Four Brief Critiques of SlutWalk’s Whiteness, Privilege and Unexamined Power Dynamics

From my friend and comrade Ernesto Aguilar

Many websites have devoted pages and pages to SlutWalk, an event that has popped up in several North American cities. More criticism is emerging about the privilege, self-involvement and whiteness of perspectives forwarded in the action.

Clearly much of the media, a lot of men and society itself are deeply misogynist and racist. But is the fixation with “slut-shaming” addressing the fact that white supremacy and misogyny remain strong? Or are we having easier conversations — e.g. don’t assault me or pick on me for my choices — in favor of much more challenging ones about sexism and lack of opportunity for women that cut the legs out from under ideals such libertarianism holds dear — meritocracy, the Protestant work ethic and the illusion that everyone regardless of race, class or gender has unlimited free choice?

My first reactions to SlutWalk distill from there…

1.) Reclaiming What?

According to its website, SlutWalk’s organizers “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.”

And that gets to one of the essentially problematic things of privileged white folks attempting to define for everyone else what works for them personally or because they want a satirical device. When events are about everyone individually for themselves defining whatever they think is good for them, regardless of its impact on other communities (especially communities of color, who disproportionately face the brunt), do communities of color really need to define themselves in such terms?

I thought to myself, after hearing of SlutWalk, about how much language and empowerment is racialized. How would the Mexican-American mothers I know feel about their daughters calling themselves whores? Or the Black mothers of friends react to their daughters calling themselves sluts? Probably not well. Many communities of color have had growing movements against anti-woman language for good reason. For communities of color, even those who aren’t expressly political, there’s a visceral reaction to name-calling aimed at women of color, who are seemingly always the targets of names whose historical, cultural, social and political edge white women will never confront. From ‘welfare queens‘ to ‘unwed mothers,’ images are almost always racial. As a Latino male, people who look like me (and Black men as well) are often the ones visualized when people think gender oppression. But white supremacy means Caucasians do not, for the most part, need to think about messaging regarding normalcy and deviance, or that people of color, especially women of color, have been subject to these issues all our lives. Historically, the masses of white women have not fought with women of color, but instead sided with white men in exchange for their own freedoms.

In addition, there’s a painful history in which Black women were the sexual property of white men as legacies of slavery, which white women don’t have as part of their collective memory.

When I consider reclaiming pejoratives, I’m often reminded of what communities of color contend with. The use of racial slurs to empower communities of color has been advocated by some for many years. Yet can anyone really point of a single social, political, cultural or economic advance that is a direct result of Blacks, Latinos, Asians, etc. referring to ourselves as epithets? Have young people been given important tools to self-actualize and change their objective conditions by calling each other words racists use? Are communities of color more empowered when white people can ironically use racial taunts as reputed endearments? Does anyone seriously entertain the idea that the shock value once derived by using racial slurs in music and media exists in any other fashion now but one in which the power people thought such actions might take away from institutional racism instead got submerged into selling points of “credibility” to consumers?

To a similar point, Kristen Powers sardonically remarks, “Just what the women of the world have been clamoring for: to call themselves sluts. No wonder a 2008 Daily Beast poll found that just 20 percent of women call themselves “feminists,” and only 17 percent would want their daughters to use the label…. SlutWalk defenders say that they’re being ironic, that it’s supposed to be funny that women are turning a word used to dehumanize them into a badge of pride. If you don’t like the slut walks, then you just don’t get the hilarity of women debasing themselves in the name of empowerment.”

2.) Personal Versus Political

One of SlutWalk’s biggest problems is its active effort to decontextualize patriarchy to a super libertarian wet dream of personal preference, without really seeing that the stubborn I’ll-do-whatever-I-want individualism is one of the primary contradictions women face. In reality, women’s disempowerment is institutional, and no amount of visioning the world as one of doing whatever women want takes away the self-doubt women are taught and the limits on what a society that is still anti-woman places on them.

One SlutWalk blog post is typical of so much of this discourse: I like to look attractive to men, I like porn, etc. and this is about others not telling me what to do.Critique whiteness or the idea of the sex industry (porn, prostitution) and its impact on communities of color? You’re a ‘disgruntled misogynist rapist.’ Ask for community accountability for the privilege involved in a terminology that women of color don’t have the same freedoms related to. ‘I could really care less.’

Unquestioned is the desire to be unaccountable to one other, but only ourselves, our moods and personal likes as an organizing aspiration. Corporate media takes no issue with promoting and featuring women perceived to be sexually available to men and seemingly liberated. Such is in part due to the fact that women’s sexuality is a commodity, and that extreme libetarianism (i.e. the idea that the ‘right’ to do, be, and define one’s happiness is the ultimate objective of a social order) is a political ideal under capitalism. We’ve all been sold this idea for “freedom” for years.

But has any successful sociopolitical movement sustained any gain when its primary attraction is the freedom to define yourself by whatever institutionally constructed image you “want”? As I Blame the Patriarchy reminds us, calling oneself a slut in a society that is patriarchal does little more than reinforce men’s ideas of their superiority.

