Sunday, May 8, 2011

Why the SlutWalk is an exercise in stupidity

Social media have facilitated the growth of a disparate bunch of imagined communities, some more hedonistic than idealistic, yet rarely have I seen anything as misguided or incoherent on the scale of SlutWalk, a recently created Facebook movement that has caught on in North America.

The idea for the event arose after a Canadian police officer, Michael Sanguinetti, made a controversial observation to a group of students at York University. It is evident that Sanguinetti was not speaking for the law when he said, "I've been told I'm not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized." He was not threatening anyone with arrest; he was not foolish enough to advocate moral policing. It is probably fair to say that his stance was more grounded in paternalistic rhetoric, which sometimes carries undertones of superciliousness.

If a woman's father disapproved of what she wore (whether out of orthodoxy or concern for her safety), it is safe to presume that she would ignore those views as outdated; she would argue a little but soon give up on the resident dinosaur. It is ironic then, that a cop -- an authority figure of similar standing who was, in this case, acting as a concerned elder -- should elicit such an overreaction for what was essentially a well-intentioned if ill-framed piece of advice.

The most significant problem with Sanguinetti's statement is that he was establishing an inaccurate causal link. Not dressing like a slut is no guarantee that a woman will escape victimization. To be victimized is to have one's power taken away by force. No woman ever ought to feel threatened on account of what she chooses to wear. Daring fashion sense is no provocation for any kind of misbehavior.

'Misbehavior' can range from cat-calling to rape. Sometimes the framing can be ambiguous. For instance flirting involves judgment, and knowing when to withdraw. At the other end of the spectrum, seducing someone -- male or female -- through suggestive sexual behavior, engaging in consensual intercourse and then claiming it was rape is the act of an emotionally unstable individual, a crime of victimization in its own right. Such subtleties need usually be applied, however, only to the fraction of exceptions. Like porn, misbehavior is generally easy to identify if harder to define.

To its credit, the SlutWalk march seeks to reiterate the patently obvious -- but, in a recent case, shockingly overlooked -- idea that the law should not discriminate between molesters on the basis of what a victim was wearing.

Here's the thing: the protest would have been better served had it been called 'What not to wear: Wear what you like!' But of course, that wouldn't have generated any controversy at all. And a movement that can't make headlines is hardly worth the name.

The inclusion of the word 'slut' in SlutWalk pushes either inadvertently or on purpose for a re-evaluation of that derogatory epithet. This is, then, no longer about rape and righteous indignation. Reduced to the level of the sensational, the debate generates larger ripples of cause and consequence; there are also unavoidable evolutionary implications that SlutWalk is not equipped to handle.

For instance, society labels promiscuous women as 'slutty' and sexually successful men as 'studs', but contrary to the popular opinion that this discrepancy in naming is unfair, I argue that it makes perfect sense at least in the context of straight people.

This much is true: as the physically stronger sex, men are capable of posing a greater threat of violence. Several studies agree that in Western and Westernized societies, sexual harassment is more often perpetrated by men on women -- a conclusion which could be extended with some justification to every country. But the majority comprises of law-abiding citizens. Women, particularly those in the West, wield the power to say no to sexual contact at every level of interaction. So long as that is respected, social order is maintained. Even if in theory, sexual choice resides equally with both men and women and is exercised after paying due attention to one's relative attractiveness, women in urban American cities are still likely to refuse a sexual encounter more often than a man. This puts their gender in a position of control.

Mate selection is a complex process. Nature tasks women with carrying babies in their womb and men with spreading their seed as widely as possible to maximize chances of survival. Family becomes an efficient mechanism for collective growth. Monogamy within marriage is of course a form of socially sanctioned hypocrisy, albeit one that serves a useful purpose: in the interests of raising a child the libido must be selectively repressed, which is one of the reasons why women must be picky about the father.

The most attractive people of either sex naturally exert the greatest power over the selection of a mate. But to put it crassly, the average heterosexual, college-educated American woman would probably have to project lesser effort -- lesser sexual energy, lesser charisma -- to get a man to sleep with her, than the average heterosexual American man must, in order to bed a woman. Both men and women seek optimal, "high-value" partners with whom they might set up a family; it just happens that high-value men are subconsciously driven by their natural instincts to conduct sexual relations with a greater number of females of "inferior social value" than women do, with "low-grade" men.

Simply put, the average man finds it harder to get laid, so any male who can manage it consistently is considered high-value, while high-value women are viewed by society as having achieved nothing out of the ordinary through promiscuous behavior, and worthy of censure for having chosen to postpone the responsibility of nurturing a child within the structured environment of a family.

