Semantics of the Slut Walk

By Gillian Schutte · 23 Aug 2011

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Picture credit: manifestzine.blogspot.com
Picture credit: manifestzine.blogspot.com

In 2008 hundreds of South African women donned their miniskirts and protested at the taxi rank where a young girl was brutally accosted by taxi drivers and hawkers for wearing a short denim skirt.  The men who accosted her allegedly stuck their fingers into her vagina and called her a "slut."

Women were outraged.  The angry protestors wore mini skirts and T Shirts saying, “Pissed-Off Women.”  They stormed the ranks and told the perpetrators in no uncertain terms to lay off women and girls who wore jeans and short skirts.  Their message was clear.  Don’t tell us what to wear and don’t think that our short skirts are an invitation either. 

This past weekend about 2000 women and men gathered in Cape Town for South Africa’s first of a series of Slut Walk initiatives, which are also set to take place in Johannesburg and Durban in September.  Everyone dressed up in clothing that would typically be considered  “slutty” and placards sporting messages such as “Patriarchs se poes!” and “Proud Slut” abounded. The atmosphere was electric with ribaldry, revolution and a celebratory freedom of sexual expression most often linked to Gay Pride.  What this tells us is that South African women from different social classes and cultures have collectively had enough of sexual assault, rape and the patriarchal controlling attitudes towards them. They have joined the global Slut Walk movement to add their voices to the powerful message that enough is enough. 

The Slut Walk phenomenon began in Toronto in April this year when a policeman offered advice to students on how to avoid sexual assault in a crime safety forum at the Toronto University. His comment to them: “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 realize that his utterances would spark a worldwide feminine movement which deconstructs the patriarchal view that it is what women wear that causes the perpetrator to rape.  Nor did he realize that the very word he used in a derogatory sense would be the very word that would be adopted as the signifier for this rebellion. 

The organisors of the first march in Toronto seized the word “slut” and reclaimed their right to wear what they want and express their sexuality freely. The message was loud and clear: “Don’t tell us what to wear – Tell men not to rape.”  After this first Slut Walk in Toronto, it became a phenomenon that rapidly spread to London, Orlando, Mexico City, Melbourn and Delhi and more recently to Cape Town. Facebook also boasts close to 100 Slut Walk pages from countries around the world including Helenski, Mumbai, Morocco and Singapore.  

This Slut Walk phenomenon shows no signs of abating any time soon.  It is a movement that refuses to be shamed and the messages from every country are similar.  “This is what I was wearing when I got raped & I still did not ask for it,” states a purple placard carried by a voluptuous woman wearing a low cut black lace top and leggings.  “I was wearing jeans and a button-up collar shirt when I got raped, states another.  “I was 10 when my father raped me and he did not care what I was wearing”’ shouts another. ‘I wear heels to be tall. Not raped!’ says a placard carried by a short women in heels and tight mini skirt.  ‘Control yourselves – not women!’ states a placard carried by a longhaired young man holding hands with his girlfriend.   

Whether the messages on these placards are raunchy, poignant, witty or angry, the memorandum is unambiguous. Women have had enough of being told that they are the ones to blame – of being taught to police themselves instead of men being taught not to rape – of being labelled as sluts as if this label justifies their mistreatment.  And uncannily it is this very label that fuels the movement.  It seems that in the reclamation of the slut label, the word has been alchemically transformed into an elixir for change. 

Few would have guessed that this little word contains so much power.  It has been used against women for centuries – to denigrate workingwomen, persecute women with libido and even burn women at the stake.  It has been used to hyper-sexualize and objectify women and to turn women into repressed joyless vessels and sexual victims.  It has been a tool of control utilized to maximum effect by misogynists, witch hunters, and rapists throughout the centuries. 

But now that women have seized and reclaimed this word it is being wielded as a revolutionary tool to rebel against this ongoing patriarchal hold on the feminine. This four-lettered word has proved its potency in a short space of time and has catapulted the issue of sexual abuse and rape right into a global public arena with an effectiveness never witnessed before.

While there are some feminists who dismiss the use of a word that has such negative connotations to make a point about sexual assault and women’s empowerment, the Slut Walk has become a global phenomenon that has been endorsed by feminists such as Germaine Greer, while Eve Enlser, famous for the Vagina Monologues, is quoted in numerous slogans carried by Slut Walkers.

