Fifty years after the onset of the modern feminist movement, sexual violence remains a primary issue, especially for young women asserting their right to dress or undress as they choose. The “slut walk” is the latest protest gimmick, inspired by the stupidity of a Toronto police officer who advised women (rather unoriginally) to “avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” So, to make their point about victim blaming, women are proclaiming their sluttishness, trying to reframe it as a healthy, confident sexual choice; they’re “reappropriating” the word slut, along with its dress code, while simultaneously protesting their sexual objectification.
Good luck with that. A more dissonant strategy is hard to imagine. You don’t have to share the dim-witted belief that rape is caused even partly by provocatively dressed females to suspect that tottering around half-naked in stilettos may not be the most effective way for women to discourage their objectification.
I’m not making moral judgments about women’s sartorial or sexual preferences; I sympathize with the desire to de-moralize discussions of female sexuality. I’m simply questioning the utility of sluttishness in a fight against sexual violence. My concerns are practical, not moral; as a practical matter, we can control the way we present ourselves but not the ways in which we are perceived. Young women who proudly dress like sluts intending only to assert their sexual confidence should not be surprised if some onlookers believe that they’re advertising their availability as sexual toys. They should expect at least occasionally to be evaluated by their forms and not their intellectual or characterological contents.
Indeed, celebrating sluttishness probably encourages girls to rely on appearances; it tends to reduce sexuality, and self-regard, to a matter of appearance. A recent study from Kenyon College considering the influence of girl’s clothing styles on their “self-objectification” determined that about 25 percent of the clothes found in popular stores for girls was “sexualized.” Of course, sexualized dress is a fairly subjective concept: the Kenyon researchers defined it as “clothing that revealed or emphasized a sexualized body part, had characteristics associated with sexiness, and/or had sexually suggestive writing.” But talk to the mothers with young daughters, and you can accumulate a lot of anecdotal evidence and concern about the naïve idealization of sluttishness and the “power” it gives girls over boys. It’s a perverse version of feminism that encourages sexually vulnerable girls to feel protected by highly sexualized femininity.
Slut walks seem about as likely to advance a feminist agenda as Disney princesses or the viewing parties organized around the wedding of Will and Kate. Princesses or sluts? Virgins or whores? The choices are familiar, like the belief that girls and women are empowered by aggressively asserting their sexuality, in the most conventional ways. Power sluttishness was the theme of Cosmo girls decades ago and was reinvented by lipstick feminism (and Madonna) in the 1990s. It has always held obvious, understandable appeal to young women eager to disassociate from the stereotypical image of feminists as unattractive, desexualized, and (at least aspirationally) emasculating.
But lipstick feminism, under various rubrics, has contributed to feminism’s incoherence, effectively embracing or “appropriating” sexual objectification in the vain hope of defeating it and positing sexual allure as a political act. It is, however, a personal act, and the personal is often apolitical. Celebrating depoliticized female empowerment, lipstick feminism helped confer popular feminist credibility on such antifeminist celebrities as Sarah Palin. The feminist movement has never been monolithic; women’s rights advocates have been divided historically by differing visions of equality or protectionism for women, individualism or collectivism, as well as by class and racial conflicts. But these days feminism is so splintered and so ideologically confused that it barely exists as a movement at all.
That’s too bad for women, because they’re regularly losing fundamental rights, most notably their rights to privacy and reproductive choice. At the state and federal levels, lawmakers have proposed or enacted a long list of prohibitive limitations on access to abortion; intrusive conditions on women seeking abortions (like mandatory sonograms); and financial burdens or punishments for women who obtain abortions and for organizations that provide them (notably Planned Parenthood, which is primarily devoted to women’s health care). Meanwhile, not surprisingly, the right to dress like a slut remains secure.