|Posted by Guest Blogger|
May 27th, 2011
If you’ve been boycotting newspapers, magazines, TV news and the blogosphere for the past few weeks, or if terms like “rape,” “slut” or even “sex” lead you to hurriedly put down the newspaper or magazine and turn the TV channel (as they do for my media-savvy grandmother), then you may not have heard about SlutWalk, a grassroots anti-violence protest movement that has piqued the international media’s imagination. It all began when a Toronto policeman told a group of York University students in January that if they didn’t dress like sluts, they could avoid being raped. (His comment: “You know, I think we’re beating around the bush here. I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this. However, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”) Little did he know his words would become a catalyst for mass anger and action – and much journalistic attention – throughout the world.
Media coverage has ranged from simple iterations of varying press releases to reproving op-eds. The latter is multi-fold. Some, like Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, find the demonstrators to be solipsistic and out of touch with reality, while others, like blogger Aura Blogando, find the demonstrations to be systemically racist. I stand somewhere in the middle. Like it or not, both Wente and Blogando make valid points. However, the nuanced critique that SlutWalk requires is lacking, particularly regarding women of color (WOC).
To be sure, SlutWalk cannot be dismissed. Folks like Wente, Blogando and Kirsten Powers of the New York Postare too eager to invalidate the powerful movement (or near movement, depending on perspective) sweeping across the nation, and branching out beyond national borders. SlutWalkers represent a spirit of “enuf” and “No!” that I, as an African American woman, am quite familiar with. SlutWalkers from Toronto to Ottawa to Vancouver to North Carolina to Dallas to Asheville to Boston to San Francisco to Seattle to Chicago to Philadelphia to Reno to Austin to New York to Johannesburg to London to Dublin are saying “no!” to rape and “enuf” of victim blaming.
Being assaulted on any level is violent and never excusable, regardless of presentation. And, just to be clear, no one ever “asks for it” and absolutely no one deserves it. Period. To this end, I should say up front that I’m a black feminist who stands in solidarity with the overarching intentions of many of those who have organized varying SlutWalks. I believe that women should have the right to perform and display their sexual tastes in whatever way they deem fit—without being branded in the pejorative, getting accosted, or worse, being told that both of the above is in fact their fault. That being said, SlutWalk begets a raised black feminist fist from me—along with a perfectly arched, uplifted eye-brow.
Notwithstanding the media attention it has brought to “slut” shaming and victim blaming, and its potential to decrease both, SlutWalks’ cost, in some cases, outweighs its benefits. In short, although it’s great for many, SlutWalk is not for everyone. Wente, Blogando, Powers and others attempt to voice this. However, the question that is not being raised is this: How does one truly reclaim such profoundly cross-pollinated terminology already present within our individual, social, cultural, political, institutional, and even economic landscapes, especially when one is raced, classed, and/or sexualized in the pejorative? Indeed, to proudly claim oneself a “slut” (meaning, to boldly and explicitly claim one’s sexual liberty), with little to no socio-political consequence, is (sort of) a privilege.
So, disagree with me if you will, but I think Wente was on to something when she wrote, “the highly educated young women who join SlutWalks are among the safest and most secure in the world…I guess they mean well. But really, they’re so…privileged.” Unfortunately, the rest of the article goes down hill and is uneven in its critique, particularly where Wente bizarrely doles out compassion for the policeman (whose words ignited the initial demonstration in Toronto in the first place) while simultaneously chiding SlutWalkers for not having enough to do, being uninformed about anti-rape and anti-victim blaming progress, supposedly claiming sexual harassment when in her opinion they haven’t really been harassed, and parading through the streets like narcissistic, self-indulgent wannabe feminists.
All of this is obviously problematic. Not only does Wente reproduce a context for victim blaming, particularly as many of the protesters are indeed survivors of various kinds, this Globe and Mail piece injuriously distinguishes between whatever is supposed to be real and fake sexual violence and whoever is supposed to be the true or false victims. Nevertheless, I believe it important to highlight the race and class privilege within SlutWalks’ core that Wente rightly (yet, problematically) draws attention to. SlutWalk may be diverse in terms of sex, gender, class, ethnicity, etc., however, the majority of the participants seem to be as Wente suggests, “Highly educated young women” that happen to be predominantly white and thus “among the safest and most secure in the world” (not safe, but safest). This reality denotes a certain sense of privilege that WOC, regardless of education and class, simply do not share.
Dissimilar to most of the protesters, many WOC are hurled into a racialized, hypersexual body cast from birth. Thus, many of us can only imagine what life outside of its shadows must feel like. African American women and girls in particular have always been on the underside of both victim blaming and hypersexualization. In fact, each came to fruition alongside of our “American-ness.” Ever heard of Sara Baartman, the so-called “Hottentot Venus” a.k.a. the master narrative for what black female sexuality is supposed to be (i.e. primitive, boundless, and different)?
