Saturday, 4 June 2011

Inside the Slutwalk Movement

   It was a cold day in Newcastle. That didn’t deter any of the women clustered around Grey’s Monument in the city centre; from bras and mini-skirts to hoodies (and one wedding dress), hundreds had turned out for Newcastle’s Slutwalk. The message was clear and resounding: “Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no!”

  The unity of the message surprised me. Having avidly followed the swift rise of the Slutwalk movement from its reactionary beginnings (you all know the story – policeman says “don’t dress like a slut if you don’t want to be raped,” thousands of women across Canada say “fuck you”), I had been aware of how divisive it had amongst feminists in the UK. The message of the Slutwalks was contested – how can we ever reclaim a word so derogatory and negative? Why on earth should we pander to a stereotype of female sexuality by dressing ‘sluttishly’ and parading through the streets? And if no one can decide the answers to these questions, how can the movement move forward with a unified objective?

  On the march on Saturday, there was no deliberation about whether the word ‘slut’ can be reclaimed (I believe any word can – the history of ‘queer’ is a fantastic example). People simply emblazoned these four powerful letters across their backs, their faces and their chests, because they were not ashamed by what the word represents. They refused to accept that ‘slut’ implies a lack of morals, or a desperation to engage in sexual acivity, and certainly not that the label justifies sexual violence. Instead, they appeared to confront the term head-on by embracing some or all of these meanings: I enjoy sex; I enjoy my body; I am sexually promiscuous; I have my own style of dress - so why should it be a word of shame?

  As for the moral panic which has recently scoured the airwaves about young women roaming the streets in their underwear, objectors need to remember that this is a protest. By marching through the streets and proclaiming that even though we’re in our bras and hotpants, we don’t deserve to be raped, we aren’t saying that this is it – the time has come for women to throw off their clothes and pop down the shops in their undies, and damn you if you try to stop us! It means simply that no matter what you wear, you shouldn’t be raped. Radical, I know.

  So the message of Newclastle’s Slutwalk was not muddled, nor was there fierce infighting about what the movement should represent. It was certainly visually confrontational (especially to some bemused shoppers faced with a crowd of variously-dressed protestors), but not in any other way (a few had issues with a Christian preacher at the march’s beginning, but they were a minority and were separate from the march’s aims). Many onlookers politely enquired what the walk was about, and came away with firm answers: we don’t like slut-shaming, we don’t like victim-blaming, and we want to wear what we want.

  There are many more Slutwalks planned across the UK, and I am excited to see what Manchester’s has to offer on 10th June. All of my doubts about the movement’s message and its implications were utterly dispelled by Slutwalk Newcastle; its message was worthy and powerfully executed. And when I do go to Manchester, I think this time I’ll go in my bra. Because I can.

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