Op-Ed: SlutWalks Mission Weakened By Its Methods

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Women are fighting against sexual injustice with SlutWalks. Often marching in hot pants, garter belts, bras and halter tops, they hope to reclaim the word "slut" and make it safe for women to dress any way they like. Writer Rebecca Traister supports their mission, but questions their methods.

NEAL CONAN, host: And now, the Opinion Page. Sluts, the word erupted into a new context after a policeman in Toronto told a group of college women that if they wanted to avoid sexual assault, they shouldn't dress like sluts. Outraged women donned hot pants, bustiers and halter tops and marched in more than 70 cities to make a statement about sexual injustice. In an op-ed in The New York Times, writer Rebecca Traister said she supports the mission of SlutWalks, but argues that the packaging sends a confusing message.

If you've participated in a slut walk, call and tell us why you embraced the word and the clothes. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. There, you'll also find a link to Rebecca Traister's op-ed.

And Rebecca Traister joins us on the phone from her home in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

REBECCA TRAISTER: It's nice to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: And you wrote that you wanted - initially, you wanted to love SlutWalks.

TRAISTER: Oh, very much. I mean, I absolutely, as you said, support the idea behind them, which is that we should object to the notion that any way that a woman or man dresses or behaves somehow means that they are going to be attacked or assaulted, or open to assault or attack. Of course, I absolutely oppose the notion of victim-blaming, the suggestion that the way a woman dresses or presents herself allowed - you know, sends a message that she is sexually available. Of course, I - that's a fundamental building block of feminism that I - that, you know - and I'm an ardent feminist.

And I also love the idea that these are young people who are objecting to this. It's women and it's men, and they're mostly young. It's a grassroots protest for women. All this is wonderful. But it has been hard for me, as somebody who loves the idea of this energetic movement out on the streets and who certainly supports the message, it has been hard for me to completely wrap my arms, my brain around the presentation of it, the aesthetic of it.

CONAN: Well, the...

TRAISTER: What happens is that this - oh, go on.

CONAN: Well, I was going to say, I'm sure one of the first things you've heard, and I know you refer to it in your piece, is that SlutWalkers say to embrace the word is to leach it of its venom.

TRAISTER: Yes. And there's an argument about that. I'm not an entirely persuaded by the argument that we're going to reclaim it. You know, the reclamation of language is a really tough project. It takes a long time. And slut has meant roughly the same thing, really, since about the 15th century. But that's (technical difficulties).

CONAN: And we've lost the line to Rebecca Traister. We should be able to get it back up shortly, or at least some version of it. We want to hear from those of you who've been on SlutWalks. Why do you embrace the word, and why do you embrace the clothing that goes with it? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And let's see. We got Melanie on the line. Melanie with us from Johnson City in Tennessee.

MELANIE: Hi. I took part in the SlutWalk in Johnson City, Tennessee this past weekend, mainly because I think the whole issue of putting the responsibility for preventing rape on women is going about it in entirely the wrong way. What society is doing right now is teaching women to not dress in certain ways and not act in certain ways and not go to certain places, especially unless they're escorted. But the responsibility rests on men to not rape people. And then a change needs to be made, a very intrinsic change needs to be made. And men need to be taught not to rape. Women don't need to be taught to change how they are to make themselves less rape-able.

CONAN: I understand and I certainly - can you tell us a little bit about the march there in Johnson City?

MELANIE: Well, we had about 800 or so people who RSVP'ed, but the rain threatened to wash us out, so we only had about 150 people who actually showed up. But it was wonderful. I had both of my daughters with me and several friends. And it was a wonderful demonstration. We had a lot of smiles and waves and honks of support as we were marching along.

CONAN: Had you considered earlier in your life that you would embrace the idea that both your daughters would probably declare themselves sluts?

MELANIE: Well, it's not necessarily that my daughters declared themselves sluts. It's that it shouldn't matter whether you're a slut or not. No means no means no.

CONAN: No means no means no. Thank you very much for the call, and for the lesson.

MELANIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye. Let's go next to - this is Alcia(ph), Alcia with us from Fitchburg in Massachusetts.

ALCIA: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well. Thank you.

ALCIA: I also participated in the SlutWalk in Boston, actually, with a group a students from UMass (unintelligible) there were about either nine of us from the university, and we were all part of a coalition there called No Women Left Behind, which is our kind of prevent sexual assault group on campus.

CONAN: And what was the event like?

