Tag Archives: feminism

On SlutWalks And Sisterhood

13 May

Slutwalks, Sisterhood and Safety: Divided We Fall

I am relatively new to Twitter, and my head is SPINNING following the discussion around #slutwalks.

The Background: What is a SlutWalk?

In January 2011, a Toronto police officer addressed law students at a safety presentation saying “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.” Although he after a massive public outcry, his comments are part of a larger problem—1) That people mistakenly believe that rape has anything to do with what the victim is wearing, 2) That victims are routinely blamed for crimes committed against them while perpetrators are routinely defended and 3) That we as a society have consistently used words like ‘slut’ to shame women and attempt to control female sexuality to ever-changing standards of what is seen by whoever speaks loudest as ‘normal’ and ‘appropriate’.

In response to these issues, activists   on April 3, 2011 in the first SlutWalk, an international movement. Many activists have identified SlutWalk as an updated version of (TBTN) rallies.

TBTN marches (since the first in Philadelphia in 1975) demand an end to rape, so that the streets and the night will be safe for all. Many in the sexual assault prevention field have criticized TBTN as out of date because we now know that the VAST majority (75-85%) of sexual assault is perpetrated by someone the victim knows, often in a home and often involving alcohol use on the part of the perpetrator and/or the victim. The scenario rarely involves a strange attacker jumping out of the shadows.

SlutWalks, in contrast, aim to communicate that rape is part of a rape culture– and that culture needs to change. More specifically, a culture that says that women who dress “a certain way” are “asking for it”. A culture in which the media reports on what an 11-year-old girl was wearing at the time of her gang rape, and adds how difficult the aftermath was for the perpetrators and their families.  A culture that perpetuates the idea that men are animals with no self control who can’t and won’t hear the word no if a woman is ‘dressed like a slut’ because she is too attractive or, more accurately, because she is not worthy of respect.

Since the recent , in which Jaclyn Friedman gave a truly poetic and inspiring which is quickly becoming a part of the history of this movement, there has been a backlash against SlutWalks as a form of activism, including from some feminists.

The Controversy: Why SlutWalks make many people uncomfortable

1)      Some people think SlutWalks are meant to encourage ‘sluttiness’

First of all, that is not the point of SlutWalks. The point, as one protester’s sign put it so well, is that “Sluts don’t cause rape. Rapists do.” The point is, when women get dressed to go for a date or to go have fun with their friends, they shouldn’t have to think to themselves, “Hmm, if I wear this, will people disrespect, harass and assault me?” Rather, they should think, “What do I feel good wearing?” regardless of whether or not their particular brand of personal expression is seen as acceptable by others.

Secondly, this plays into what activists refer to as ‘slut-shaming’, which Jaclyn Friedman denounces so beautifully. “Because the secret truth nobody wants you to know is that, using nearly any definition, there’s nothing wrong with being a slut. Not a thing. It’s OK to like sex … And as long as you’re ensuring your partner’s enthusiastic consent, and acting on your own sexual desires, not just acting out what you think someone else expects of you? There’s not a damn thing wrong with it.”

2)      Some feminists take issue with the word ‘slut’

I don’t think everyone involved in SlutWalks agrees on this point, but some have stated they want to reclaim or take back the word ‘slut’. Many feminists, myself included, do not believe that it is possible to reclaim words in this way, because you can’t reclaim what was never yours to begin with. Slut is a derogatory word with no male equivalent that has been systematically used to justify violence of all kinds. On the other hand, it is a word that gets people all riled up—and hey, there’s no such thing as bad press! Many activists argue that using such an incendiary word brings energy to the movement, and on this point I believe they are correct. How else did the fire spread so quickly? There are SlutWalks being organized all over the world right now. It’s been less than 2 months since the first event was organized and young activists can’t get enough. Some people may be upset, but the point is to raise awareness of the issue and boy, has it got people talking!

3)      Some people think that women only ‘dress like sluts’ because they think that is the only way to get attention and love, because they have poor self esteem, because they have been brainwashed by the media, etc.

This is not about why women dress the way they do. It’s about women’s right to dress however they wish without fearing harassment and violence. Also, I think it would be an incredibly arrogant for anyone to make the assumption that they know about a person’s inner desires based on how they dress.

4)      Some people are offended when women are not appropriately ashamed of their bodies and sexuality.

I don’t know what to say to these people other than, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

SO. This is the Twitter storm I have been following for the past week, and I’m getting so dizzy, I feel a little sick. Here’s why.

