Open Zion

10.18.12

Your "Pro-Slut" Problem—Not Ours

“Sigal Samuel seems to be pro-slut,” wrote Yisrael Medad after I published a column in support of Sarit Hashkes, the Israeli activist who decided to take off her shirt rather than yield to ultra-Orthodox attempts to drive her away from a public party.

For a moment, I stared at the word “slut” in mute shock. How could anyone fail to understand that to call Hashkes a slut now would be to reinscribe the very premise that had occasioned her actions in the first place? Then the moment passed, and I realized Medad’s comment—later elaborated on in The Jerusalem Post and on his personal blog—wasn’t really that surprising after all. In fact, it was typical of the responses feminists incur when they attempt to reappropriate a word, image or meme that’s being used against them.

So what was being used against Hashkes the night she tried—and failed—to join a men-only dance party in a public street in downtown Jerusalem? Her body: the annoying femaleness of it. That’s it. That’s all.

Hashkes is a woman: for that reason, she was persona non grata at the ultra-Orthodox Sukkot celebration where she took the hand of secular boy and started dancing with him. When the event organizer yanked the boy away and ordered Hashkes to leave the premises, she took off her shirt, exposing her bra, and called the police instead.

In doing so, Medad claims, Hashkes proved to the ultra-Orthodox “that modern secular women are basically disrespectful immoral sluts.” Note the conflation of immorality with “sluttiness”—a cheap move designed to perpetuate the notion that, as Rebecca Traister aptly put it in a controversial article on Slutwalk, a woman “who presents herself in an alluring way is somehow morally bankrupt.” Leaving aside the fact that Hashkes wasn’t even dressed in a particularly alluring way—as the photo shows, her bra was hardly the stuff of Victoria’s Secret catalogues—Medad’s reduction of her act to simple sleaziness ignores the political message behind it: “The ultra-Orthodox can’t disappear me, and certainly not from my own city,” in Hashkes’ own words.

For Hashkes, stripping was a political act. It was a way to resist the ultra-Orthodox notion, currently on the rise in Israel, that the female body—whether covered or uncovered—represents a threat to male spirituality and should therefore be excluded from the public sphere. To insist on putting her body front and center was to try to wrest it from this damaging notion—to reclaim it, to reappropriate it.

In doing so, Hashkes acted in line with a broader feminist program of reappropriation—a program exemplified by Slutwalk which, by encouraging women to march dressed in whatever style they like, countered the idea that alluring clothing equals moral bankruptcy. But, just as Slutwalk elicited a fresh wave of criticism that reinscribed the original premise the march aimed to combat (“look how scantily clad these female protestors are—clearly they really are sluts!”), Hashkes’ protest prompted Medad to read her actions as sleazy, and nothing more.

This pernicious circularity, this vulnerability to misreadings, is a real and enduring problem for feminists like Traister who admire many Slutwalkers but wish “that the young women doing the difficult work of reappropriation were more nuanced in how they made their grabs at authority, that they were better at anticipating and deflecting the resulting pile-on.” I don’t pretend to have an answer to this problem. But in a context like contemporary Israel, where the dignity of women qua women is being eroded on a daily basis, I believe the work of reappropriation is so necessary that it’s worth doing even if it does sometimes occasion responses like Medad’s.

And even if, I would add, it ruffles a few feathers. Citing the religious sensibilities of the ultra-Orthodox men in question, Medad complains that Hashkes “raped their social and cultural consciousness,” before adding the hyperbolic parenthetical, “if they suffered trauma, I do not know.” Really? With all due respect to my ultra-Orthodox co-religionists, and as shocking and distressing as Hashkes’ act surely was for them, let’s remember that this was a public—not private—event. When you throw a party on a public street, you can’t expect to be allowed to exclude half the population. And if you do try to exclude them, you can’t expect them to then cater to your religious sensibilities.

Besides, as Orthodox rabbi Dov Linzer argued in a much-discussed New York Times op-ed, Jewish law “places the responsibility for controlling men’s licentious thoughts about women squarely on the men.” Put simply, the Talmud tells men: “If you have a problem, you deal with it. It is the male gaze—the way men look at women—that needs to be desexualized, not women in public.” So that, if the sight of Hashkes in her bra shocked her ultra-Orthodox interlocutors, and if her protest strikes the likes of Medad as the behavior of a “slut,” I’m inclined to say, along with Linzer and the Talmud, “It’s your problem, sir; not hers.”