ALCIA: It was really amazing. Most of it, the reason we were there were for the preventing of the victim naming, obviously. And people held signs. We created a wish tree that we hung up on the common that people wrote, you know, wishes for the future about the way that these sort of cases will be handled, and they were like penned up on leaves that we had created. So we made an art project, and that's going to be on display at the university in the fall.

CONAN: And I'm sure every - all the people who were there enjoyed the event. Did it get a lot of local coverage?

ALCIA: It did get a lot of local coverage, and it was just featured in Ms. magazine as well. So it's going to be in this copy of Ms. that just came out last week.

CONAN: OK. Alcia, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

ALCIA: Thank you. And Rebecca Traister is back with us on the line. And we're sorry for the technical difficulties earlier. Nice to have you with us. When you left us so abruptly a few minutes ago, we were talking about the difficulties of winning back a word.

TRAISTER: Yes. Well, I think, you know, it's very difficult to drain a word of its meaning when it's meant the same thing for hundreds of years and when there are so many sort of electric feelings around that word. But on the other hand, one of the things that your caller just pointed out that I think is very valuable is the attention that this has drawn. The use of the word slut - and this is something I mentioned toward the end of my piece - has brought so much attention because it is such a electric, radioactive word, one that makes it difficult for some women to line up under it and around it and embrace it, but also one that draws so much attention. This is the form of activism that actually has gotten an enormous amount of media attention. We're talking about it here today.

CONAN: You wrote in your piece, I also wondered if perhaps this worry about the message is being transmitted by the use of the word slut, I also wondered if perhaps this worry makes me the Toronto cop who thought women should protect themselves by not dressing like sluts.

TRAISTER: Yes. Well, that's the crucial part of my own concerns about my anxieties because I do support the young women and men who are doing this. But I'm so worried that the sort of scantily clad vibe, that the rallying around this word slut sends a message that leaves them open to attack, that leaves people to think the worst of young feminism when I believe that there's so much, so much going on with young feminism that it makes me worried that people think it's just about slut and, you know, sort of scantily clad marches. But I understand that this, in a sense, makes me another kind of victim blamer that says, oh, the way they're presenting themselves is leaving them open to criticism. And I have to acknowledge that about myself. It's certainly - I'm coming at it from very different grounds and with very different priorities than the Toronto cop. But there is that going on in my brain too. I want these young activists to protect themselves, to be smart and sophisticated and nuanced in their message. And then I think, well, what is it, what do I have in common then with somebody who wants a young woman to dress more carefully before she goes out at night, an idea that I intellectually object to?

CONAN: You also put this story in the context of a number of other stories involving women and allegations and, indeed some sad incidents too. Lara Logan, the CBS correspondent who was groped repeatedly and violently in Tahrir Square, and you point out she herself was trashed as an attention monger and for dressing in a manner that invited assault, that any woman who seems to be involved in such a situation - and you go back to the case of the - I'm just blanking of the name of the woman who made the allegations against Justice Clarence Thomas - Anita Hill.

TRAISTER: Anita Hill.

CONAN: Of course, yes. Any woman who makes an allegation is thought to be a little nutty and a little slutty, as you quote somebody as saying.

Yes. That was one of the criticisms that was leveled at Anita Hill 20 years ago. And of course that - Anita Hill's case was not one of sexual assault. It was sexual harassment. But it was a woman trying to rework the - a sexual power dynamic, who was changing the way we think about sex and power. And in that way it is related to the claims of assault, of rape, to the kind of activism we talk about in SlutWalks, women trying to give voice and language to an unjust sexual power dynamic.

TRAISTER: And yes, when a woman does that in practically any way - whether it's in court, whether it's by pressing charges, whether it's by writing a story about her sexual experience, whether it's by taking to the streets - she is trashed in many of the same ways - whether it's for how she dresses, how she presents herself, how she behaves, whether it's for being a little crazy, a little bit nutty, a little bit slutty, as David Brock said about Anita Hill. And that that is what helps me to come around on SlutWalks a little bit, to say that actually there is no more perfect way to fight this fight.

And what SlutWalks does that I appreciate is draw the eye, draw the ear, draw the conversation, and that at this point, when we still have so few clear avenues to sort of reassert sexual power as women, that in itself is worth an awful lot, to be able to keep the conversation going and active.

CONAN: We're talking with Rebecca Traister. You can find a link to her recent op-ed piece at The New York Times, "Ladies, We Have a Problem," at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And this is an email we have from Max(ph): Clothing clearly shouldn't be taken as a signal that someone can get away with doing you harm. But it sounds like Ms. Traister and other guests imply that clothing should not be taken as any kind of sexual signal ever. That seems impossible and probably not a good idea. Clothing should mean something. Isn't it OK for it to mean I'm available and you are welcome to attempt to flirt with me in a gentlemanly manner?