As well-known young feminist and writer Jessica Valenti asked during the : “Why don’t you spend more time attacking rape culture instead of young feminist activism?”

Indeed, anti-SlutWalk feminists and do seem to be quick to come down on the free expression of other women on this one… While I may agree that Wente and Dines may be missing the point from up there on their high horses—can’t we just agree to disagree?

I understand why activists are bristling at seeing their movement twisted in the media by those who would probably be better off doing some supportive shrugging and saying, “Hey, it’s not my thing and I don’t quite agree with the messaging, but good for them for getting young people engaged in raising awareness of sexual assault and double standards!” What I don’t understand is why the response to opposing viewpoints has often been catty and downright mean.

I’m reading posts and tweets that criticize others for making assumptions in one breath, and go on to make assumptions about that person in the next. I’d like to see some more sisterhood at play here. I’d like to see young activists reaching out to SlutWalk-opposed feminists and say, “Hey, I’m sorry you disagree with our activist expression, but I respect you for working to support women in your own way. It’s a free country and women have been silenced enough without us trying to silence you for disagreeing. Thanks for stirring up debate and upping our press coverage. Peace, sister!”

Because ever since the inception of the women’s movement, women have struggled to stand united. We’ve got more differences that we do similarities, as a group. The women’s movement struggled to include lesbians and women of color and working class women. Now it struggles to include both women who think women can dress however they want and use whatever words they want, and women who think there should be boundaries in how we dress and speak. All these women agree on equality and a woman’s right to live free from violence.

United we stand, divided we fall. Let’s get it together, sisters.

And for those of you in my neck of the woods, join me at on June 4! Stay tuned for photos and more from the event.

Sisterhood– There’s Safety in Numbers

21 Feb

I wanted to write about sisterhood, because it is very important to me. When I teach women’s self defense, this subject always comes up. Some of the most dangerous situations for women– emotionally and physically– are social situations. Parties, bars/clubs, work. These are the places where women face harassment and intimidation on a regular basis. In a world where women are bombarded with attacks of many kinds (disrespect, invasion of personal space, objectification, unrealistic body ideals, etc.), sisterhood is one of the most dependable defenses we have.

When I was in college, I was standing outside a party once with some of my girlfriends. We were chatting and sort of dancing to the music we could still hear coming from inside the house. Out of nowhere, this giant drunk creeper stumbled towards me with a creepy look and a “Heeeey…” I was not interested in talking to him and I know how that song and dance goes so I calmly replied, “You know, I’m talking with my girlfriends right now. I’m not interested.” He stepped closer and slurred, “But you were moving your hips…” I put my hand up and stepped back saying, “Yes, I was, and that was not an invitation of any kind.” He looked confused for a moment, then when he realized what had just happened he said, “BITCH,” and turned to walk away. Before I had time to process what he had said, one of my most petite friends busted out of our group to confront him. She tilted her face all the way up to look at him (he was literally 3 times her size) and she full out screamed in his face, “How DARE you speak to her like that?! She was PERFECTLY POLITE to you! You should be ASHAMED of yourself!! GET OUT OF HERE!!!” His eyes just about bugged out of his head and he looked at all of us looking at him and then he took her advice and got out of there. I may have had my physical safety under control, but my sister took care of me emotionally in that moment.

Another wonderful friend of mine moved to New York to teach, and she told me that one of the things she missed most about home were her girlfriends. One night she was out with some of her female coworkers at a bar and she had to brush off a creeper who, on top of the usual creepy stuff, said something really racist to her. Not only did the other women fail to stand up for her, but one of them started flirting with the creeper saying things like, “I don’t know what her problem is.”

What a difference. If my friend had said to me, “Wow, you were kind of bitchy to him,” instead of telling him off, how would I have felt? Unfortunately women still do this to each other. What is stopping us from forming sisterhood?

As I got thinking (and talking with some of my sisters) I realized it can be difficult to put your finger on exactly what sisterhood means. I Googled it, and most of the results had to do with or . These books (later movies) as well as the HBO series do seem to capture that intangible spirit of sisterhood. But that form of supportive female friendship is what one of my friends called sisterhood “with a little ‘s’.” Sisterhood with a big “S” has to do with Sexism with a big “S”. This has to do with systemic structures of inequality, not individual interactions.

Me with some of my fab soul sisters

So what does Sisterhood mean?