As far as nature is concerned the matter transcends morality. Too many 'sluts' can threaten the future of the species by eventually settling for ‘nice guy’ beta-males and producing ‘weaker’ babies later in life, just as in-breeding and incest could potentially multiply genetic defects. That's right: if you really want to rake up controversy, try setting up a walk to promote incestuous behavior. Sluts are a lame demographic in comparison.

Jokes apart, this is not to say that women should be denied sexual freedom; this freedom will, however, be purchased inexorably at the price of social disapproval.

Such disapproval must not be countered by yelling at the top of one's lungs that being a slut is acceptable. That distracts from the real aim of these protests -- which is to dissociate 'rape' from 'what a woman is wearing' -- and sows confusion. Including the word 'slut' in the title is not the most intelligent way to market the purported revolution. A tactic less subversive than silly, and attention-seeking in intent, it will fail to move this intensely puritanical system, just as a child will (hopefully) discover it cannot get its way by throwing a tantrum in a supermarket aisle simply because it was denied a bar of chocolate.

The SlutWalk does epitomize the valid point that women are free to express themselves in any manner of their choosing. Organizing a campaign like this is one of many ways to help women internalize the feeling that they are not to blame for rape. It also serves to remind society that patronizing judgments are not acceptable and will not go unchallenged.

But SlutWalk is not a race meant to anoint the least-judgmental amongst us as winner. Disagreeing with its coding does not mean I respect women any less. If anything, I fear SlutWalk's premise is faulty, and must instead focus on resonating with the widest possible audience.

The term 'slut' is loaded with connotations of selfish, id-driven opportunism and as such carries far less gravitas than other words re-appropriated through various civil rights movements. It cannot be reclaimed via some cheap gimmick.

To achieve that kind of institutional change will require something more substantial than attaching disruptive labels to a peace rally.


  1. This is absolutely right on target.

  2. Agreed. A very engaging insight.

    I am now following your blog.

  3. So the movement would have been better served by a title that wouldn't have generated any media attention, mmm?

    The aim of these is more than just the rape-clothing non-connection, it objects to the notion that an expediently defined category of less-deserving women exists.

  4. I am saying, the movement would have been better served by a title whose message wasn't hijacked and distorted by controversy.

    What does "less-deserving" mean? Are you arguing that sluts must not be perceived as low-value? In my piece I outline biological reasons for such widespread discrimination: reasons that don't make it right, but make sense all the same. You may be shouting against the wind.

    At any rate your opinion, contrasted against many others, reinforces my point that the protest lacks a coherent message. Now to some that might not seem important: a march like this after all serves best as a cultural signpost, and also as a way to meet more people who share your values, which helps build momentum.

    Yet, most women (and men) I have spoken with dismiss SlutWalk as well-intentioned but willful, contrarian and unsophisticated. I am inclined to agree with them.

    I have no doubt that the status quo will eventually be overthrown, and gender equality established; but I believe such political achievements will owe far more to the intellectual direction charted out by activist- scholars like Judith Butler than the lightweight efforts of dilettantes.

  5. Shouting against the wind maybe, but have you found yourself in a group that nature has labeled "less deserving"? You may be inclined to stamp your foot in defiance as well.

    Willful, Contrarian and Unsophisticated sound like the worst law firm in the land, but not a bad foundation for a non-academic grassroots movement. While in my area at least the organizers are clearly drawing from a theoretical foundation, the support for the ideas comes from the lay public - perhaps even the working class. Are you sure that in dismissing their efforts as lightweight you're not betraying an elitist preference for perspectives that are born from privilege? Do academics not study, learn, and steal from street movements? Willful and Contrarian characterizes every academic of worth, doesn't it? Your concern with how the message is received, with the importance for it to be coherent, suggests a discomfort with the messiness of the situation. It's only a facade that this messiness is cleaned up in a scholarly treatment - it's more likely just pasted over.

  6. You raise several valid points, Victoria.

    I am inclined to go against the grain quite often on account of various provocations -- hence the title of the blog -- but in most cases it isn't so much nature as society that deems me "less deserving". So, to answer your question: no, I have never found myself in such a group. But I can definitely sympathize with your POV.

    I believe you are only partly correct in your assertions when you critique my perspective as top-down in its approach. While I recognize your concern that my attitude seems arrogant, let me reassure you that as a Gramscian Marxist I wholly subscribe to the notion of the organic intellectual. That does not however imply that every grassroots movement is automatically above criticism, or that every citizen intellectual is taking the most efficient route to our common destination. My opposition to this movement is rooted in good faith.

