In a piece in today’s New York Times Sunday Magazine, Salon regular Rebecca Traister considers the wisdom of the SlutWalk movement in the context of recent rape scandals like those involving Lara Logan and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. She begins by attacking the triviality, the futility, and the vulgarity, of “stripping down to skivvies and calling ourselves sluts,” as a means to changing the terms of the political discourse concerning rape—given how much of the culture does still, twenty years after Anita Hill testified before Congress, blame victims for provoking their attacks by dressing or behaving improperly.
The style Traister disparages is a style that was more prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s than it is now. Then, during marches protesters often adopted a provocative appearance, particularly an appearance that was personally—as opposed to politically—provocative. Groups like ACT UP were criticized by outsiders to the movement, and also from those within the movement who preferred to remain socially respectable. The movement’s successes, however, which include increasing numbers of states legalizing same-sex marriage, and the end of the military’s policy prohibiting service by homosexuals, arguably was the work of the activist groups more than that of conservatives who distanced themselves from the movement because they couldn’t abide the nonconformism of some of its members.
I don’t think “slut” is a word that can be reappropriated by feminists the way “queer” was reappropriated in past decades by activists in some LGBT movements. For this to work, for me, “slut” would have to be a word that was regularly applied to a much larger range of styles and behavior than I think it is. But maybe there are women who feel otherwise. Maybe they feel comfortable calling themselves “sluts,” maybe even when they are dressed in ways I (and probably Traister) would consider totally appropriate. I don’t see any reason to think that’s the case here, though. The point of the protest is not to encourage young girls to see themselves as “sluts.” The point is to show up people who overuse the word “slut” as ridiculous.
Rebecca Traister does not think women should parade around in public in their underwear. She is happy to agree that a woman who dresses like that looks like a slut. She does admit, at the end of her essay, that extreme measures might be necessary if we want to “upend” the assumptions so frequently implicit in press accounts of rapes like those she cites. The essay does end with four paragraphs—beginning, “None of us can know the veracity of any of these women’s claims. But the standard response . . . is still [as David Brock wrote of Anita Hill] that she is a little but nutty and a little bit slutty”—in which the author wonders whether her own argument will be convincing.
But she really seems not to understand why the protesters are dressing like that. It isn’t because they think going around out of doors in only underwear should be normal. It isn’t because they think the category “slutty” shouldn’t exist—even if they don’t like the word “slutty” itself, they recognize that some ways of dressing are sexual, and some are excessively sexual (whether just according to social, situational norms, or because they are literally too provocative). It isn’t because they want to change people’s opinions about what it’s normal to wear. They are being—politically—provocative. They want to draw attention to an issue: women do not deserve to be raped no matter what they wear. Really, this should be obvious. When a woman is said to be dressed “like a slut,” the chances that she is wearing only Wonderbra and Spanx is pretty low.
It is unfortunate that Traister feels the need to turn this around. She seems to be willing to approach this topic from only one point of view. She makes sure to reassert both her belief that there are proper ways to dress, and also her willingness to condemn women who do otherwise. She makes the centerpiece of her essay the argument that women who dress “sluttily,” in the name of feminist issues, are doing harm to their own interests. She makes this argument from within feminism, advising the presumably younger women in these protests for their own good. She doesn’t say where she herself would draw the line. She does imply, though—by her focus on the term “slut” and the inadvisability of trying to reappropriate it—that there are younger women who she would say look like “sluts,” who defend their style with feminist arguments, who she thinks should behave differently. And this has the effect of suggesting that feminists, especially, should be more concerned about obeying even rather conservative social norms than with methods of gaining political success that might require them to appear undignified.
I don’t like the practice of reading people out of a movement for being “incorrect,” or insufficiently radical, or taking the wrong position on arbitrary litmus-test concerns. In my opinion, Rebecca Traister has the right to call herself a feminist, and to criticize other feminists, as she likes and thinks best. But using a political movement, the ultimate goals of which she appears to support, as a hook on which to hang an argument about how women like herself (non-activists) ought to dress if they want to defend themselves from sexual and verbal violence, doesn’t seem to have the purpose of advancing the cause.