Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Walking on the thoughtful side

An acquaintance of mine, Robin Phillips, has written a more than intriguing article about a phenomenon that seems to be circling the globe: the so-called "Slutwalk."

The first Slutwalk, Phillips says, was held in Toronto on April 3 of this year.
The event began as a protest against comments made by Police constable, Michael Sanguinetti, back in January this year when he addressed a group of students at the Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. He said, “You know, I think we’re beating around the bush here. I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.”
Oh, boy! Time for protest!
[F]eminists throughout the world have expressed concern that his comments were symptomatic of the pervasive assumption that men are not responsible for crimes of sexual violence against women. The organizers of Slutwalk have argued that sexual exploitation is never ok even when women dress immodestly.
Phillips notes that of course the victimizer or exploiter is responsible for his own actions.
PC Sanguinetti never suggested that the men who commit sexual crimes are not responsible for their actions. Nor has anyone claimed that when a man commits acts of violence against a woman that he is not responsible as long as the woman in question was dressed like a slut.
--Sorry, Phillips, I can "buy" your first comment about Sanguinetti; I am not at all convinced you are correct about the second point. Indeed, though (happily!) I have never been present for a rape case, from what I have read and heard, I understand the "she was asking for it by her dress" argument has often been used by defendants and defendants' counsel in such cases. It is my understanding that this type of "defense" is losing its appeal and so may be dying. But I am quite sure you are wrong about the idea that no one has "claimed that when a man commits acts of violence against a woman that he is not responsible as long as the woman in question was dressed like a slut."

Still. I found Phillips' next point rather thought-provoking, at least, and, possibly, bracing.
In any other area of criminal justice, it is generally accepted that people can do things to try to avoid being victimized. To say that shop keepers should lock their doors at night to decrease the chances of theft is not degrading to shop keepers, nor does it absolve burglars from responsibility. Or again, to say that it is sometimes prudent for those organizing youth events to insist that participants have a background check is not to degrade children nor does it absolve paedophiles from responsibility. In the same way, to say that women can decrease the chances of being victimized by dressing appropriately is neither to degrade women nor to absolve rapists from guilt.
Phillips goes on from there to discuss issues related to s*xual objectification on the one hand and the freedom to "celebrate" one's s*xuality on the other. And the more than intriguing, but, rather, disturbing thought--a thought that I'm not sure he develops adequately nor, therefore, completely believably--that the behavior of Slutwalk participants ("[In] the Toronto and Boston events, . . . scores of women dressed in bikinis, miniskirts and other minimalist outfits (some [went] completely topless)") presupposes a "narrative about the body" very much in line with "that which animates Muslim women who wear burqas."

Sadly, Phillips makes a number of typographical errors and mixes up his words here and there, thus obscuring his intended meaning. That may have something to do with why I found his proposed correlation between nakedness and burqas less than compelling.

Still, he raises several points worthy not only of thought, but of potential action. (Parents: Should you be talking with your children about these things? Young adults, do your own attitudes and/or behaviors need to change?)

Concerning parading down the street naked or nearly so, Phillips writes,
[A] woman’s sexual identity is negated by the attempt to disconnect how she appears from who . . . she is. . . . To pretend that walking down the street in hardly any clothes does not give off a message about sexual availability, is to functionally deny the fact that our bodies are sexually charged. It is to take something – namely, uncovered flesh – which is actually latent with erotic suggestion [-] and treat it instead as something merely common, without the respect and honor due to it. This implicitly denies a woman’s inherent sexuality. . . .

In the end, the path of the slut is less sexy than the modest alternatives. Those things which ought to be signifiers of sexuality, and therefore kept private, have been emptied of their meaning, having been turned into something tame, trivialized and humdrum. “Profane” best describes the resulting situation, given that the term originally meant “to treat as common.”

Thus, the Slutwalks are . . . encouraging the repression of female sexual identity in a way not dissimilar to the burqa. Both are attempting to say – albeit in opposite ways – that the body can be de-sexualized. Here again, Suzanne Moore’s article in the Guardian defending the Slutwalks is very instructive, since she testified to the process she went through as a slut of self-consciously denying the sexualized association of skimpy clothing.
Clothes are a vocabulary, and one that we hammered the meaning out of. We took the signs of “sex” and tore them up. …. sluttiness is always in the eye of the beholder.
There's more. Lots more.

Let me "merely" comment on that last quote by Suzanne Moore. If clothing is a vocabulary, then how can sluttiness be "always in the eye of the beholder"? The purpose of vocabulary is to convey meaning. And, yes, the "beholder" must interpret the meaning. But the communicator, clearly, intends to convey meaning as well.

Actually, let me pass on one more thought. Since we're on the subject.

I encourage you to consider what Phillips notes about the "normal" dress of prostitutes throughout the ages and why they dress that way:
A prostitute will dress skimpily in order purposely to incite men to sex, recognizing the connection between clothes and sexual availability. The whole point of the recent walks, however, is that a woman can dress like a slut without it having anything to do with sex, and without it signalling her sexual availability. While the prostitute dresses revealingly because she recognizes that she is an inherently sexual being whose body is charged with erotic suggestion, the participants of Slutwalk have embraced a narrative which denies that the revealed body is necessarily charged with erotic suggestion. In so doing, these walks are negating the very sexuality they claim to be celebrating.
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