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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Slut-shaming takes away feminist cred (duh)

I'm in love with this post by Amanda Marcotte: Smart Girls Wear Short Skirts, Too, or "Why Lisa Belkin is wrong to condemn college girls for dressing sexy." In it, Marcotte agrees wholeheartedly with some of the concerns Belkin voices in a New York Times article titled "After Class, Skimpy Equality." Specifically, about the social environment in college: campus rape, the apparently real perception of some students that female students have too much power because they can legally refuse sex (!), and disappointment in some really disturbing behavior by fraternity members that has been in the news lately. But that's where the agreement ends. "I have one strong desire that carries through life," Marcotte begins her post, "which is that I never become one of those women who self-identifies as a feminist while conflating the problem of inequality with the non-problem of young women being sexual. Should I ever start assuming that young women who have sex are being had, or if I start hyperventilating about young women wearing miniskirts, I hope I at least have the good sense to give up the writing thing and go into real estate."

I share this desire. However concerned feminists may legitimately be about the image of women in society, when it turns into slut-shaming it veers sharply toward the Dark Side. I know this is not a completely black and white issue, but condemning individual women for how they dress and behave sexually (with consenting adults), suggesting that they are somehow bad people and/or that they deserve to be sexually attacked or harassed is the antithesis of feminism. No ifs, ands, or buts about that. Marcotte continues:
Even more distressingly, Belkin conflates the problem of campus rape with the fact that young women like to look sexy, saying that the young women who wore sexy Halloween costumes to a Duke fraternity party "had mothers who attended more than one Take Back the Night March in their college days," as if being opposed to campus rape and being willing to wear sexy clothes are in opposition to each other.  But as the organizers of Slutwalk know, that's absolutely false.  In fact, you can and should argue that men can look at a woman wearing sexy clothes and think, "She wants to look sexy," and not, "She's asking to be violently assaulted."  
To Belkin, the fact that women dance in their underwear at parties is part of the same pattern that caused a fraternity to circulate an email explaining that women aren't actually people, as if women could get their people status back by putting more clothes on.  But I think that men are perfectly capable of being turned on by a woman dancing in her underwear while never forgetting that said woman has a family that loves her, a mind of her own, and ambitions that are equal to his.  We don't allow men's sexuality to dehumanize them in our eyes.  If a young man spends his weekends partying and flirting with women, and spends his time in the classroom pulling down As, we don't see that as a contradiction. The belief that female sexual expression is uniquely dehumanizing is a double standard, no matter how much you dress it up in feminist language.  Instead of condemning young women for the length of their skirts, why not use that energy for condemning anyone who would think that a woman is lesser-than because she wears a miniskirt?  
Emphasis mine. I think the thing most commonly misunderstood about Slutwalk is that it is essentially a freedom of expression movement. The point was that women should be able to dress and behave as they wish (both means of expression) without being attacked, even if that includes dressing and behaving in ways that some would label as "slutty." Whether or not you think the word "slut" can be reclaimed, or whether you think there's a reason to try, is really beside the issue. I vacillate on that, myself, but it doesn't affect the essential point that the epithet "slut" says nothing about a woman's worth or her right to express herself, sexually or otherwise, in public or private however she chooses if it brings harm to no one. "Slut" was the epithet of choice a Haredi man recently hurled at a young female soldier who chose to sit at the front of the bus in Jerusalem. It was, at its very essence, a word used to degrade a woman for not behaving as though she is inferior.

Sexual attractiveness, performance, and reproduction are functions of women. Reducing women to those functions is what misogynists do, and a collection of functions is not a person. Certainly not in comparison to someone who is capable of all of those but also of things like creativity, invention, logical analysis, will, bravery, authority, athleticism, wit, and eloquence-- traits that are generally admired but whose existence is sometimes denied or ignored in females altogether. Objectification is the act of setting aside those things in order to appreciate appearance or behavior alone, and I don't think it's fundamentally a bad thing. Indeed, I think that people who claim to never objectify others are either lying or lacking in self-awareness. But there's a difference between appreciating those aspects about someone and treating her as though that's all she is, or that that's all women in general are good for. Partial people. Inferiors. It's no accident that an insult with a typically sexual connotation would be used for any woman who acts as though she is worth more than that short list of functions. As Marcotte says, we don't treat men that way no matter how "slutty" they are. To close, she says
 Asking something of men seems to be the big taboo in our culture, even sometimes among feminists. In contrast, scolding women about what they wear is easy, even if it's a red herring.
I often think about how counter-productive it is, from the perspective of a straight male who wants women to display their bodies and be available for sex, to punish them for doing so via shame, intimidation, and even outright attack. In reality, "modesty" is often a euphemism for plain old fear. Fear of being judged, by men and women alike. Fear of being treated as though allowing people to see your parts should remove any expectation of being seen as more than the sum of them. Fear of being penalized for acting in ways that no man would be penalized for. Women sometimes show themselves off and act sexually open out of perceived necessity or insecurity, yes....but they also do it when they feel safe. Why would anyone not want women to feel safe? Especially someone who thinks of him/herself as a feminist? And if you want them to feel safe, why not go after the ones shaming and attacking them, rather than the women themselves?

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