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Topless Women at SlutWalk Demand Respect: Is This the Right Tactic?

10/05/2011 02:16 pm ET | Updated Dec 05, 2011

I wrote the book on sluts -- literally. Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation was first published in 1999 and has since become a required text in many gender and women's studies courses. So when I planned to attend New York City's SlutWalk, I had high expectations. I assumed the event would be the protest rally I'd long been waiting for.

In Slut! I uncovered and analyzed the then-little-discussed phenomenon I named "slut-bashing." I advised: don't call anyone a "slut," for any reason, ever -- since no one, regardless of her sexual behavior, deserves to be treated in this fashion. I also connected slut-bashing, a consequence of the sexual double standard -- the belief that males can be sexually promiscuous but females should not be -- with sexual violence and rape.

The logo for the SlutWalk march and rally in New York City on Saturday was a lipstick-wearing Statue of Liberty holding up a placard reading, "No Excuse for Rape!" The tagline: "No one has the right to touch you without your consent." Like Take Back the Night marches, an annual fixture on many campuses, the SlutWalk's goal was to raise awareness about the prevalence of sexual violence and to protest the common tendency to blame the victim because of her clothes or behavior.

But unlike Take Back the Night marches, this march had the word "slut" in its title. Naïvely, I thought that the point of invoking this ugly, harmful word was to prod people to think twice before using the term. I assumed slut-bashing was going to get the attention it deserves -- finally! Lots of people would now have the chance to ponder the meaning of "slut" and would refuse to use the word ever again.

Yet when I arrived, I discovered that precisely the opposite viewpoint ruled. The word "slut," in fact, was celebrated. Several thousand people -- mostly young white women -- milled around Union Square with placards reading "Sluts Say Yes" and "I'm Only a Slut for My Man" while the rock group Witches in Bikinis (yes, they wear bikinis -- along with wigs in neon colors) sang over and over, "If I wanna be a slut, so what? So what?"

In an effort to thumb their noses at anyone who argues that a woman dressed in sexually provocative clothes is issuing an invitation to be raped, many marchers arrived wearing little more than boots, tights, and bras. They walked around the neighborhood for an hour chanting, "However I'm dressed, wherever I go, yes means yes and no means no." Soon the bras were discarded; a number of women remained topless. On their chests, many had written in marker slogans such as "Consent Is Sexy." One woman had penned, "I Am More Than These" with arrows pointing to her breasts.

The first SlutWalk took place in Toronto in April 2011 after a representative of the Toronto Police told female students at a University of Toronto safety seminar that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized." Students were outraged and rose up in protest. Since then, SlutWalks have taken place in dozens of cities across Canada and the U.S. and around the world. In a matter of months, an enormous, exciting international grassroots movement has grown.

Is the time ripe to appropriate "slut"? Forgive me, sisters: I don't think so.

For at least a decade, many women angry about the sexual double standard have tried to wrest control of the "slut" label. Instead of being shamed for our sexuality, the thinking has been, let's take ownership of this label and transform it into something positive. That's a brave, cheeky move with doses of irony and humor mixed in. I have a closet full of "Slut" T-shirts given to me by campus groups after my lectures on slut-bashing. But I've never worn them; most people aren't in on the joke.

Certainly at the SlutWalk, everyone was in on the joke. I asked a young woman named Sonya, dressed in a Superwoman costume with "SuperSlut" printed on her chest in marker, what the word "slut" means to her. "Female empowerment," she told me. "Being proud to be a woman." Another woman held up a sign reading, "I Am a Rape Survivor -- No One Deserves It." I asked her what she thought about the word "slut." She too advocates reclaiming the term. "It's naïve to think we can ever eradicate it," she told me. "I was called a 'slut' in high school and later on my boyfriend raped me. I never thought of myself as a 'slut' because I was not promiscuous. Reclaiming the word is good. We can take it back by changing the tone and the attitude." Another woman, wearing a "Sluts Everywhere" T-shirt, told me that "the ideal is to get rid of the word but we can't, so let's embrace it."

The attempt to reclaim a hurtful slur is clearly seductive. One woman told me that appropriating "slut" is just like blacks taking back "nigger" for themselves. But to my mind, this analogy trivializes the oppression of blacks. Racism continues to oppress in America even while there is near-universal agreement that "nigger" is a terrible word. The black person who uses "nigger" is saying, in effect, that racism is alive and well, but that the joke is on racists, since they have lost control over their own racist language. The linguistic humor can make individuals feel good about themselves, which is certainly important, but does that usage have the power to overturn racism? Following the lead of black feminist writer Audre Lorde, one could argue that when a black person uses "nigger" in a playful or ironic way, she is using the "master's tools" to dismantle the "master's house." But according to Lorde, using the "master's tools" is destined to fail. Whether or not Lorde was correct, it is undeniable that racism today is more subtle than in the past -- yet ever pernicious.

Also, we must not forget that historically whites have likened black women to sexual savages, as inescapably slutty. Only a woman with white racial privilege can afford to use irony in calling herself a "slut."

An open letter to the organizers of SlutWalk NYC signed last week by hundreds of black women, and posted on the Huffington Post, read, "As Black women, we do not have the privilege or the space to call ourselves 'slut' without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the Black woman is. We don't have the privilege to play on destructive representations burned in our collective minds, on our bodies and souls for generations."

In any event, "slut" is not similar to "nigger" because many people continue to think that "slut" is a useful and necessary punitive term. They believe that the sexual double standard is a good thing, that women (but not men) who enjoy sex with more than one partner or who otherwise fulfill the stereotype of the "slut" deserve to shamed. So when SlutWalk marchers wear one-piece bikinis and proudly declare themselves "sluts," they may feel empowered about their own lives -- but they unwittingly reinforce harmful stereotypes among the population at large. "Slut" is not just an insult. The word has oppressed some teenage girls so deeply they have chosen to end their lives because of it.

Regarding the issue of clothing, I confess that I arrived at the SlutWalk dressed entirely inappropriately. An observant Jew, I had walked to Union Square directly after attending synagogue services uptown, so I showed up wearing a prim-and-proper cashmere sweater with a librarianish pencil skirt. But I'm not a prude and I'm not opposed to provocative clothes. I most definitely don't believe that a woman ever deserves to be mistreated because of her clothes -- or for any other reason.

Is walking around topless going to help the cause? Again, I don't think so. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that women and men alike should use good judgment in the clothing choices they make. There is a time and place to reveal one's body. A serious event intended to educate people about sexual violence is not the right time and place.

Yes, "SuperSlut" and other outrageous costumes aside, SlutWalk NYC was indeed a serious call to action. Organizers chose Union Square to raise awareness of the nearby alleged rape of a woman by an NYPD officer when she asked him and a colleague in 2008 to help her home after a drunk night. At one point during the trial the defense lawyer for the officers likened the victim's genitals to a Venus fly trap. In May 2011 they were acquitted and in August they were charged only with official misconduct.

Meanwhile, teenage girls continue to commit suicide after being labeled a "slut," and cyber-bullying makes this form of harassment more devastating than ever before for all girls. We would do better to raise awareness about the harm this label causes and to encourage its elimination altogether.