Holding slut-callers to account

In a commentary about the upcoming SlutWalk (4 December 2011) in newnation.sg, one finds this breathtaking bit that says everything there is to say why there’s a need for a SlutWalk:

So what’s a slut? A woman who sleeps around – yes. Who wears her sexual availability prominently – yes. Who is promiscuous – yes. An average slut would be your not-bad-looking-under-strobe-lights, promiscuous skank out at St James on a Saturday night looking for a one-night stand. Ugly sluts exist too, but they’re probably more difficult to come by. Men, as I gather, look for attractive women to have intercourse with.

[snip]

Except that – if the photos plastered online were any indication – a fair bit of SlutWalkers don’t exactly qualify as sluts. So unless these wholesome voluptious women with no business showing their overflowing bits in a overly-tight bra top out in public HAVE actually been called a slut previously, their protest to be called a slut without shame makes no sense. Like a meat-eating person joining PETA.

– newnation.sg, 4 September 2011, SlutWalk: a celebration of the right to be slutty even when you aren’t by Fang Shihan (which I am told is a pseudonym for a female writer passing off as male).

What’s wrong with the above? Everything! If I have to spell it out,

  • It tramples on women’s sexual autonomy by laying on thick the negativity associated with promiscuity;
  • It reserves to men the right to judge which women qualify for the label;
  • It asserts that other women have no business contesting (1) and (2) above.

But what is SlutWalk? It is a protest march — well, it’ll be rather short of that in Singapore, but that’s no fault of the organisers — against the judgemental gaze of men and other self-appointed moralists. Triggered by a misogynistic comment by an officer of the Toronto Police in January this year, the first march was held in that city on 3 April. Similar marches have since been held in several other cities in North America and Europe, and also in New Delhi, Seoul and Johannesburg.

At a 24 January 2011 safety information session at York University, Constable Michael Sanguinetti recommended that women not dress like “sluts” in order to avoid sexual assault, a remark that provoked uproar. While he later apologised for that remark, it was nonetheless felt that those words represented still widespread attitudes, and that more needed to be done to drive home the point that such attitudes are unacceptable.

Singapore’s will be held on the same day as SlutWalks in Hong Kong and Bangalore. More details, including of fringe events, can be found at slutwalksg.com.

As you can see from the pictures below (from Toronto, Boston and Seoul respectively), you don’t have to look like Janine Lindemulder to participate, despite what the newnation writer thinks. Nor is anyone expected to dress in any particular way, least of all the stereotypical one. As Cher Tan, one of the organisers, pointed out: “It would defeat the purpose.”

The point is to press home an idea, and if you agree with it, you have a right to be there.

* * * * *

The notion that women are there for the taking is, to put it euphemistically, as old as the human species. At the same time, all societies had to set some rules, not, in the main, because of any sensibility to women’s feelings, but out of deference to other men’s prior rights. Usually, that would be the father or husband. A lot of present-day male behaviour is descended from that. Men look for visual cues to determine if a woman has been “taken” — the wedding ring being the prime example of that. The flip side is that men also look for visual cues to determine if a woman is available for the taking without risk of conflict with another man. Males learn to associate sexually provocative dressing as signals that a woman is available, and from there, it’s a short hop to the rationalisation that “she was asking for it.”

The corollary to that is that men dislike women confusing the signals. “Ugly” women, in these misogynistic men’s view, should not be trying to dress in appealing ways.

At the same time, a woman who looks both currently available and previously deflowered (to use an archaic term) is considered “cheap”, firstly in the quasi-economic sense that, since exclusive use of her body is not there for the bidding, there’s no need to bid so high against the competition. Different men can serially enjoy the same “goods”. No doubt it will also strike you that “cheap” connotes much, much more than that when applied to a woman. Men have a term for this category: Slut. And as is obvious, it comes with a huge dose of value-judgement.

This is why the comment in newnation is so wrong. It is just putting into glib words these same paleolithic attitudes: that sexual experience cheapens a woman, that men will be the judge as to which woman has a right to be sexually alluring (to make it easier for him, so that he does not get confused who is available for the taking and who isn’t), and if you’re a taken woman, or one whom no man would want, you have no right to protest male attitudes to women whom men consider available. It’s men’s business, not women’s business.

* * * * *

Yet, feminism has long been bedevilled by sex. Many feminists speak of gender equality without wanting to touch the subject of sexual freedom. They’re strong on the right of women to say No, but cannot shake off negative attitudes against those frequently saying Yes.  In this, they are in the same bed as lots of patriarchal men.

I’ve long found this problematic. The control of sex has long been used as a means to control others’ lives, and I cannot see how one can speak of autonomy without overcoming this prejudice against sex.

For example, if one says that sex outside marriage is to be frowned on, it is to demand that anyone wanting  to express his sexuality — which is a very important part of our psychological health — must first take on the legal, economic, social and child-rearing expectations or burdens associated with marriage. It’s a huge load. Imposing that load is to control another person’s life. Therefore, true respect for the autonomy of another individual must include respect for sexual autonomy and the right to say Yes, Yes, Yes to sex with equal facility to saying No. In other words, I can’t quite see how sex-negative feminists are truly feminists.

On a related note, I wonder how different kinds of feminists approach a video like this one, where the men as used somewhat like sex objects to get attention. If the tables were turned, and scantily-clad women were employed to pose provocatively to sell an object or a message to men, what would the sex-negative and the sex-positive ones say?

