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wore (whether out of orthodoxy or concern for her safety), it is safe to presume that she would ignore those views as outdated; she would argue a little but soon give up on the resident dinosaur.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.