    I am uncomfortable with messiness (it's true) probably because I know from personal experience how unproductive it is to be intellectually sloppy. You are right: messiness does not imply that the movement is doomed to failure. But vigorous debate must not be confused with noise. I'm afraid most debaters on both sides appear more invested in advancing their moral agenda rather than listening to each other, especially when someone is making sense.

  7. An effective campaign should have a coherent message (smoking is sexy?), and should avoid 'silly attention seeking tactics'? LOL!
    With all due respect, It's a good thing you're in academia instead of marketing.

    Yes, society deems women worthy of censure/less deserving for not fitting a predefined role: the objective is to redefine that role. It's a great campaign, and it's resonating with a pretty wide audience.

  8. Uzza, "coherence" is not necessarily independent of ideology (and can be used to drive home ethically dubious propaganda), but it always connotes "unified". Every effective marketing campaign has a unified message that it never strays away from and drills into your head, but not every marketing campaign is -- for what it's worth -- righteous.

    Attention-seeking behavior is a sign of low self-esteem. I believe SlutWalk's message is self-harming, like smoking. Women ought to know better. Would you rather SlutWalk were "effective" than well thought out?

    SlutWalk has certainly resonated with a wide audience. Only, for all the good it does, it fails to teach women to respect themselves.

  9. What? Your assessment of SlutWalk attendees as being devoid of self-respect or esteem is so far off the mark as to be comical. Isn't fighting for control of the meaning of a word that has been used to denigrate you indicative of self-respect?

  10. I think the context matters. If someone brands you an "idiot", would you fight to overturn the meaning of the word, and then proudly use that same word -- as in, "I'm an idiot and I'm proud of it" -- as a badge of honor?

    Hateful words like "faggot", "nigger" and "cunt" are very different from a judgmental word like 'slut'. People were slapped with the first three merely because of who they were, not because of actions they were personally responsible for, as in the case of "slut".

    Being a "cunt" is something a woman ought to be proud of; being a "slut" on the other hand is harder to justify because while it holds out the promise of freedom it simultaneously connotes selfishness.

    In the real world, rights are balanced by responsibilities. Words loaded with moralistic implications are impossible to whitewash.

    My policy in these matters tends to be, do as you please, but beyond a certain point you ought not to try to convert non-believers, or you will fall into the trap of becoming self-righteous yourself.

  11. Well without all the pretentious evo-pysch babble you make it clear that people being disrespected, harassed, raped and killed is less important to you than whether they dress and act the way you think they should.

  12. Your 'discussion' of slut-shaming being inescapable because of evolution is poor. Mate selection is a part of non-sentient, animal reproduction, yes. However, your theory is speculation that fails to take into account any of the long history of sexual oppression of women. Throughout our evolution, infantcide in tough times was also common- and yet, it doesn't appear to be hard-wired into the human psyche and inevitable in modern day life.

    The slut/stud dichotomy is far more likely to be a result of millenia of the oppression of women (sexual oppression being a key way of denying women power), as opposed to a deep-seated, subconscious desire secretly possessed by all women to limit their sexual activity to only the 'best' mates. Pre-westernised cultures have little problem with women being sexually active beings. Why is there no slut-shaming in those cultures, if it 'makes perfect sense'?

    Furthermore, even if it were evolution and not culture that creates slut-shaming, why does that make it 'fair' to you? Should women and men not have the right tobe sexually active without being shamed?

  13. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous.

    You misrepresent my argument. I'm certainly not making the argument that humans are "hardwired" to treat women as sluts, or that the slut/stud dichotomy stems from eugenics alone.

    To begin with, I agree: while women choose to dress a certain way to invite the kind of attention they desire, they ought to be free to dress in any way they like without inviting unwanted attention.

    What I am saying is such discrimination, while it ought not to be justifiable, nevertheless makes perfect sense in the context of straight people in modern society. There are "common-sensical" reasons (not logical reasons, mind you) for this status quo to persist.

    It is rarer for men to get laid as often as they like, so anyone who can manage that is treated as prize stock. Any woman who can manage this is seen as achieving nothing out of the ordinary for her gender and not exercising the responsibility that comes with power. This is of course a social construct, as I've argued:
    "This is not to say that women should be denied sexual freedom; this freedom will, however, be purchased inexorably at the price of social disapproval."

    What pre-Western societies are you referring to? Morality has changed shape over the past few thousand years but the one steady social rule has been that people with power have often overstepped their authority.

    Also, contra your point about the oppression of women, I believe that power relations are far more complex. Different people, depending on their various affiliations and identities, have different levels of access to power. While women have traditionally been denied access to political power, they are endowed especially in the West, with other kinds of power in other domains, such as the choice to make sexual selection. A minority of males might try to usurp this power through actions such as rape but the law, ideally, knows to deal with them.

