Back to index of Nerve 19 - Winter 2011


By Emma Pooka

Back in 1976, Italian feminist groups started the mass marches of women that became 'Reclaim the Night', for much the same reason that the Slutwalks began in Toronto. Police were advising women to avoid rape by not going out alone after dark. So they went out alone in their thousands, marching past Fascist Party headquarters dressed as witches and chanting slogans about destroying the family. Now that's the subversion of a patriarchal stereotype. These days if you asked for witches to march on a party HQ they'd come chanting aura-cleansing spells and waving healing crystals. You go to the trouble to reclaim an identity used against you, make it a badge of pride, and what happens? Within a couple of years you find it marketed back to you with its teeth pulled.

This time we're out to reclaim a word that once meant a lazy maidservant, currently indicates sexual promiscuity, and has always been an insult specifically to control women's behaviour, and this seems to involve marching over cobbled streets in stilettos. I wouldn't mind, but we've done this with the S-word before. Riot Grrl era punk bands scrawled "Slut" across their bodies in an effort to take its power to themselves. Now? At your local Grin store you can buy pre-ripped punk skinny Ts with "Slut" neatly emblazoned in pink sequins, size extra small. We've reclaimed the means of our oppression so many times it's starting to taste like an astronaut's water supply.

One thing is right - we need something new. Organised marches have become foot- and mind-numbing affairs, A to B chanting of the same slogans with a police escort and a speech by a bureaucrat at the end. Even the breakouts and radical blocs take you through a proscribed process of carefully kettled catharsis. As for feminist marches, it's rare they happen even late enough to Reclaim the Teatime, and routes are restricted so as not to inconvenience any innocent bystanders with having to actually see us. Non-compliance can mean being policed into near irrelevance, as those on Edinburgh's recent Reclaim the Night discovered when defying the city council's ironic attempt to ban them from marching due to concerns for their safety.

The reasoning behind Slutwalk is a good one. There's nothing wrong with the message: "I enjoy sex and I'm not ashamed of it. That doesn't mean you can rape me". But that's only half the message we need. The rest goes: "Don't define me by my sex life; don't categorise me; how much I enjoy sex, how much I have, whether I've overcome the internalised shame or not - is none of your goddamn business. Don't rape me - that's all".

We needed something more popular and more subversive. But is this it? Male voices on the megaphones and a glorified Hen Night winding through the streets? We chant: "Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no", but the unchallenged leering as we pass suggests that this only holds true as long as we refrain from actually saying "No", that there's only popular support for women celebrating their sexuality so long as they're putting it on display for men.

The idea of subverting the word "Slut" for our own purposes is a seductive one, because it's so much easier than challenging the existence of all those categories (slut, virgin, whore, prude, cougar, princess, gold digger) and having to start again, reject the ready-made options and rebuild your sexual self-image from scratch. There's no fun costume or sense of subversive naughtiness attached to finding your independent humanity - only uncertainty and fear, not least because if you don't spend enough time reassuring everyone of how much you love sex you might be one of those Sex Negative feminists who team up with Vicars' wives to burn old issues of Playboy and don't let men on your marches because you hate them.

It's easier to make it fun to be a slut, to revel in it, to try and reform it into something with power, than to find out what it means to be a human and risk losing even the little power you were lent as a slut. It's also easier to ignore those who have good reason to feel uncomfortable publicly marching under the banner of "Slut". Not everybody has the luxury of so easily reclaiming the words used to harm them.

If we want to subvert something, let's go further than one word - let's point out that all the comforting stereotypes on which our identities are founded are lies. It's not as fun or photogenic, but it strikes at the heart of those internalised prejudices instead of just fighting one head of that hydra. The witches in Birkenstocks and the sluts in high heels are both inventions of the patriarchy used to divide, shame and control us, to make us apologise before we speak and spend so much time placating and reassuring everyone about what we're not that we never actually get around to discovering what we are, let alone what we can be.

What we need is a march - or any mass action - of people who've been subject to sexual exploitation, assault, harassment and stereotyping, coming together wearing whatever the hell they feel most comfortable in, to resist being made into others' fantasies. We should demand attention with our actions, not pander to the press with gimmicky outfits. We should resist the police and take our actions where we want them, not ask their permission to be herded at their convenience. We should take care of ourselves and each other, not ask for protection. And if anybody tries to attack us or stop us or shame us, we should make them regret it.

That would be reclaiming something: our anger, our solidarity, our humanity. I don't care what you call it or what you wear. Never mind the Night or the Slut, let's start by taking back the will to act.

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Sorry Comments Closed

Comment left by Barbara Harrison on 12th December, 2011 at 11:23
Thank you, Emma, brilliantly written article. Well said.

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