SlutWalks: Feeling Free vs. Being Free

Posted on October 15th, by Elizabeth Debold in Blog, Culture, Feminism, Women's liberation. 13 comments

SlutWalks: Feeling Free vs. Being Free

In January, Toronto police constable Michael Sanguinetti made a gaffe that has sparked a worldwide protest among young women and their supporters. Sanguinetti was speaking about women’s safety at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School when he suggested that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” There you have it: that old canard that women provoke rape and sexual assault. (A colleague told me that overalls happen to be the garment that attracts rapists most often–I don’t know if it’s true or where she heard that but apparently it’s because they are easy to get off quickly. Not because they are so alluring…) Two women in Toronto responded immediately–calling for a “SlutWalk” to protest the prevalence of blame-the-victim attitudes that make women’s sexuality such an area of inner and outer conflict. The idea has caught on, giving rise to SlutWalks across the globe.

Yes! I thought, how great that women are organizing and hitting the streets again. The spirit of the response is thrilling–not unlike the Take Back the Night marches that started in the 1970s. But almost immediately, I found myself with questions and reservations. Of course, the protest is campy postmodern irony—“Hey, in the world as it is and when women are blamed for rape, every one of us is, or could be called, a slut, so let’s celebrate our unavoidable sluttiness.” But beneath the irony is the premise that we have a right to express our sexuality in any way we choose, to dress in any way we want to, and not be harassed, humiliated or worse. And furthermore that being able to express our sexuality as we please, when we please is essential to our liberation as women.

These protests—now in over 70 cities around the world—have caught on among progressive young women. While some may be SlutWalking against victim-blaming, I would bet that the majority who are participating are doing so to declare their right to women=sexual liberation. In other words, “I have a right to be a Hottie!” Now, I’m not saying that women should shove their sexuality under the rug or twist it into some form of neurosis. The issue to me is a bigger one about subjectivity and cultural change. It’s really complicated to objectify oneself in a (predominantly) Hottie parade and be a sexual object, and then be taken seriously as a subject. Subjects create change. Objects are moved about.

The activist impulse is motivated by the desire for change, to create a new culture, new ways for men and women interact in which…? This is where these SlutWalk actions become messed up with faux liberation and The Hottie Mystique–Stephanie Coontz’s term for the belief that women’s true worth and identity relates to how hot/sexy she is. So, then, are we talking about a new culture where women can be on full sexual display without being taunted, touched, or worse? (Um, and don’t we dress in certain ways in order to get attention?) Of course, no one should be accosted or harmed for walking down the street no matter what they are wearing. But the SlutWalk approach still limits us to being identified with and as our sexuality. As if that stands as the most essential aspect of who women are–which is nothing the least bit new. This has been women’s lot for ages. And isn’t that the essence of the problem? That the cultural roles that we have been embedded in are so wrapped up in sexuality/procreation that we end up seeing ourselves in terms of who we can attract? We become the object he is seeking. Freedom becomes our capacity to let loose with all we’ve got. Feeling free to express ourselves as, well, primates looking for mates…

There is a difference between FEELING free (to do as one pleases, which is a privilege) and BEING free from the limiting notions of identity that have arisen from the complex mix of cultural history and biology that we each are. The former is often an expression of entitlement. The latter is real work. Only aspiring to BE FREE, at an existential level, creates the space to transcend the sexual dynamics that have created us as the women and men we are. Sexuality will always be one of the strata that make up our experience of self. But it isn’t even the most important part of who we are. If we keep insisting on having our sexual function and roles define us so fundamentally, then human culture will likewise be fundamentally shaped by the competitive dynamics of mating. That brings you to the culture we’ve got. Creating a new and higher stage of culture calls us to discover new ways for women and men to relate that are free of these dynamics. Only something at that level of transformation would liberate us from the need for SlutWalks.

13 responses to “SlutWalks: Feeling Free vs. Being Free”

  1. Joanna says:

    Sounds good to me Elizabeth, something new and different for sure, and how would that be, almost impossible to imagine, only sure it would be good :-), and free.