    The SlutWalk's larger philosophical point that the word 'slut' must be drained of its negative implications is valid as an ideal only to a limit: who in their right mind would encourage selfishness and id-driven behavior? (The organizers of SlutWalk are in my opinion demanding rights without clearly acknowledging responsibilities.) At any rate, given that American society is intensely, puritanical, that goal is likely too hard to achieve in the short term.

  14. In my view, this is all about the fact that women are 100% certain that their offspring are their's and men aren't. By seeking to control famale sexual behaviour the goal is to ensure that the man is certain that he passing on his genes - particularly in modern human societies where he is investing so much to ensure the survival of a limited number of young - young that are pretty weak and that take a long time to develop. And so it also benefits the female to have the protection of the male while her children are developing. However, it benefits the gene pool to have your offspring fathered by different males, at least it did when our societies were smaller. So, promiscuity is as a natural thing for females as it is for males. Men know this and therefore try and tighten the control. Slut-shaming is a continuation of a male attempt to control what they are no longer able to by force (unless they rape!). Sorry, it might or might not have it's origins in biolgy but it's no longer acceptable, which is the whole point.If anything, it's against nature to slut shame. If you're talking about evolution, maybe it's time to move on a step!

  15. Two points:

    First, I've never seen 'studs' given higher social value than 'nice guys'. Seriously, women might sleep with them for pleasure, but nobody wants to settle down with their local player to raise a family, 'cause it's hard to trust that he won't stray. Genetically speaking, as long as a man is healthy, non-promiscuity is valued by women - it is MEN who praise other men for sleeping around, and to assume that women find the trait attractive is nonsense.

    Secondly, female promiscuity isn't seen as a problem in some societies. In pre-christian times, monogamy wasn't even considered terribly important. In the 5th century BC there were even peoples where women would wear an anklet for every man they bedded, and the one with the most was considered the best because she had been loved the most. In another, women would traditionslly sleep with all their wedding guests, in exchange for gifts from their households. The ideal of female chastity is a hangover from the Abrahamic religions, and it has no roots in anything real except the shaming and subjugation of women.

    In a world where contraception is readily available, women and men have an equal sexual playing field, and it's about time society recognised that - whatever the woman wears.

  16. A really interesting debate that I have come very late to. I can see the 'logic' of your argument, and tried to read it without gender biase.

    Ultimately this is about equality, if you sleep around or not. It is the right to have as many partners as you want, or to say no to everyone. It's the right for neither of those choices to be used against you or as a preconception of the person you are. It is the right to control your own body.

    We cannot change everyone's values or opinions to be the same as ours, but everyone should have the same rights, no matter gender, sexuality, race, disability - anything.

    With respect to women, it's a shame society, including women, do not seem to value females, their contribution and all their complex traits - from strength to softness - enough to grant them protection, freedom and choice. I extend that same sadness to men and all their complexities.

    Equality for a woman, should not mean having to become like a man. Equality, is the right to be you - and be respected for it.

    Lastly, to respond to your statement that women have had the power to make sexual selection, this is not true, not in near history anyway. It has only been a recent law that has meant a husband could actually 'rape' his wife, before that it wasn't acknowledged. A woman, until recently, automatically lost her children if she left her husband - be it for abuse or adultery, hers or his. A woman could have been committed to asylum by her husband for 'hysteria' or other conditions, without her consent.

    Women have been used as tools of male power-bargaining for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. I am not saying it was all unconsensual, I would imagine in the context of that society those women felt it was their duty and didn't imagine life differently.

    However, there was no exercising of female power, not on the whole. There was no female rights over their minds, bodies, property - both intellectual and pysical. Women have been misused, controlled, forced against their wills, deemed less valuable, less necessary - apart from their wombs - across the world. Times have changed, but when victims are still blamed for wrongs against them, I don't care about any logical argument - they need to change more.

  17. I agree.

    Biology reveals primates to be prevalent rapists and murders. Ethical or not, this is true.

    What's the point of criminal psychology bothering to help identify a pattern that could be helpful to avoid predation, when it's likely to get rejected on ethical or politically incorrect grounds?

    Were dealing with arguments like:
    'Educate a man not to rape, and he wont!'
    is about as effective as...
    'Educate a woman to avoid rapists, and she will!'
    See what I did there?

    Genius. When approached by an individual of nefarious intent, don't forget, slogan out! Why not go commando and write it over your arse cheeks so he's bound to see it? If only our ancestors had taken education a little more seriously, rape and other forms of criminality would be pretty much licked at this point. Why didn't they think of that ?!

    We're so extinct.