On the reclamation of the word “slut”

What is revolutionary in one time and place can become reactionary in another. 100 years ago suffragettes engaged in protests, civil disobedience, and even arson in their struggles to win the vote. Today the only people who talk about women having the vote are anti-feminists who are trying to make a case that there is no longer any discrimination against women in our society, and that the wage gap is down to personal choices and supposed biological differences. In the 70’s feminists fought for “No means no”. Today feminists are trying to bring the concept of active, enthusiastic consent into the mainstream, while “She didn’t say no, so it wasn’t rape” is the cry of many a rape apologist.

It’s hard to think of a word with more hatred and social control packed into it than “slut”. This one little word makes every woman’s sexuality into a source of shame, invites society to scrutinize and judge all women, erases our sexual freedom, and excuses rape. The Toronto police officer who said “if women don’t want to get raped they shouldn’t dress like sluts” wasn’t using even a trace of irony, he wasn’t being “edgy”, he was just stating what he considered to be the common-sense truth. Women’s choice of clothing is constantly up for scrutiny, and any deviation from the norm will rightly be punished by rape, which will be considered to have been caused not by the rapist, but by the woman’s outfit choice. This is straight-up Patriarchal control of female sexuality.

I’m ambivalent about Slutwalk. I agree with the critique that the word “slut” is irredeemable, and that it would be better to do away with it altogether, rather than inviting it to hang around with its inevitable stink of hatred, violence, and control. I’m really glad to hear some feminists making this critique.

But I also think you have to look at where you are. “We reject the social control and punishment of womens’ sexuality” doesn’t make a very catchy slogan, and most people wouldn’t understand it. Most people would agree that “slut” is a nasty word, but at the same time accept unquestioningly that women who are perceived to be sexual or to have many partners are looked down upon and treated with hatred. Rather than thinking that we should stop calling women “sluts” altogether, most people think that women should carefully keep their behaviour in line with society’s (constantly shifting) expectations of modesty in an effort to avoid being labeled as such.

I think “Slutwalk” does a good job of meeting people where they are. The word is a slap in the face. The average person lacking a feminist critique might not understand all the ideas behind it, but there is an element of resistance that almost everyone will recognize on some level. After hundreds of women have walked through your town under the “Slutwalk” banner, it will sound just a little bit different the next time you hear someone say “to be honest, she’s a bit of a slut”, in an attempt to socially stigmatize a woman.

In a world where women actually had freedom and equality, the word “slut” wouldn’t be able to exist. Of course we could still have that syllable, but the collection of meanings that “slut” has attached to it in our time and place would be unimaginable. In the meantime, anything we do about it is going to be a bit of a compromise. If Slutwalk comes to my town I’ll probably participate, though I admit the whole thing seems a bit too fun and cheerful to me, dour rageful feminist that I am. I would be worried that people watching and other participants might not realize how psychotically angry the word “slut” actually makes me. I suppose I would probably be able to solve that by making a suitably unpleasant placard, though.

I look forward to the time, perhaps 20 years from now, when I get to hear the young whippersnappers saying:

“I can’t believe we still do Slutwalk every year. It was relevant in its time, but these days it’s just a chance for all the old third-wavers to get together and socialize.”

“Yeah, totally, who even calls women sluts anymore? The real issue today is Floopercheets.”

I’m looking forward to the Floopercheets.


Conservative MP threatens teens with abstinence-only sex “education”

I was horrified to hear that Conservative MP Nadine Dorries has tabled a motion for abstinence-only sex education for girls aged 13-16, which has passed its first vote in the House of Commons.

Why does this even happen? In 2011, why do we have adults, members of parliament even, proposing a return to a model of sex-education which is based on shame and fear and which has been proven over and over not to work?

In the bad old days before Feminism, there was a double-standard of sexual morality whose real purpose was to control women and ensure the continued dominance of men. In this double-standard an unmarried woman’s entire value rested with her virginity, and if she got caught having sex she lost all social status, lost the chance to marry in future, and was outcast by her family and friends. In short, her life was ruined. By contrast a man who committed the exact same infraction was considered to have behaved somewhat badly, but did not face any real consequences.

In the days of the double-standard very little distinction was made between consensual sex and rape. Men were considered to be incapable of restraining their sexual urges, and thus the entire responsibility for preventing both sex and rape lay with women. Women who were raped were often blamed for it and punished just the same as if they had had consensual sex. The distinction between sex and rape was further blurred by the fact that women were not supposed to enjoy sex; married women were supposed to see sex as a duty which they were required to perform for their husbands. Women who did enjoy sex were considered to be morally deviant, and had shame and hatred piled upon them.