  2. Dharm Kaur says:

    A woman’s power lies in her grace. In the Sikh tradition, women’s first names have the second word Kaur affixed. Kaur means ‘princess’. This allows women the gift of being recognized for their grace.
    A woman has the privilege of channeling the highest source of prayer through her psyche for she is responsible for another human life: for hosting the child in her womb, for guiding the consciousness of the next generation.
    When women can recognize this honour for themselves then will harmony amongst peoples reign on the Earth.

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Hmmm…so that means that the lack of harmony amongst people on the Earth is women’s fault? I don’t think so, my friend!

      • Joanna says:

        Great Elizabeth, your response shows a lot of strength and conviction, and spiritual self confidence, which is great to see, standing up for women, GOOD for you!

      • JunK says:

        lol Elizabeth. thats not what she meant at all. liberation starts within. to be yourself and wear whatever you want and accept the fact that not everyone will approve. who cares what they say when youre the most beautiful precious thing that there is on this earth, a woman. this culture will never understand what dharm is getting at.

        • Elizabeth Debold says:

          Dharm? Enlighten me! And yes, liberation starts within. But does “within” mean trotting around in your underwear? I think you may be missing something that’s happening in culture with young women…it’s not really an inner empowerment, but a pomo cultural imperative to equate who you are with your sexuality. This is supposed to be freedom, but hooks women into the oldest roles in our historical play book.

  3. Jess Conway says:

    Untill english speaking countries can get over the bizzarre obsession of the body, we will remain sick in the mind. the fact that white women pity the women in bhurkas and hajib and white men see them as possible threats, (imagine women whose bodies are not accessible to the naked eye at all times). western fashion is ugly when it doesnt fit properly and is designed largely for women who look physically ill, at least the saris and bhurkas, kimonos and toga style clothes actually leave a women feeling that she is beautiful and also that she is safer under her clothes than a women who parades about in flesh hugging clothes accentuating her curves and highlighting her sexuality. these are all choices and choice is the key word. we are all women underneath our clothes, same lumps bumps and organs, we are all different shapes and we all have minds, perhaps if we learned to look into each others eyes when we met instead of up and down each others bodies, we would learn to respect each other and ourselves. We are not looking at each other for procreation, (even if some do look for mates) and if we are truly to become equal to men in our society it is not enough to imitate their sexual behaviour we should also imitate their filial behaviour, and we know very few men who ask each other in seriousness “does my bum look big in this?” Women of the world if you must objectify yourselves, or draw attention to yourselves as sexual object, dont feel that your body is more valuable than you. its a tool for you to use, but you have others x

  4. Jill Uchiyama says:

    Hi Elizabeth,
    The points you are making are so right on. And, in light of a powerful new documentary film Miss Representation, which is airing this week on the Oprah Winfrey Network, these kinds of so called protests such as the Slutwalks should begin to be seen for what they really are- which you identified so well in your blog.
    It is so refreshing to open up this discussion with real inquiry into where women need to go to move forward, without creating the same old tracks that promote freedom in the form of sexual expression again and again. Thanks!

  5. Georgia Woodworth says:

    I’m not clear why there’s still anyone left on the planet who doesn’t know that rape is about seizing power, in other words, having control over someone else. How a woman dresses has no relevance. Dear old grandmothers and little children are raped. I invite everyone to consider releasing the old myth that women have brought ‘it’ on themselves. Having never seen this blog before today, I cheer for the young women and girls who will be empowered by your film, Elizabeth. I know our true power comes from within and cannot be taken once activated.

  6. JunK says:

    the best thing that anyone could have done is ignore the ignorant bastard that sparked it all in the 1st place. we’ve heard it all before. the whole ‘women are asking for it by dressing a certain way’ bs. for god sake, thats such an out-dated view of things its not even funny. i say just keep it moving. women have been doing just fine in the passed few decades! most make more money and are happier than most men. it seems to me that these ‘slut walks’ are almost a step backwards simply because it acknowledges the fact that some men still think that way. let them stay in the 1800’s where they belong and go become the next police constable! 😉


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