Last weekend I was honoured to speak at SlutWalk NYC, which was held in Union Square in Manhattan. The protest drew approximately 3000 people, despite the rain and the headlines about police treatment of protesters on Wall Street earlier in the week. SlutWalk was a thrill; as someone who spends a lot of time writing and thinking about sexual violence, it was a change to to be out in the street protesting against it. It was an even greater thrill to be walking and talking and chanting alongside other people who care about the issue. The enthusiasm and and commitment of the other protesters, and the diverse range of people present on the day, give me real hope for the future of feminism.
Here’s a rough approximation of the speech I gave on the day. Video to come, I hope.
The English language is a rich and creative one. We’re never content to have just one word for a concept. For example, if a person has had too much to drink, we might say they’re tipsy, pissed or inebriated. If they’re sad, they’re down, blue or lugubrious. And if a woman seeks, or enjoys, or has too much sex, or appears to do any of those things, or breaks the rules of femininity in any way at all, we, the richly creative speakers of the English language, have a wealth of terms for that.
Town bicycle – everyone’s had a ride.
Town doorknob – everyone’s had a turn.
Town mattress – everyone’s been on her.
And of course, the word that brought us here today, the remark that started this whole rowdy, raunchy, righteous affair – say it with me: SLUT.
Some of those words sound so outdated that they’re comical; you can call someone a “strumpet” these days and they’re more likely to giggle than get upset. That word might have fallen out of use (though if anyone wants to organize a StrumpetWalk, I will be the first one to sign up), but the concept is going strong.This movement is about reclaiming the word “slut.” But as that short and far from exhaustive list demonstrates, the idea behind “slut” has been with us for millennia. It is a powerful idea, a resilient idea, an idea that has worn through many synonyms over the centuries. Many of those words have fallen out of use. But the idea behind the word “slut,” and the beliefs and behavior that it justifies, is alive and well.
This idea says that sex decreases a woman’s worth.
This idea says that a woman who steps outside the bounds of acceptable femininity by enjoying sex, or seeking sex, or having a lot of sex, deserves whatever sexual violence is done to her.
This idea says that a woman who steps outside those bounds in any other way – by being anything other than white, straight, able-bodied, cis-gendered, slim and pretty – deserves whatever sexual violence is done to her.
This idea says that almost anything a woman does, says, wears or is, can be used to justify that violence.
Are you confident and outgoing? That could have been construed as flirting, and that is practically consent. Are you shy and reticent? You should have been confident and outgoing enough to firmly say “no.” Are you considered attractive by the standards of our culture? Well, you know how men get around pretty women. Are you considered unattractive by the standards of our culture? What man would force himself on an ugly woman? You must have asked for it.
This idea sets up a no-win situation, where no woman is pure enough to be blameless.
Words matter. Words are powerful. Words can be weapons. Today is about stripping the word “slut” of its centuries-old power. But this idea is bigger than the word “slut.” It’s big enough to inhabit any word it wants. So it’s not enough to reclaim the word. We have to do away with this idea once and for all.
My hope is that one day, not long from now, the word “slut” will sound as comical and old-timey as the word “strumpet” does today. But more importantly, I hope that the concept – the idea that having sex decreases a woman’s worth, and that women somehow deserve sexual violence – will strike us as equally outdated.
Thank you, New York. You’re all a bunch of wanton strumpets.