TRAISTER: That's a very interesting question, and it's a very nuanced one. Of course we all sometimes wear clothing that sends a message. But where we have to draw a line is where it comes to - I mean and his use of the term in a gentlemanly manner is very interesting. Where we have to draw a line is where the attention is unwanted and where there has been some clarity about the attention being unwanted. And so that can mean unwanted advances, unwanted flirting - if you've said no thanks or sort of turned - and on from there.

So the question, does clothing mean anything - of course clothing means something. This is why we have, you know, we have academics who study clothing. We have a fashion industry, we all choose our clothing. Clothing does send messages. But what it doesn't do is excuse any kind of misuse of power. And that's the heart of this. The sense - what the Toronto cop said was that clothing sends a message that everything is fair game, and that's absolutely not true.

CONAN: Let's go next to Alana(ph), Alana with us from Birmingham.

ALANA: Yes. Hi.


ALANA: I, actually I live in a small college town south of Birmingham. And I - it's very hot in Alabama, especially this time of year, so you know, I wear shorts and a tank top or something. And last year I was walking to a pharmacy down the street from my apartment wearing shorts, and a young man crossed the street, across from where I walking. And as he walked by (unintelligible) and that - why should I (unintelligible) I haven't changed the way that I've dressed because of that. I'm still comfortable wearing short shorts. But, you know, it's hot and I want to wear - I want to be comfortable. And it's not my fault that he could not control himself, you know?

CONAN: And apparently thought he could get away with it too. I'm so sorry it happened to you, Alana.

ALANA: Yeah. It - the cops - he and he proceeded to just walk down the street as I called him out on it, and the cops didn't even pick him up. It was very frustrating for me.

CONAN: Which suggests that the police in Toronto are not alone in their beliefs.

ALANA: Well, they, I mean, they circled the block. They tried that. I don't think that they did a very good job of looking for him.

CONAN: Go ahead, Rebecca Traister. I can hear you trying to get in here.

TRAISTER: Well, I was going to say, I'm so sorry that that happened to you too. I mean, this is so common. And this is, in fact, what SlutWalks and what young activists are trying to address. And I should add, I mean, it's interesting, you point out you were dressed in shorts because it's hot.


TRAISTER: Practically any clothes that we put on - it doesn't even have to be shorts - can be interpreted by someone as being, to use the word that we're talking about, slutty. You know, there can be a world in which you're dressed in a sweater and it happens to be, you know, tight in a certain way, but you're wearing it because you're cold and it's comfortable and you have the most full coverage ever and somebody can say, oh, well, look how she was dressed, because they perceive it as alluring, and therefore the assumption is that you're available to them.

And that is the attitude that has to be fought. And that is, again, why I support the mission behind SlutWalk. But because there's so much radioactive energy around the word slut and the notion of slut and because of exactly the experience that you're talking about, it also makes me nervous that these protests can be - that these protests are taking the form that they do. It makes me ambivalent. It makes me ambivalent.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Alana.

ALANA: Thank you.

CONAN: And one final question. Some would also wonder - as you say, these are viral, they've certainly sprung up in many, many places and have attracted a lot of attention. Will they result in any change other than, yes, people feel empowered, yes, people made a statement, yes, people got attention. But is there any change as a result?

TRAISTER: Well, I think the fact that we're having these conversations is a change. I think when you look back at what happened - I draw the line from Anita Hill in my piece. Look at what happened with Anita Hill. She didn't - her testimony didn't even change the outcome of the hearings. Clarence Thomas still sits on the Supreme Court. But in having the conversation around Anita Hill's testimony, what we did was learn the term sexual harassment for the first time.

And so it is my hope, despite my very mixed feelings about the SlutWalks, that the fact that we're talking about them, that I'm certainly not the only one feeling ambivalent about them, that there are people out there who are telling me that I'm wrong for my ambivalence, that they're just purely wonderful things - sure, I want this conversation to keep happening so that we get more vocabulary, get more understanding, have more conversations, hear more from people like that last caller who say, look, this is what it's like when you dress a certain way and there's an assumption made about you and your sexual availability and when power assumptions are made. So in that way, will it change? Is it going to change legislation? Probably not immediately. But will it change the way we think about these things? I hope so.

CONAN: Rebecca Traister, thank you very much for your time today.

TRAISTER: Thank you.

CONAN: Rebecca Traister, a writer for Salon. And her recent opinion piece, "Ladies, We Have a Problem," ran in The New York Times. This is NPR News.

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