An organized parade of half-naked women on EDSA was the first thought that flashed through my mind when I saw my computer screen announce a “Slut Walk.” According to my Facebook events notification, a friend of mine had been invited to attend one.
I imagined the event would draw in a crowd of scantily-clad women, but I had no idea what its purpose could possibly be. Was this the decade’s version of the bra-burning of the 1970s (which, for the record, did not happen)? An image online provided a clue. One woman at a previous “Slut Walk” held a placard that read: “Don’t tell us how to dress; tell men not to rape.” Intrigued, I asked for friends’ opinions and did some sleuthing.
A Slut Walk, it turns out, is a public expression against certain negative stereotypes. It began in Toronto when college students attending a forum earlier this year were shocked to hear a police officer advise them not to “dress like sluts” to avoid becoming victims of sexual assault. The statement so incensed the women that a “Slut Walk” was organized to reclaim the word “slut.”
The demonstration has since been replicated in Sao Paulo, Mexico, New York, and other cities worldwide. In India, a toned-down version will be called “Besharmi Morcha” or “shameless protest” as the word “slut” will not be easily understood by the locals. The walks were all one in trying to make people realize that sexual assault cannot be justified by pinning the blame on the victim.
My friend Laura explained that “What ’slut’ is to women is what the terms ’faggot’ or ’sissy’ are to men. You fail to conform and you can expect that you will be called names and be harassed.”
I recalled the group of uniformed housekeepers who showed up outside the courthouse to shout “Shame on you!” at DSK. All members of New York Housekeepers Union, they were there to support one of their own. DSK, or Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is of course the erstwhile International Monetary Fund chief currently accused of sexual assault and other charges by a 32-year-old hotel housekeeper.
What are the notions being challenged by these women who have taken to the streets? The message that outraged the Slut Walk participants was, “If you look slutty, you’re asking for it.” And if the pattern engaged in by the alleged sexual predator DSK is to be examined, the message seems to be: “If you’re in my home/my workplace/my hotel room, you’re fair game.”
That there should be a continuing awareness campaign against sexual assault and gender stereotypes seems to be a logical conclusion. However, the actual execution of such a campaign can be a thorny issue. Slut Walk’s organizers do not instruct their demonstrators on how to dress as they aim to satirize what is meant by the word “slut.” Slut Walks, however, have shown women in stereotypical “slutty” wear: lingerie and various stages of undress.
The goal of the event is to challenge the notion of what a “slut” is, but to my mind, onlookers may just come away thinking it’s an organized rally for sex workers. This may just be the Catholic schoolgirl in me talking, but I think the negative connotation of the “S” word is so ingrained in us that attempts to truly “reclaim” the word through a parade would be futile. Yes, you might feel empowered taking action with your sisters in the cause, but would your target audience be swayed to look beyond your mini skirt? It definitely calls attention to women’s grievances, but to me the strategy is just too distracting (no offense to the more enlightened members of the opposite sex).
The Daily Beast offers a similar take on the event. It argued that organizers and participants are not furthering their cause and are actually encouraging the sexual objectification of women. It interviewed a former British prostitute who said that having Slut Walk’s participants dress in clothes she used to be forced to wear was hard to take.
I sympathize, because what used to be a word that described what to me is a dehumanizing occupation was being turned into something that should feel liberating and fun. Perhaps the activity is more successful in the empowerment and sense of liberation it brings to its participants rather than the actual awareness it raises?
Interesting too is how the French press decried how DSK was treated by the American media. The very public coverage of his arrest was criticized for purportedly destroying the presumption of innocence an accused like him would be legally entitled to back in his homeland. Americans, though, took pride in the feeling that even powerful men can be brought to justice and focused on a problem that previously did not get much news space. The complainant’s circumstances have brought attention to the dangers that those in her profession have to face: among others, predatory hotel guests and employers who might not always stand up for them. She was said to be lucky because, unlike a lot of her peers, she belonged to a union and her hotel swiftly came to her aid.
At the core of the fight are male attitudes that society has been tolerating (perhaps in DSK’s case, even encouraging). It must not just be the housekeepers and the scantily-clad who are fed up. The police officer’s infamous remark does not begin to explain what is happening in other places, where women who are all covered up can still expect to be harassed. I asked a male friend for another perspective but he just cracked a joke about the unfortunately-named activity that is Slut Walk.
He did, however, refer me to his friend Umagaba, from the Congo. Umagaba in his e-mail says that his country has the most rape incidents, particularly in the eastern region, even if women do not dress provocatively. His remark reminds me of a project I had read about a few months back about the sexual harassment epidemic in Egypt. It has gotten so bad that activists have come up with HarassMap, a website that tracks sexual harassment incidents in Egypt via SMS messages. Through it, both the police and the female population are alerted to harassment hotspots. In the long run, the website hopes to end the social acceptability of sexual harassment.
But back to the more controversial aforementioned “Slut Walk.” I wonder how Manila would respond to this kind of protest here. I wonder how Filipino women would weigh in. We don’t have a society as repressive as other countries, but we do have a problem with abusive men in positions of power and Filipino women who are in vulnerable situations. Remember that Calauan, Laguna mayor convicted of the rape-murder of a UP coed some years back?
The media is rife with other cases of Filipina OFWs sexually abused by their employers and of very young girls victimized by their male kin (shades of the “you’re in my home, you’re fair game” mindset).
To speculate, the mere use of the “S” word would probably turn off the conservatives, who might not be open to this method of protest. (I don’t see the Catholic Church jumping on this bandwagon). But the walk could also lead to an expanded debate about women’s rights in this country. Women’s reproductive health is definitely an issue, but so is the right to dress according to one’s tastes, the right to be stigma-free from society’s labels, and the right to be protected from sexual predators.
You may or may not agree with the methods women activists have been using to address sexual harassment and to foster a united feeling of empowerment. While I may not be participating in a Slut Walk anytime soon, I do understand why the social issues behind it have pushed women to go to the streets for redress. You may want to take to the streets with a snarky placard or support a less in-your-face approach such as HarassMap. To each her own method. Either way, the male intoxication with power, the warped sense of masculinity, and the victim-blaming have to end.