Of course, no two experiences are the same, especially if colorism and socio-economic class are taken seriously. Nevertheless, all of us are interpreted at some point in our lives through pornotropia, a deeply embedded pornographic way of “seeing” black women and girls with both the eyes and the psyche, which layers us with the lies of historical stereotypes—to the point where the stereotype, not reality, is taken for granted. Anyone recall John Mayer’s 2010 Playboy interview? What about the Don Imus v. Rutgers’ girl’s basketball team fiasco?
Underneath Mayer and Imus’ ignorance are mythical ideas of African American female sex as being so innately impassioned and unrestricted that it entails and thus permits anything and everything. This way of “seeing” relegates black female presence to absurdity and sexuality to the unusual. Examples of this are countless and can be evidenced in the cultural and media narratives surrounding Baartman, Harriet Jacobs, Josephine Baker, Caster Semenya, Anita Hill, Malia and Michelle Obama, and myriad others. A quick look at slave sources covering the daily lives of African American female slaves, and a critical gaze toward contemporary American news and entertainment media, reveals an unbroken pattern of this way of “seeing” black women and girls as both absurd and unusual.
This reality, which significantly impacts African American women and girls’ day-to-day experiences, makes it difficult to fight for “slut-hood,” particularly when one is still demanding to be seen as a full-fledged person with innate dignity and worth. When African American women and girls are raped or violated they are often not even seen as “true” victims. Of course, SlutWalk exists because ALL women have the potential to experience this reality. Any given cop or journalist can decide that a woman dressed inappropriately, drank too much, walked down the wrong street, stayed out too late, hung out with the wrong crew, etc., and thus placed herself in a questionable position. An example of this kind of reporting is evidenced in New York Times reporter James C. McKinley’s article, “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town,” about the brutal gang rape of an 11-year-old girl.
When WOC are concerned, victim-blaming is even more prevalent, with violence against us typically ignored, sensationalized, and considered our fault. I’ve followed several legal cases over the years that unfortunately affirm this. Seventeen year-old high school student Cheri Washington was brutally beaten to death with a baseball bat by the father of her baby, Carlos Williams, and his cousin Steven Covington, in order to kill her and terminate her four month old fetus in Dale City, VA in January 2005. Sara Kruzan was a 16-year-old black teen when she was convicted of first-degree murder for killing GiGi, a 30-year-old pimp, father figure and rapist who forced Kruzan into prostitution at 13. Police detective Dennis Mangan suggested that Washington provoked the attack against her, while Judge J. Thompson Hanks rebuked 16 year-old Kruzan for “lacking moral scruples,” just before sentencing her to life without the possibility of parole plus four years. Neither of these women was seen as a victim. Both were somehow blamed for what they got. And worse, there was little to no media coverage and zero public outrage—both of which appear to be special rights and rites that African American women and girls too often don’t get to experience.
Of course there is the occasional headline here and there. However, the story has to be sensational, such as that of Sakia Gunn, a 15 year-old black lesbian murdered in a hate crime by Richard McCullough in Newark, NJ in 2003, or the assault of her friends by Dwayne Buckle (who threatened the women with “fucking them straight,” a remark which quickly escalated to violence—him choking one woman, and the others fighting back) three years later in Greenwich Village. Ironically, the women, not Buckle, got the negative press and jail time. In fact, Fox’s The O’Reily Factor ran a segment called “Violent Lesbian Gangs a Growing Problem” that not only pathologized lesbianism, but black lesbianism. Worse, Fox as well as numerous tabloid newspapers sympathized with Buckle.
With this in mind, the fight for sexual liberty for African American women and girls must also entwine with the fight to be seen as human—and thus worthy of dignity, respect and [proper] reporting. For WOC, this entanglement means keeping our historical narratives at the forefront and sometimes even concealing our sexual desires and identities—for the sake of survival (much like our enslaved ancestors, or foremothers in 1960s social movements). If that is done, then at least when violence comes knocking — and it will — the assaulter, witnesses, cops, legal team, jury, judge, reporters, columnists, pundits, etc., might actually see the individual as a possible victim. Maybe. If not, then hopefully some aspect of African American communities will.
SlutWalks’ aims are admirable. And, their increasing media coverage challenging sexual violence and victim blaming cannot be ignored. Examples can be found in U.S. TV news, such as MSNBC and CNN, domestic and international newspapers such as USA Today, The Guardian and the Daily Mail, and online sources such as AlterNet and The Huffington Post. This, I believe, will prove beneficial to everyone, in one way or the other, in the long run and it should not be overlooked. Nevertheless, not everyone wants or can afford to reclaim the demonstrations’ moniker. Perhaps this is what Aura Blogando was suggesting in her essay, “SlutWalk: A Stroll Through White Supremacy.”
