Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Do the SlutWalk

The slutwalk: a bit like the cripwalk but with fewer clothes

SlutWalks are coming to a town (and dictionary) near you, but if you're a hormone-charged teenage boy don't get too excited: these slutwalks are feminist in nature and all about the ways in which women are viewed and treated by some men.

The SlutWalk is a response to a speech given by a police officer in Toronto, Canada who ill-advisedly told his student audience that if women wanted to avoid being raped they should stop "dressing like sluts". In this article in yesterday's Evening Standard, Rosamund Irwin makes the excellent point that rape is not necessarily something that happens to only scantily-clad young women, but pensioners, children and nearly all types of women in whatever type of clothing. Years ago, feminist friends made it clear to me that while sex is the means of inflicting the attack, rape is more about power and dominance than it is about sexual attraction. As Irwin points out, blaming the victim is "still a frighteningly common response to sexual assault", but it's a mindset that some people can't get out of. The SlutWalks are an imaginative and witty response to this.

This article on the BBC News magazine site takes a linguistic tack and explores the history of the word slut, making the point that very much like the n-word and queer, the word has been reclaimed... or at least, has been claimed to have been reclaimed: these things are never as simple as saying "This word used to mean x, but from now on, this word means y!".

Like other forms of reclamation, there are problems. Unreconstructed racists might still use the n-word in its pejorative and racist sense, while a black teenager from Peckham (or Tim Westwood-lookalikes) might use it in its reclaimed sense. Likewise, supporters of the gay rights movement might use queer in its reclaimed sense while homophobes and other bigots might still use it as a term of abuse. Each word exists in a state of duel identity: it's OK to use it in one context but not another. And tied in with reclamation is the idea that something in the original sense of the word is being celebrated. In the case of queer it's maybe a celebration of deviance as a positive force, with the n-word it's perhaps an embrace of the threatening, brutal aspects of the original word as a way of defiantly chucking an insult back into the faces of racists. With slut it's all about celebrating female independence and a woman's control over her own body and sexual desires.

Slut - like so many other words used to describe women's sexual behaviour and/or attractiveness - is still a loaded word, partly because of its connotations of dirt and "low morals" - but also because it is used by some men (and some women) to cast judgements on the behaviour of others. So what, you might say: lots of words do that.

The difference here, perhaps is that double-standards are at work. Just have a look at adjectives like dirty and filthy. Often these are used as terms of approval by men to describe sexually independent or adventurous women, but equally they can be used by the same men to abuse a woman they consider to be too independent or too adventurous (often because they're not having sex with them, but with someone else...).

Back in the early 1970s, Julia Stanley looked at the proportion of negative words used to label men and women and found a massive disparity, almost always in favour of men. Since then, things have changed - or so we're told. While the terms of abuse used to belittle boys and men tend to revolve around homosexuality - faggot, gay, batty man etc. - the ones used to denigrate girls and women are often related to their availability (or not) for sex with males: sket, slag, whore, junge, tight, frigid and slut.

To put it simply, lots of women - perhaps young women more than others - have to negotiate a world where to lots of boys if you're not tight, you're slack. It's not a level playing field for women, and the language used to describe them is often riddled with double-standards, so I'm all in favour of slutwalks and the rationale for holding them in the first place.

Black British English vs MLE

The latest episode of Lexis is out and it features an interview with Ife Thompson about lots of issues connected to Black British English, i...