Poet and feminist, Alice Walker, has also recently sanctioned it in an interview with Guernica Magazine.  She succinctly encapsulates the essence of the movement in her interpretation of the use of the controversial word when she says: "I've always understood the word ‘slut’ to mean a woman who freely enjoys her own sexuality in any way she wants to; undisturbed by other people's wishes for her behavior. Sexual desire originates in her and is directed by her. In that sense it is a word well worth retaining. As a poet, I find it has a rich, raunchy, elemental, down to earth sound, that connects us to something primal, moist, and free.”

In my view the word slut is a signifier for the resurgence of the primal sexual nature of women that has been pushed underground and controlled by a misogynistic order for centuries.  It seems to me that women are responding to a collective archetypal call to seize back the freedom to be themselves.  It is also about rebelling against the social and public discourse that has been controlled by a patriarchal hold over language, a phenomenon that continues in the neoliberal discourse of today.  It is about the power of the word slut – a power that resides within its etymology.

In short, a slut has historically been defined as a woman who is at once hyper-sexual (having “too much” sex, “dirty” sex, or sex with too many partners) but also a woman who is filthy, incompetent, or in some way distasteful. The sexual definition is the one that persists to this day – women are constantly called sluts in an attempt to shame and denigrate them. Slut-shaming has become a form of controlling women and a means of pushing the libidinous wild woman underground and silencing her.  It is a word that perpetuates the patriarchal agenda in multifarious ways. 

For me the adoption of this word as the signifier to this global feminine rebellion is directly rooted in language similar to the poststructuralist feminist movement of the 1970s.  This movement was born out of a common need for all women to create a language that escapes the clutches of the panoptical patriarch that has established himself as a jailor in our collective feminine consciousness. 

In opposition to western phallogocentrism, these feminists identified language as a means by which “man objectifies the world, reduces it to his own terms, speaks in place of everything and everyone else—including women.”  The movement called on women to find a language that spoke their sex and existed outside of the patriarchal hold over discourse.

The Slut Walkers are seen to subvert this patriarchal institution of language through the reclamation of the word slut — and have thus redirected a celebratory sexuality back to womankind. And women all over the world have responded in a joyful but revolutionary spirit and joined the Slut Walk. The use of the word slut and the carnivalesque, celebratory protest that accompanies the movement then becomes the expression of female sexuality and pleasure that manifests outside the male libidinal economy.

Women are building up their revolutionary linguistic arsenal having already reclaimed the words ‘Vagina’ ‘Cunt’ and ‘Slut’.  With the ongoing reclamation of these feminine words, the public discourse will inevitably find its way back into the feminine arena. This is why we need the Slut Walk.

It is a manifestation of our collective desire to no longer be obedient.  It speaks of necessary subversiveness. It also tells men that their sexual abuses of women will no longer be tolerated. It unites women in a common sisterhood and it raises our voices in a collective feminine language such that we will no longer be spoken for.

Schutte is an award winning independent filmmaker, writer and social justice activist. She is a founding member of Media for Justice and co-producer at Handheld Films.

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karien Verified user
24 Aug

How I Understand the Word SLUT

hm.. nice piece.. i hope it is read far and wide to so further educate us joe soaps on deeper meaning in words.. for a moment there i thought SLUT is a great power word.. yet.. yet.. in my psyche it is definitely not connected to freedom of sexual expression (as for alice walker) ~ i associate the word with a sadness, a lack of self-protection, a woman who has been broken by patriarchy, who is a slave to the desires of misogynist men, who is exploited, a woman with bad daddy issues ~ to me it screams disempowerment. it is great that the march attracts people on the fringes of our society ~ but surely more than 2000 people would have attended the cape town march had it not been made inaccessible by the name SLUT? here the converted march the streets and have fun with the free expression of their sexualities, while the majority leers from the sidelines. .surely a more inclusive word can be found? or perhaps the origins of the march as strongly publicised as its name?

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Walter Pike
24 Aug

Perfect

I find the bit from Alice Walker a perfect summary of what it all means.