I’ve learned a lot about sisterhood from girlfriends like the ones in the stories above. I turned to some of my oldest friends for advice as I was drafting this post, and as usual they had some brilliant things to say. In particular, my dear who taught me not to use the B word questioned making a distinction between the big “S” and little “s”:

To me, they’re absolutely intertwined – the impulse to be kind to a friend or go out to lunch with a group of women IS about solidarity and it does fly in the face of sexist societal structures that tell us we can’t/shouldn’t trust each other, that other women are bitchy and we should turn to our boyfriends for truly fulfilling companionship. I mean, the personal is political, right?

The kind of female friendship represented by Sex and the City or any of those other cultural examples has deep roots in history, and when women carve out a safe physical and emotional sphere together, it leads to systemic change. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were best friends; they spent hours writing letters and discussing strategy while Susan changed Elizabeth’s babies. The consciousness raising circles of the second wave womens’ movement started as bridge clubs and book groups. I talked to a group of 80 year old women from the Dane County League of Women Voters who told me they originally joined the movement because it gave them a chance to talk to adults, to other women, during the day while they stayed home with their kids. So for my money, kinship among women is revolutionary on a systemic level, even more so today when we’re inundated with reality TV depicting “catfighting” and stories of women trying to tear each other down.

The that best describes what I’m after here is:

The solidarity of women based on shared conditions, experiences or concerns.

Now that is interesting. Solidarity. I happen to be located in Madison, WI and working 5 blocks down from the capitol in the middle of probably the largest and most historic we’ve seen here since the .

50,000 people protested outside the capitol

It has brought tens of thousands of people to the capitol day and night for the past eight days (today is day nine). My younger sister, actually, has slept in the capitol every night since this thing started. She’s an organizer. Anyway, people are calling this an “ideological war” or a “war on working families.” It is pretty bad out there. Understandably, people are upset, so they have banded together in solidarity to do something about it. I’ve been to the capitol for the protests, and it is truly amazing to see the sheer numbers.

Protestors at the Wisconsin capitol

Meanwhile, many journalists and bloggers are commenting on a that is happening at the same time. Even worker’s rights in Wisconsin has been called a In other news, the House of Representatives just voted to cut funding for , which, in addition to family planning services, offers preventative health care to millions of women who would otherwise be unable to afford it. (No federal funding goes towards abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or immediate danger to the mother.) It is in the hands of the Senate now.

Let me just be clear, before continuing, that I am not trying to make any sort of political statement about abortion. Planned Parenthood is an organization that focuses primarily on providing information and resources that prevent unwanted pregnancy. No unwanted pregnancy, no abortion. Yes, some clinics do provide abortion services but that is a very small part of what they do as an organization. They educate people to make informed decisions about their bodies, they provide access to contraception, and they provide check ups and preventative health care like STI and cancer screenings. I don’t think I’m being overly political when I say that Planned Parenthood is an organization that has devoted 90 years to protecting women’s health and safety and, as a woman, I like to know they are here for us.

Are women hitting the streets? Are we even our US senators? Do we recognize that even if we don’t use Planned Parenthood’s services, that we have “shared experiences, conditions or concerns” with women who do, just by the nature of being women? Flying in the face of this kind of Sisterhood, I know of at least who is working to tear Planned Parenthood down. Lila Rose is a 22-year-old anti-abortion activist who has led a smear campaign against the organization. I understand being opposed to abortion. I don’t understand throwing millions of women under the bus to further your own ideology. Especially from another woman.

When I was younger I would have hated that woman. Honestly, I have to fight the instinct now. One thing I have learned about Sisterhood is that part of it means not turning against other women, even when they do things you really don’t agree with or understand. That doesn’t mean you can’t disagree or fight for what you believe in. It just means that it’s important to have compassion for other women, no matter how different they may seem, because at the end of the day you and she face a lot of the exact same experiences. I try to have compassion for women with whom I disagree, like Lila Rose. I only wish she would have more compassion for the women and families who will be left with no back up plan if Planned Parenthood is destroyed.

I guess I have to end this the way I started it– with questions. What would the women who fought for our rights throughout history think of us today? Women came together over one issue after another to fight for the common good. When I look at the shockingly high rates of sexual assault against women in this country, I know the fight is not over. But where is the Sisterhood? Why is “feminism” a dirty word? Why do women disbelieve other women who report rape? Why do women call other women words that are designed to keep women down? I’d like to see women come together again around issues that affect us all. Poverty, racism, homophobia, domestic violence, etc.– If it affects some women, it affects all women. Why? Because we are sisters. So let’s act like it.

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