A problem with initiatives where one’s work is all about everyone defining for themselves what’s best is that, as feminist organizer Jo Freeman wrote, the only ones who ever actually benefit are the connected, the privileged and the cunning. History bears out that, in a white supremacist society, those individuals are most assuredly white, and, in a women’s grouping, such are generally white women.

Because we have Western epistemology, some think freedom is being able define our realities. Yet if our realties and dreams are dictated to us by a colonial mentality, then you are asking only to empower yourself in the market. Thus you are only fortifying what you claim to be destroying. Without a thorough understanding of how capital functions in the lives of women and actively rejecting that, one merely supports a set of values already in existence.

Moreover, the SlutWalk drive battles against the social justice basis in which radical feminism has sought kinship by declaring this battle isn’t about institutional violence against women, but one’s right to do a particular thing or two in a society whose anti-woman basis does not change.

3.) White Privilege and What Communities of Color Face

A lack of understanding of practical political realities, especially for cross-sections of communities of color, seems evident related to SlutWalk.

As noted previously, some of this is about language that is racialized. More is about privilege. Rebecca Mott writes about the uncritical adoption by those with the privilege to do so of word ‘slut’ and obscuring the brutality of the sex trade — an underground industry impacting largely women of color in North America. Mott notes embracing prostitution without understanding what such means to women trapped in the business has dangerous implications.

If you want to know what it to be a Slut, a Slut without freedom of movement, freedom of speech, freedom of safety – then place yourself inside the skin of the Ultimate Slut.

Women and girls inside most aspects of the sex trade are raped, battered and murdered whatever they wear, whatever environment they are placed in.

What does any Slutwalk do that makes any practical difference to that?

Instead too many who join Slutwalk say that women – avoids the messiness of girls – choose to be inside the sex trade. That for those women being a Slut is just their work.

So they march in proud solidarity to keep the sex trade running business as normal.

If I am feeling nice I would say that is turning a blind eye to any violence that is the norm inside the sex trade. But today I don’t feel like being kind – I would say it a deeply privileged and selfish attitude, that sees women inside the sex trade as sub-human who are good only to use as propaganda.

How many women who go on and on about being inside the sex trade is just “work”, have done it full-time for several years, with no power or choice over what punters will use them?

How many women who go on and on that it just work, have been in conditions where rape is so normal is cannot be known, where it is normal that women disappear, where no has no meaning?

Mott adds on a comment at We Won’t Submit about a discussion with a leader of the Devati anti-prostitution movement in India. In that country, the writer says, Indian feminists, who have negated the Devati experience as Third World women who in turn have long simply chattel for mens’ sexual desires, support the Toronto-created protest. Yet it is lower caste women who don’t have those luxuries. And rather than fight back and organize to defend the Devati and change the abuses such women face, the idea devolves into simply normalizing their abuse as “sluts,” without understanding such actions could be deeply offensive to these communities, which have long been objectified by the globalized gaze.

In a just as important vein. To The Curb calls to account the idea of cultural imperialism, and to whose benefit.

According to SlutWalk’s website, the event is slated to be reproduced in Argentina sometime this year. It’s the country I was born and raised in, among Spanish, Guaraní and Portuguese speakers – and I can assure you that the word “slut” is not used by anyone there. This is not what we need. I do not want white English-speaking Global North women telling Spanish-speaking Global South women to “reclaim” a word that is foreign to our own vocabulary. To do so would be hegemonic, and would illustrate the ways in which Global North “feminists” have become a tool of cultural imperialism. I will be going back home in about a month, and want to do so without feeling the power of white women bearing down on me from 6,000 miles away. We’ve got our own issues to deal with in South America; we do not need to become poster children to try to make you feel better about yours.

As Struggling to be Heard says, white women have the privilege to think of women of color as an afterthought, a people who implicitly are receptacles for their ideas. “It is white supremacy and its very ideals and systems that make these disputes possible. That make it so that it takes hordes of women of color to say something before white women begin thinking about how they can be more pro-active.”

Criticism of women of color who have spoken out, including in an important piece on South Asian women, has been typically nasty. On its Facebook page, SlutWalk organizers claimed critics called them white supremacists (without ever presenting where such happened), and implored — almost on cue, if you’ve been through the political trenches before –that they’re not white supremacists and that people of color need to speak out about the criticism.

What most white people don’t understand is that critiques aren’t about them getting their feelings hurt about a criticism or the ability to find a person of color to legitimize their ideas to the politically immature. Such is an old tactic many movements have used to divide people of color and pit us against each other (and for some people of color to curry favor for their own gain). More importantly, communities of color have long memories and have seen played out many times this sort of advantaging the people of color who will defend the white people or who the white folks like. Almost never do any of these erstwhile defenders of white privilege have any legitimacy, role or relationship in communities of color (even though they’re happy to pull a POC card when defending whites) or any actual institutional power in white organizations. And at the end of the day the only people who are impressed by such compradors are the other white people.

