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Soraya Chemaly

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Why You Should Take Your Teenager on a SlutWalk

Posted: 10/ 1/2011 5:16 pm

Surely nothing I've done as a mother to date has mortified my 14- and 12-year-old daughters more than my enthusiasm for dressing like a flamboyant hooker and joining a SlutWalk.

SlutWalks, as you may have heard, protest the idea that how a woman dresses or looks can be used as an excuse for rape. A small march in Toronto has turned into an international movement involving tens of thousands of women and men in Canada, the United States, England, India, Australia, and Brazil.

Responses to the marches range from outrage to glee. For some, just the use of the word "slut" is horrifying -- connoting loose women flaunting their disregard for moral values. For others, any use of the word should be rejected, not appropriated, for being male defined and not reflective of women's empowerment.

Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of response, two things are clear to me. One, SlutWalks, make people talk about sexism and two, unless forced by a provocative catalyst we generally don't talk about gender bias to our children.

SlutWalks are an opportunity to talk to teenage girls (and boys) about the treacherous and unfair line they're pressured to walk between being socially mandated sexy good girls and "promiscuous" teen harlots, subject to social opprobrium.

As a mother and feminist, I appreciate the irony of embracing the word slut to protest a symptom of systematized misogyny. However, we can ill afford to reject and criticize a grass-roots movement embraced by people all over the world to draw attention to inequality and violence against women.

This is not about teaching people about the insidious damage that pervasive gender bias, often internalized, causes every day. It isn't about the right to wear revealing clothes or have frequent orgiastic sex. SlutWalkers march for safe and equal access to the public sphere even if, god forbid, you're born with a vagina.

It is surprising and disappointing that we still need events like SlutWalks to address what are fairly basic civil rights that men take for granted. But, maybe my surprise is naïve given the long tail of a conservative movement described by Susan Faludi twenty years ago.

In her Pulitzer Prize winning book, Backlash, Faludi described the conservative response of a society reeling from changes brought on by feminism. A response that created the hyper-gendered reality of four billion dollar a year Disney princesses and their muscular Hollywood super heroes counterparts. A response that shaped a generation whose idea of women's liberation, inaccurately conflated with sexual liberation, is "girls gone wild." A generation, woefully uneducated, that's doesn't give feminism an overt second thought.

Any serious review of facts, however, shows that despite some gains, the work of feminism is still vital. Female pay equity at 78 cents to the male dollar and the percentage of women in Congress has dropped from a one time high of 21 percent to today's 17 percent. Women's representation in senior, management positions in every sector of our economy stagnates in the 7-16 percent range.

We rate 9th in the world for number of rapes per capita, and that with an antiquated definition of "forcible" assault. According to the 2010 World Economic Forum's Gender Index Report, which demonstrates the strong correlation between the status of women and a country's prosperity and competitiveness, the U.S. ranks 19th for overall equity, 40th for political empowerment.

Yet, our kids are essentially taught that women here have nothing to complain about. With the exception of the condescending lessons of "Women's History Month" that focuses on how women were "given the vote," they learn virtually nothing about women's substantive contributions to our culture.

Our historical heroes, public statuary, currency, visible power brokers and sports arenas are dominated by men. Despite the Women's World Cup (which we watch in reruns), the only industries where women are prominent are those requiring them to be beautiful, thin and frequently half-naked. The only sectors where they dominate in the workforce, the lowest paid. We do little as a society to educate our children in a way that offsets a culture in which women are allowed to be visible and powerful only when they are commoditized.

Imagine a world where children had no idea who Martin Luther King or Thomas Jefferson are. That's what's happened to the women who've fought for women's rights. Children learn about John Adams, but not about Abigail Adams' entreaties that he "remember the ladies" when considering voting rights.

They read a Letter from Birmingham Jail, but not Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women, challenging Rousseau's ideas of female inferiority. They know what Malcolm X looks like, but wouldn't recognize Betty Friedan if she fell on them. Some kids might know who Shirley Chisolm was. God forbid Gloria Steinham or bell hooks come up in a class -- they have the audacity to still be alive.

As I approach 50, it occurred to me that 25 years is the average period constituting a generation. So, my lifespan roughly covers the two generations since birth control was approved by the FDA (1960), The Feminine Mystique (1963) was published and the Equal Pay Act (1963) was passed.

Yet, at the rate we're going it will be more than 100 years before pay equity is accomplished, we still cling to the myth that educated women "opt-out" of working by choice and reproductive rights continue to be under assault. SlutWalks are simply the most glaring and attention-grabbing symptom of the underlying causes of these inequities -- inequities that affect women of all colors, socio-economic classes and education levels. Talking about it to kids openly however is just so... unbecoming.

So, my conclusion is simple: if this is what it takes to expose my children to women and men who are thinking about double standards and marching for equality, then I'll go on a SlutWalk in six-inch heels.

WATCH: Mom's Feminist Discourse On Why Her Daughter Should Not Wear Slutty Clothes


 

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