Let the wars over “rape culture” begin! Since the 1970s the annual “Take Back the Night” anti-rape march, organized by campus feminists and featuring phalanxes of females carrying signs saying things like “Claim Our Bodies, Claim Ourselves,” was as solid a college tradition as Homecoming Week, even though the ranks of protesters have lately gotten a bit thin (a “Night” rally at Dartmouth last May attracted only 70 students). But now there’s a challenger to Take Back the Night’s decades-long monopoly on indignation at a male-controlled society that supposedly condones the sexual abuse of women: “SlutWalk.” SlutWalk is very much like Take Back the Night–except that the SlutWalk marchers wear hardly any clothes.
Only six months old, SlutWalk seems to be already outstripping (as it were) Take Back the Night in popularity; a SlutWalk protest in New York City on October 1st drew about a thousand marchers flaunting midriffs, lacy brassieres, and strategically placed tattoos. So there’s now some tension between the two groups. The Take Back the Night people accuse the SlutWalkers of turning a demonstration against sexual violence into a demonstration for the right to walk around in public in your underwear, while the SlutWalk people see the Take Back the Night crowd as fuddy-duddies.
SlutWalk got its start in April, after a police constable in Toronto told a personal security class at York University that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized." His admonition was similar to a Brooklyn policeman's recent suggestion, in the wake of a series of street-rapes in Brooklyn, that young women avoid walking alone late at night wearing short skirts. The Toronto constable, Michael Sanguinetti, became the Larry Summers of Ontario academia, and about 1,000 angry feminists labeling themselves "sluts" poured into the streets of Toronto, just as they did in New York on Oct. 1. The police suggestions in both cities actually seemed practical—rather like not flashing expensive jewelry or leaving your wallet hanging out while walking alone in a rough part of town late at night (it's not your fault if you get mugged, but you might have avoided that risk). The apparent M/O of the Brooklyn serial rapist, whose last two crimes took place in early September, is to grab his victim from behind and push his hand up her skirt—late at night.
But in the ideologically convoluted world of "rape culture," rape isn't a crime of sexual desire but of patriarchal dominance. The fact that 80 percent of sexual-assault victims are under age 30 and thus at their peak of sexual attractiveness (apparently the patriarchy isn't interested in middle-aged women), which suggests that rape and sex actually do have something to do with each other, doesn't faze the feminists. So it's not surprising that they misinterpreted the police counsels as "blaming the victim" and "slut-shaming"—yet another example of how male-dominated society trivializes and even encourages rape. So thin-skinned are the promoters of the rape-culture mentality that when a female student at the University of Wyoming was advised to stop smoking after she complained that a campus smoking ban would expose her to sexual assault if she crossed the street to have a cigarette, the university's Women's Action Network interpreted the advice as implying that she would have to change her behavior if she didn't want to be raped. The Women's Action Network promptly staged a campus SlutWalk. As blogger Violet Blue wrote in August, "SlutWalk was organized to make a statement about female sexual agency, and what happens when you take it away by telling us that sexualizing our already-sexualized-by-the-culture-bodies is our tacit way of telling the world we desire nonconsensual sexual violence."
Blue went into high dudgeon over a July 20 op-ed article in the New York Times in which feminist writer Rebecca Traister declared that she had "wanted to love SlutWalks" because they conveyed the idea of draining the word "slut" of its implication that "a woman who takes a variety of sexual partners or presents herself in an alluring way is somehow asking to be hit on, assaulted, or raped." Nonetheless, Traister wrote, "[s]cantily clad marching" seemed "less like victory than capitulation (linguistic and sartorial) to what society already expects of its young women." Blue accused Traister and other "Old Guard feminists" of characterizing the SlutWalkers as "young and foolish" and of engaging in the same sort of "sexual shaming and repression" as the patriarchs. "[B]y denying a woman's right to be a slut, and most especially a safe slut, she's still safeguarding the male privilege that got us all here in the first place," Blue wrote.
Blue's remarks are yet another illustration of the tenuous connection that rape-culture ideology has with reality. The truth is that men's sexual responses are highly susceptible to visual stimuli, and that women, who are also sexual beings after all, seek to generate those stimuli by displaying as much of their attractive selves as social mores or their own personal moral codes permit. In Victorian times that meant flashing an ankle every now and then, and in our time it means…whatever. It's not surprising that "prostitute" is a top favorite female Halloween costume, followed by "sexy witch," "sexy nurse," "sexy pirate," and so forth. Nor is it surprising that young women are flocking to SlutWalks to the detriment of staid old Take Back the Night, where the dress code seems to be blue jeans and T-shirts. They get another chance besides Halloween to dress up like prostitutes!
This arrangement works fairly well in controlled settings such as campuses or other middle-class peer environments where the men know the rules—that girl in the hip-length miniskirt is not to be touched no matter how much you feel like it– and the inhibition-releasing alcohol is not too freely flowing. It does not work so well when that same girl, wearing the same miniskirt, ventures into a part of town where the men either don’t know the rules or don’t feel any constraint to obey them. There, among the various under classes of America, a real rape culture lives, along with other dysfunctional and destructive cultures: drug culture, booze culture, crime culture, prostitution-culture, absent-father culture, abused-children culture. It's safe to bet that the Brooklyn serial rapist has never set foot on a college campus. And even middle-class young men of practiced self-restraint are wont to get conflicting signals—and hence not to pick up the consciousness-raising feminist message—when they see a young woman attired in a lace corset and high heels marching down the sidewalk carrying a sign that reads, "My Clothes Are Not My Consent." According to Inside Higher Education, a New York SlutWalker who decided to perform a pole dance on the sidewalk in order to demonstrate her right to dress and act as she pleased was surrounded by men filming her on their phones.
Significantly, one of the groups of women that have not bought into SlutWalking are black women. Inside Higher Ed reported that 53 African-American women, many of them college professors, signed an open letter that read, "We are perplexed by the use of the term 'slut' and any implication that this word, much like the word 'Ho' or the 'N' word should be re-appropriated." Those women likely have too much experience with and proximity to the realities of black underclass—and the horrors of the real rape culture as opposed to the fantasy rape culture concocted by feminist ideologues—to be sympathetic to the nostalgie de la boue implicit in calling oneself a "slut" for the purpose of social protest. Their white sisters shielded by the safe confines of academia could learn something from that.