those norms. The SlutWalkers are making an extreme statement, to end an extreme problem. That the author refuses to see that those norms are essentially sexist (and belittles the protesters for pointing this out to him) is, sadly, making their point perfectly.

Finally, there seems to be much criticism focused on a perceived overreaction to the incident which began the 'SlutWalk'. That being that a policeman suggested that women would not be such obvious targets for rape if they dressed more appropriately. This is not an overreaction to that comment, because it isnt even a reaction, it is a reaction against institutionalised, socialised sexism, a reaction sparked off by that comment, but certainly not limited to it. I quote one of the founders of the phenomenon: "SlutWalk was a reaction to not one officer’s remark, but to a history that was doomed to keep repeating". Unfortunately, the article quoted, and many other examples, are simply continuing to repeat that history by not addressing, or even acknowledging, the inherent sexism within society.