A slut by any other name

Let’s talk about the SlutWalk.

I made the first move, and I played it badly. On Friday I read a random tweet, from a man I do not know, which said: “I am proud to say I’m categorically against sexual abuse in any way, shape or form. But, I will not support something called SLUTWALK.” So I called him an idiot.

Between Friday night and Sunday, I discovered that there were a surprising number of people online who appeared to believe that, a) sexual abuse was a very bad thing but that, b) calling something or someone a slut was worse.

Hundreds took to the streets of Cape Town in South Africa’s first SlutWalk at the weekend, to protest against the idea that to stay safe from rapists, “women should avoid dressing like sluts”.

I tried to find softer words to counter theirs, but the whisper of “idiot” seemed to filter through anyway. I have no poker face when I am angry.

The arguments against the SlutWalk — summarised by one woman as “great idea, awful name” — seemed to follow one of two (closely related) tangents, namely: that “slut” was a nasty word and should never be used because it’s sexist and judgmental and just not very rainbow nation; and that women should “reject” the gender labels imposed on them by patriarchal society and rise up against the penis machine and take back their womynhood (in a non-sluttish way). There were quite a few subtexts attached to the flurry of tweets I received: was it not somehow promoting the virtues of “sluttishness” — a sort of “Slut Pride” if you will — by naming a march after it? Would the very name itself degrade the women who participated in the walk? And, softly, softly, some asked, wasn’t it possible that a woman’s attire did indeed encourage rape?

None of the people arguing with me initially seemed to take the time — a Google click would have done it — to look at the name’s origins.

The “SlutWalk” started in Canada, after a police officer told a group of law students “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised”.

The resulting SlutWalk generated massive media attention, and the movement (and name) caught on and spread around the world — including to South Africa. The first walk was named as a response to two things: first a specific situation, in which the use of the word slut needed to be challenged; and, secondly, a society in which the way a woman (or man) dresses or behaves is still seen as either incitement to or justification of sexual assault. I know what this feels like first hand — a stranger groping my breasts in a club, because I was wearing a low-cut dress on my 30th birthday; a man pinching my bum at the airport because I was wearing a tight outfit, even though I was seven months pregnant at the time; men catcalling at me while I stood on the street corner — in my school uniform — waiting for my lift to school.

I felt like that again on Twitter, this weekend.

I had strangers accosting me, telling me how opposed they were to sexual violence but that they wouldn’t support such protests if they carried the label “slut” — as if only well-behaved, non-promiscuous women deserve the right to say no, to have their “honour” defended; or, alternatively, as if every woman is by definition a saint, a Madonna, and calling her a whore is an affront to her very gender. Some women are whores. Some women sleep around. Some women get drunk, flirt with married men, steal money, abandon their children … These women, too, have the right to say no.

There is also blame and shame that comes after a sexual assault. Writer Dorothy Black has done a very good job explaining “slut shaming” on her blog and how society, the legal system, individuals conspire to make a woman feel that she “asked for it”.

The slut walk is about all of these things. And something more. It’s not just about standing up for what is right, speaking up against what is wrong, irrespective of the label — it is about standing up together.

At one point, when another man I did not know was sending me Tweets written in CAPS — shouting at me — I waited for the friends I knew were online, knew were watching, to wade in, to speak up for me, defend my honour. Nothing. Silence. I felt horribly alone.

But it turns out I wasn’t.

There were several women attacked on Twitter this weekend for having pro-SlutWalk views — all of us left feeling bewildered, reeling, emotional, shocked. Some of us have been victims or rape or sexual abuse, some of us just know we should use our voices for those who have none or who speak so softly they cannot be heard.

This weekend has taught us many things: that we need to count to 10 before posting a response in anger, even when the anger is justified; that South Africa really needs to talk about this, which is why we need to count to 10 because we want people to listen and not switch off; and that it doesn’t matter if people say they dislike the word “slut” when they treat you like a bitch. Actions always speak louder than words.

  • The Joburg SlutWalk takes place on 24 September, starting at Zoo Lake Sports Club. For more information on the Joburg SlutWalk follow @slutwalkjhb or find the event on Facebook.

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Nechama Brodie
Dr Nechama Brodie has worked as a multi-media journalist, editor, producer and publisher for nearly twenty-five years. During this time she has dodged the secret police in Burma, explored tunnels underneath Johannesburg, gotten dusty at rock festivals, and reported on the myth of ‘white genocide’ in South Africa.

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