Seriously. Asking your brown friends to defend you, rather than sincerely and substantively addressing concerns from communities of color, really doesn’t win you any points with communities of color. At all. In fact, you end up looking like the manipulative white people you think you’re not, and ones we’ve seen before.

4.) SlutWalk as Anti-Feminist Battering Ram

Lastly, I have found some of the SlutWalk approach most problematic related to an ahistorical understanding of women’s organizing. Ironically, or maybe not so much, SlutWalk advocacy has come at the expense of the feminist movement, demonizing a struggle that has many hard-won victories to its credit.

To turn social justice and women’s self-determination into what one story refers to as an approach of “look, but don’t rape” seems fine to many. But why draw a line against feminists who don’t favor exclusionary language; believe women’s media representations (e.g. porn, advertising, sexualizing girls, etc.) shape people’s perceptions of women; and who fought for the rights you now enjoy? Does dismissing their criticism, especially when it’s shut down with uber-libertarian fuck-the-world-it’s-about-my-needs rhetoric, genuinely serve the people who need to have these conversations, or a cause you believe in (unless the cause is oneself)?

Moments like these prompt me to measure justice movements by other struggles’ starkest disagreements. To give an extremely brief synopsis of one instance I regularly consider, the mainstream and radical ends of the civil rights movement clashed mightily about integration, and more broadly the right to be in places at which one was unwelcome. What would the radical movement (whose threat of rise indubitably forced institutional concessions to the mainstream movement) have become had Malcolm X said, ‘I not only disagree with Rev. King, but I oppose his approach enough that I will stand with those who oppose him’? In spite of disagreements, Malcolm X defended King’s right to fight, confronting people like George Lincoln Rockwell in support of King.

And while, among SlutWalk folks, none have even a hint of a shadow of civil rights pioneers to claim, how they’ve responded to the feminist movement’s questions says a lot about who they are, their aspirations, and their regard for those who are peers.

In talking about her exposure to SlutWalk, Meghan Murphy at The F Word zeroes in on some of SlutWalk’s anti-feminist underpinnings. “Instead what I found, over and over again was, not only a refusal to align with feminism, but often, an outright aversion to it. I saw numerous attacks on radical feminism and radical feminists and I witnessed the reinforcement of negative and untrue stereotypes about feminism (you know the ones: man-hating, misandrist, no-fun, sex-negative, etc). While I do believe the organizers had good intentions, desiring that Slutwalk be inclusive to all, it began to look a lot like the ‘funfeminist’ – NO NO WE’RE THE CONVENTIONALLY ATTRACTIVE FEMINISTS. THE FUN ONES. WE’RE OK. WE LIKE PENISES AND PORN AND LOOKING SEXY kind of feminism that, in the end doesn’t successfully challenge much of anything, and simply repackages sexist imagery in ‘empowering’ wrapping paper.”

In short, it’s an old game: me versus a movement.

Special thanks to Gunjan Chopra for suggesting this topic, as well as editorial review of the article. Thanks to Ikonoklast for the reminder on epistemology.

- People of Color Organize!

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Posted on May 17, 2011, in Indigenous Struggles, Latin America, Women's Liberation and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Chuck Finale

    That’s the weirdest thing though. If you stay in liberal white world, slut walk is faultless and changes the world forever. And I think when these things start up, they are small and local enough that I feel like I can still go in 100%. The problems arise when slutwalk is taken seriously, as more than a bit of media schtick and some /b/ influenced fun.

    But who’s to say that this explosion of popliberalfeminism can’t be good in the long run. This has potential to create hundreds maybe thousands of fun/liberal feminists, but maybe 10% of those would get turned onto a more revolutionary feminism.

    But unfortunately a lot of new-to-feminism slutwalkers are reacting really poorly to these criticisms, as mentioned above, but if they’ve never played ball before, and they think critiques involving liberal white spremacy is really making a comparison to neonazis and whatnot, there’s not much anyone can do without waterning down the criticism, or running the whole universe through “oppressed people’s 101″.

    But back to my main point, I still hold on to the possibility of this being a fairly good thing, maybe in the long term.

  2. as a white woman who attended slutwalk, I did think that the message was unintentionally hetero-centric, representing only a single gender equation- men raping women, and while excluding black women from the discourse. I found the post by “tothecurb” to be a positive discourse on the problem of racism. What’s a protest without a debate?

    I tried to veer off the typical male on female gender equation once or twice, and I noticed immediately that either a) I was told I was entirely wrong, or that the topic wasn’t as important, and it could only be addressed through male on female representations of violence.

    I felt like I was told, “this is what I believe. I am right. So only you can be represented through me (and not as an equally represented, or crucially integral part).

  3. I’ve been personally threatened by young women for, on FACEBOOK, posting this comment – “This saddens me.’ That’s all I said, for starters – — and I found myself defending my lack of support for young women calling themselves sluts. In my state (Minnesota), NOW supports the event – – and sells “I Love Slut” tee shirts for men to wear when they attend the event. This is insane. Youthful, exuberant discovery of sexual power is a good starting point for any healthy woman. It is not, however, feminism.

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