05.18.11

Slut Walks Don't Help Women

By marching in fishnets and bras with the word "slut" scrawled on their bodies, the organizers of the "Slut Walk" movement insist they're feminists standing up for their rights. But Kirsten Powers says they may actually be hurting their cause.

Did you hear about the feminist fundraiser that was held at a Washington, D.C., strip club?

No, I’m not making that up. It gets better: They were raising money for an event called “ Slut Walk DC,” which is part of a growing “movement” that is popping up all over the world.

It started when a police officer in Toronto told some students at a campus safety meeting that in order to avoid being victimized, women “should avoid dressing like sluts.” There have already been Slut Walks in Toronto, Boston, and Dallas, with more than 20 planned from Sydney to Buenos Aires to Seattle. The stated purpose of the Slut Walks is to stop blaming victims for rapes and to “reclaim the word slut.” The former is a laudable goal; the latter not just naïve but also harmful to women.

Feminists are supposed to be countercultural, yet by marching in fishnets and bras with the word “slut” scrawled on their bodies, they are simply imitating a culture that objectifies and hypersexualizes women and girls on a scale never before seen in history. Thanks to mass media, we now are inundated with movies, music videos, magazines, porn sites, and billboards that all send the same message: Women are there for your ogling and consumption. The average age a boy starts looking at online porn—which often sexualizes abuse and humiliation of women—is 11.

Slut Walk organizers say dressing up like the “sluts” that most men would associate with their favorite porn star is meant to be ironic, and even funny. Which prompts a question: Have they ever met any men? Do they really think that when men see scantily clad women holding signs saying “Slut Pride,” the first thing they think of is women’s empowerment?

Of the Slut Walks, Dines says, “There is no way [those men] are going to get the joke. The joke is on us. It’s on women.”

In Boston, a bunch of Neanderthals threatened to hold a “pimp walk” in response to the Slut Walk. Rebecca Mott, a former prostitute and activist who is horrified by the Slut Walks, told me, “The Australian Sex Party actually said we could hand out packs where men can hide their hands where they are wanking themselves at the Slut Walks.”

Mott, a Brit who barely survived the hellish nightmare of her life as a prostitute, tried to convince the feminist organizer of the London Slut Walk of the damage she was doing, only to be patronized and shushed. “For women who are forced to wear those clothes because they are sold and bought to see other people dressed up like that for laughs and to say it’s ‘liberating’ is really hard to take,” she says.

Aura Bogado, an Argentinean feminist and Yale student who took to her blog to blast the Slut Walk organizers, told me: “It’s like a minstrel show. They pretend to live the experience [Rebecca] lived.” As she blogged, the Slut Walk event “highlights its origins from a privileged position of relative power, replete with an entitlement of assumed safety that women of color [like me] would never even dream of. We do not come from communities in which it feels at all harmless to call ourselves ‘sluts.’”

Mott wrote on her blog, “If you want to feel good about stopping rapes, it would be cool if you could end the institutionalized, common and usually sadistic rapes of women and girls in porn and prostitution. I want marches demanding an end to the sex trade, marches saying prostitution is to pay-to-rape, marches speaking out about the sadism in the production of porn.”

Don’t hold your breath.

Samantha Wright, the organizer of the D.C. Slut Walk, which held its fundraiser in a strip club, told me: “I do see how it’s hard coming from an anti-porn standpoint to see how Slut Walks could be beneficial. I consider myself a feminist [who is] pro-pornography. There has to be freedom of choice for women to work in [the sex] industry.” She said it was important to her that women in the sex industry “know that we believe in their right to not be sexually assaulted,” which is at least one thing on which everyone can agree.

After talking to numerous Slut Walk organizers—all of them bright, sincere women who care deeply about preventing victim-blaming for rape—the common thread was that they were liberal feminists who believe that women in prostitution, stripping, and pornography are doing “sex work” by choice, whereas Mott and women who align themselves with radical feminism believe it’s just old-fashioned slavery.

Gail Dines, professor of women’s studies at Boston’s Wheelock College and author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, finds the Slut Walks alarming. She told me, “It is not understanding the context of the world they are living in. The average male today gets his major sex education from porn. And the message they get is that women are sluts.” To the liberal feminists, whom Dines calls porn and prostitution apologists, she asks: “If it’s such a great profession, why aren’t you turning tricks?”

Megan Walker, executive director of the London Abused Women’s Centre in London, Ontario, told me that the women embracing the Slut Walks “are definitely part of a movement that has been influenced by a rape and porn culture. Women who come into the center talk about how they are forced to dress up like the porn star and what a big role it has played in their rapes by intimate partners.”

Mott says the Slut Walkers are playing “slut” for kicks, while women and girls trapped in the sex industry—or those being sexually abused at home, as she says she was by her stepfather—are forced to be what she calls the “ultimate slut” with little hope for escape.

Dines dismisses as ludicrous the idea that men who consume porn typically based on the idea that the “slut is getting what she deserves” would see these walks as anything more than a public peep show. “There is no way [those men] are going to get the joke. The joke is on us. It’s on women.”

Kirsten Powers is a columnist for The Daily Beast. She is also a political analyst on Fox News and a writer for the New York Post. She served in the Clinton administration from 1993-1998 and has worked in New York state and city politics. Her writing has been published in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New York Observer, Salon.com, Elle magazine and American Prospect online.