I don't like that the collective "men" are the enemy I think its the broader society issue as well, the victim blaming being articulated by woman as well.

So many women seem alienated by the word slut, surely understanding what Alice Walker said will slowly dismantle feeling.

I think that the success of this movement is directly attributable to the reactions people have to word - its impossible not to have an opinion to react in some way.

I am proud to be associated with Slutwalk as an organiser, a father and a man.

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OrangeMoon
25 Aug

SlutWalking

The problem with this kind of parachute activism is that it is populist and short term. So we've reclaimed 'slut' for all the persuasive reasons outlined by Schutte. Now lets consider the context: South Africa, sexist, misogynist, patriarchal South Africa. So now you've 'empowered' these women to claim their inner slut, now what? So you've educated a couple of young middle class kids about the fact that rape is NEVER the victim's fault - which is a great thing to do. Now what? Will you be providing escorts for women leaving the SW and who need to catch a taxi on noord street, or to Umlazi, or Eldorado Park and ensure their safety home? Will you picket the next sexist magistrate who lets a rapist off and hands down a judgment bristling with victim blaming? Will you take that call at 3am and drive to Tembisa to ensure that a rape kit gets done on a brutalised lesbian shivering in shock? What is the long-term strategic plan here? How exactly are all these SlutWalkers connecting with the NUMEROUS anti-rape organisations battling to survive and desperately in need of wide-spread support? Have POWA, 1in9, and others at the coal face of anti-rape work been engaged in any meaningful way? We are of one mind regarding a woman's right to dress as she pleases, and to walk the streets un-accosted. I take no issue with that. I simply question the efficacy of this campaign, wonder about any long-term strategic outcomes, and wonder if we'll see y'all at the next woefully under-supported picket outside a courtroom.

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"slut"
2 Sep

@orangemoon

I think a reasonable response is to ask why organiziations at "the coalface" (in a mysognynist and patriarchal country the coalface is a lot of places, maybe even all places to lesser or greater degrees) were not in attendance to recruit these young "middle class" women? If indeed they weren't. Watching the TV coverage (leaving aside for a moment that it almost always selects to reaffirm the norms of its target audience irrespective of who was actually in the crowd) it certainly seemed like some of the young women present worked with the word "slut" in ways that actually reinscribe its perjorative and violently regulatory function (clearly not the intention but NO LESS problematic for it).

One young women even said something to the effect that this event showed the public that even if you behave in a slutty way you are still not "asking for it". Clearly a blunder that requires a great deal of consciousness shifting given that (sorry to rehearse the argument for all those familiar with it) the whole point of reappropriating the word (if one wishes to subvert it for feminist ends) is to rubbish idea that there is any such thing as slutty behaviour at all.

Those of us who, for one reason or another, are aware that such events often leave a whole host of structural vulnerabilities totally invisible and, worse, operate on the implicit assumption (if this event did, I haven't looked at their mission statement or examined its content enough to feel certain) of the needs and interventions necessary to protect middle class (probably mainly white) women (and I am not arguing that such women do not deserve protection, they do) as though one's relation to other structural positions such as race and class and transgender etc have no meaning insofar as what kind of protection and advocay you will need.

A very problematic assumption that surely needs to be challenged but cannot be challenged if we don't engage those who not only hold such assumptions (and this is not something you can tell just by looking at someone I think) but who also want to participate in feminist activism or who are in that state of openness to being radicalized. These kind of events can function as gateways into more vigorous and critical activism but if they are to do so then next time we (all of us who agree that they need to be given more long term relevance and strategic value) should be lining the edges of the march with our banners and our pamphlets and so on and recruiting the marchers or at least offering them something to think about.

Mna, I am not satisfied with dismissing slut walt or the slutwalkers part and parcel.

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H Hlongwane
16 Sep

Slut Walking??

I am a man who considers himself imperpfect but am willing to listen, learn and beguided by omen's voices and aspirations. However..this is like the vagina monologues all over again - franchised feminism which is not rooted in our context and reality. Why is it a great thing for my daughters, sisters and life partner to walk around half naked. And what is powerful and positive about the word 'slut'? Like 'bi*&h' 'ni*&er' and 'k*f*r'. I reject the notion that they can be rehabilitated and reconstructed.

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