The consequences of the double-standard were dire: women’s lives were ruined for no good reason, women were denied opportunities for education, women got sick or died as a result of unsafe abortions, all for doing something that men could do anytime they wanted, consequence-free. Women were continually told to feel ashamed of their sexuality, while heterosexual men were taught that their sexuality was healthy and normal, and even a source of pride.

To most people today the ideology of the sexual double-standard sounds laughably old-fashioned. Most people think that women and men should be treated equally, that it is normal to have sex outside of marriage, and that it is normal and desirable for both women and men to enjoy sex. But there are still a few right-wing extremists around who want to bring back the double-standard. They know that their ideas would sound either ludicrous or dangerous to most people if stated baldly, so tone down their message to make it sound more reasonable.

I’m going to quote Dorries’ blog post:

“I am not seeking to diminish sex education as taught at present, but to include the empowering option that young girls can just say no. In school, children are taught to base the decision whether or not to have sex on their feelings and wishes. I don’t believe young girls under the age of 16 have consistent feelings and that they can change from day to day. My bill was about making boys wait being an empowering and cool thing for girls to do and that it should be taught as a viable, if not preferable option for girls aged 16 and under – especially as sex at that age is unlawful.”

This all sounds very reasonable, but the premise is false. She is strongly implying that modern, comprehensive sex-ed doesn’t include “the empowering option that young girls can just say no”, but in fact this is the option that is most stressed in all sex-ed courses.

“…making boys wait being an empowering and cool thing for girls to do and that it should be taught as a viable, if not preferable option for girls aged 16 and under”

This is an eminently reasonable idea that practically anyone would agree with, including, I imagine, most girls under 16. But this very reasonable idea is already being taught in modern courses of comprehensive sex education. It is not a unique innovation being introduced by Dorries, as she seems to imply. Furthermore the use of the words “empowering” and “option” here is dishonest. Giving young people comprehensive sex-ed is “empowering” and gives people “options”. Abstinence-only sex-ed does not “empower” or provide “options”, rather it tells young people that they are only allowed to do one thing. The clue is in the name.

Abstinence-only education is about giving girls fewer choices and less information, and making it harder for them to make their own decisions about relationships, sex, and sexual health. If you read between the lines, it is about telling girls that they should be ashamed of their sexuality. Furthermore, sex-ed aimed at girls only sends the toxic message that boys do not need to learn to make responsible decisions regarding sex, birth control, and contraception.

Teenagers need more comprehensive sex education, not less. They also need access to a variety of methods of birth control and contraception, and high-quality medical care, including abortion. They need to be taught to ask for consent, and to treat their partners with respect. They don’t need to be used as pawns to further a sexist and misogynistic ideology that was already looking dated 100 years ago.

There is a great write-up about this at Abortion Rights.

Keycon code of conduct appears

I’ve already written a couple of posts about Keycon, a Winnipeg scifi convention where there have been incidents of sexual harassment and rape in the past. One attendee put quite a lot of effort into writing gathering info about incidents and asking for a policy to stop more incidents happening in future.

For me, the change I wanted to see was simple: I wanted Keycon to clearly acknowledge the problem and say that sexual harassment is not acceptable and would result in people getting banned. I wanted them to do this in a way that would result in all Keycon-attendees seeing this message.

What I ideally wanted was for Keycon to write a message about sexual assault very clearly on the website front page. They haven’t done that exactly – the phrase “sexual harassment” doesn’t appear on the website front page – but there is a very prominent link “letter to Keycon members” on the front page near the top, which states that sexual assault has been a problem and talks about changes that have been made to the Keycon code of conduct to address this. There is another prominent link “Keycon code of conduct” which says that harassment is not acceptable and specifically says that anyone who has experienced sexual assault can report it to any member of the convention staff at any point.

I’m really happy to see this. To me the important elements were making it clear that a problem exists, and making it clear that sexual assault is not tolerated. While I don’t believe that simply having a policy will prevent sexual assault from happening altogether, I do believe it will tend to make sexual assault less likely. Unfortunately there are some individuals who believe that sexual assault is acceptable behaviour. They may have carried out sexual assault in the past, maybe even in public, and gotten away with it, which would strengthen their impression that sexual assault is generally acceptable. I think the new policy shows leadership and goes some way towards creating a community in which it is clear to everyone that sexual assault is not accepted.

I would like to thank the Keycon organisers, and I would like to especially thank succubus_esq for putting effort into this. Talking about sexual assault can be very disheartening and thankless and can result in a lot of push-back. I think a lot of the people involved found this to be a very negative and painful situation. But I think the new policy does create greater safety for Keycon attendees and I’m truly grateful for that.