Blogando’s critique of SlutWalks’ racial dynamics can be interpreted in several ways. I personally found it both useful and disturbingly overly deterministic, particularly in terms of SlutWalks’ perceived systematic racism and entitlement. Nevertheless, Blogando’s concerns about the “silencing” of WOC and the problems with reclaiming a word “that was never ours to begin with,” raises important questions about the operation of race within the emerging movement. Not only has the historical and day-to-day sexual violence and victim blaming of WOC (including transgendered women) been de-centered within this movement, the work that POC have done “to make sense out of the disproportionate accumulation of violence that we face” is absent thus far. Further, the historical, socio-political structures, which often reduce both African American women’s sex and sex work to criminality, have not been taken up as integral parts of the overall cause.
If SlutWalkers want to reclaim “slut” for women in general, to include WOC their efforts should take these concerns seriously—even if WOC choose against the moniker, which many likely will. Blogando is right when she asserts, “the connection between speech and thought is a strong one, and cannot be marched away to automatically give words new meaning,” especially when the particular needs of WOC have not been met. The African American “slut” equivalent term is actually “ho,” and I’m willing to bet that very few women or girls, if any at all, wish to reclaim “ho” in any real sense, although almost all would likely embrace the need and desire to express their sexual selves in as libratory a way as possible without the threat of harm or judgment.
I have problems with how Blogando reduces SlutWalk to white supremacy while overlooking the positives benefits of a heightened national conversation about rape and victim blaming. Yet I’m with her when she says that the reclamation of slut-hood “is not what we need.” Not because “slut” is foreign, hegemonic, or imperialist, or even because “feminists are out of touch” as Kirsten Powers of the New York Post wrongly suggests in a piece about “feminist folly” subheaded “This is idiocy, not liberation“), but because the supposed rewards for doing so are too shallow and the wages too steep. That is, the reclamation of slut-hood as a form of sexual freedom and expression offers African American and other WOC only a fraction of power [to self define] at best and an illusion at worst.
Powers is wrong when she suggests that the re-appropriation of meanings changes the accent yet leaves the sting intact. Truth is, the sting is felt (or not), depending on both the history of the term and context. SlutWalkers are attempting to lessen the sting by disorienting meaning and providing new contexts. In this way, SlutWalk should be seen as a particular form of resistance that is likely most helpful for certain demographics. Whether or not its efforts will alter the treatment of rape (and other) survivors across various social constructs remains to be seen.
Unfortunately, sexual assault continues to be significantly under-reported in general. Hopefully, the privileged, bodacious audacity of SlutWalkers to imagine something different will change this reality, and hopefully they will attend to what happens when “slut” gets blackened (meaning, when the “slut” is a WOC) as they rework its meaning. I expect that as the movement grows, SlutWalkers will historicize it to include the narratives of assault and victim blaming of WOC as they raise awareness about the high rates of violence against women and girls and the omnipresence of rape culture.
Presumably, they will begin to include fresh insight and alternate voices from WOC who can offer more layered analyses on how gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, race, etc., operate (and have operated) in rape culture, and who may aid in the leadership, visioning and messaging of this emerging movement, particularly as they are coming together, as the Toronto organizers have said, “Not only as women, but as people from all gender expressions and orientations, all walks of life, levels of employment and education, all races, ages, abilities, and backgrounds.” And, hopefully, they will not only clarify their vision and aims as a movement, but most importantly do their best to avoid reproducing what, depending on the angle, sometimes looks like aspects of Naomi Wolf’s troubling “power feminism.”
Sexual freedom cannot be seen in terms of liberty alone for African American women and girls. No. It must be interpreted in terms of both liberation and the historical sexual violence and overarching threat of violence that every black woman walking knows to exist. And African Americans, women and men, have to decide for themselves, if the price for this kind of sexual freedom, the kind that SlutWalk proposes, is worth the cost.
African American women in particular have a lot to think about here—not because of some blanket sense of sexual politics, which are significantly informed by sexual histories and differ from subject to subject, but because there is a high price to pay for those still interpreted as objects of illiberalism as opposed to subjects of liberty—from every direction. This price includes but is not limited to political and social policing. While the former happens at the hands of the state (an external force), the latter often develops on a communal level (an internal force). Claiming slut-hood for ourselves—when we are already thrust into a Jezebelian context—will likely only make the sexual terror that too often goes hand and hand with such a reality, worse.
To be sure, anti-rape and anti-victim blaming resistance is needed. This is why organizations like Take Back the Night and Stop Street Harassment, the latter largely organized by WOC, were formed. However, until SlutWalkers take seriously the histories and voices that are central to yet missing from some of these demonstrations, they will reap the rewards of large turnouts and media frenzy while simultaneously reproducing the exclusionary practices, whether intentional or not, of many of their white foremothers in the 1960s Women’s Movement.
Guest Blogger Tamura A. Lomax holds a Ph.D. in History and Critical Theories of Religion from Vanderbilt University. Her scholarship explores the many ways that gender, race, sex, and sexuality get re-presented in religious and pop cultural media. She is a co-founder of The Feminist Wire.