And there’s another area which I am rather amused about: the discomfort evinced by many feminists when we speak of commercial sex. True control of one’s own body must include the right to determine under what conditions to yield that body — say all feminists. But what about those whose condition is monetary payment? You’d be surprised how many start to shift uncomfortably in their seats when this is raised. There is the usual argument that commercial sex is often associated with the opposite — a loss of autonomy by the women in the trade, sometimes to the point of trafficking and bondage. This is undeniable. But where one would have thought the response would be Let’s deal with the trafficking and bondage and free up those who really want to make money this way, almost always, one hears Let’s ban prostitution.

However, I will concede that in this, I am talking about the frontiers of autonomy. Commercial sex is not going to be a career choice for most people, men or women. Such freedom is a kind of luxury when we’re not even out of the stone age of gender attitudes. Dealing with that must be the first order of business; it’s time for SlutWalk.

24 Responses to “Holding slut-callers to account”


  1. 1 yuen 9 October 2011 at 23:21

    what exactly are sluts protesting against? I find it hard to figure this out

    1. there is no law against slutyiness, so they are not demanding legalization

    2. since sluts appear to be proud of their sluttyness, they cannot be objecting to being called sluts

    3. is there discrimination against sluts? like being denied entry to pubs or not getting promotion at work? I dont recall hearing about such cases

    4. do the media portray sluts negatively? considering that many hollywood stars are slutty but get eagerly pursued by paparazzi, and many girls are eager to become Playboy centrefolds, I should think sluttyness get a fairly good press

    in summary, I would advise sluts to just enjoy being sluts and not feel shortchanged without good cause; they are getting along fine in this world

    • 2 yawningbread 10 October 2011 at 10:08

      If I have to put it in a nutshell (but note, I am not speaking for the organisers) it would be that they are protesting against the application of the concept of “slut”. It’s a filter by which men look at women in instrumental ways.

  2. 3 Agagooga 9 October 2011 at 23:58

    Actually the ones who condemn sluts the most… are other women

  3. 4 SN 10 October 2011 at 00:18

    Dear Alex,

    I can do no better than to reproduce Camille Paglia’s commentary which articulates some of my intuitions on this subject.

    CAMILLE PAGLIA, statement on Slutwalk

    THE SUNDAY TIMES (London), 12 June 2011

    “Prostitutes, strippers, pornographers—these are my Babylonian ideals. In books such as Vamps & Tramps, I fought for pro-sex feminism against the prudes and philistines of the feminist establishment. The swift global spread of Slutwalk strikingly demonstrates the energy and aspirations of young feminists. But its confused message is a symptom of the sexual chaos and anomie of the Western bourgeoisie.

    Don’t call yourself a slut unless you are prepared to live and defend yourself like one. My creed is street-smart feminism, alert, wary, and militant—the harsh survival code of streetwalkers and drag queens. Sex is a force of nature, not just a social construct. Monsters stalk its midnight realm. Too many overprotected middle-class girls have a dangerously naive view of the world. They fail to see the animality and primitivism of sex, historically controlled by traditions of religion and morality now steadily dissolving in the West.

    The sexual revolution won by my 1960s generation was a two-edged sword. Our liberation has burdened our successors with too many sexual choices too early. Their flesh-baring daily dress is a sex mime to whose arousing signals they seem blind. Only in a police state, and not even there, will women be totally safe on the streets. Honorable men do not rape. But protests and parades cannot create honor.

    Slutwalk’s overflowing emotion is a cry of distress, less about sexual violence than the spiritual disconnection of men and women in this garish, tech-driven, careerist age. When it devalued motherhood, Western feminism undermined women’s most ancient claim to dignity. Sluttishness as fact or metaphor cannot restore that lost mythic power.”

    • 5 Passerby 10 October 2011 at 12:41

      I agree with her. The world is a dangerous place. The law punishes the rapist, but the woman has the responsibility of protecting herself from rape. To dress provocatively to attract attention from men, yet expect all men to be honourable is naive. One needs to make choices whose consequences one can live with.

      Besides, the law in Singapore comes down hard on sexual predators. Are there that many cases where men get away scot-free by pleading the defense that the woman was dressed too provocatively and hence was asking for it? I don’t think such a defense strategy would gain traction in our courts.

      So what is the slutwalk over here fighting for? For the right to be naive?

  4. 7 Tasha 10 October 2011 at 06:28

    Hmm, I like that you addressed the seeming hypocrisy between the extreme “feminists” and their rage-hate male chauvinists. I think that a lot of so-called feminists have very different ideas of what ‘feminism’ is, some hold to the classical views of the feminist movements of the 1950s and 1960s, some have taken radicalist anti-men approaches and some are the in-for-equality but not for superiority types. I’d like to think the majority of women fit somewhere into the middle, and that combined with men of the same mindset, should probably be considered as humanist rather than gender-oriented (i.e. everyone regardless of gender should be treated the same and no one gender is inherently superior or ‘better’ then others.)

    But that seems to get hackles raised for some reason.

    For me I think some of this comes into how you behave in public. I’m not saying that telling women to dress conservatively or risk being raped is a good idea, but perhaps think of how you make other people feel. The comment by the police officer implicates women and men, it assumes that men can’t control their faculties when a ‘hot piece of tail’ (talent) walks past and he’d have to commit a crime (rape). The analogies of ‘you wouldn’t leave your keys in the ignition and wonder why your car got stolen’ are unfair to both sexes.

    I’d like to say, do what you like in private. If you enjoy making home porn with your partner(s), great. If you like having sex with lots of different people and not being in relationships, great. As long as the people you are engaging with are not going to be hurt by your actions. It should be legal I guess, which is where this is contentious in Singapore because of the illegality of homosexual acts. Anyway, I’m all about being reactive to your environment, although in my younger years I was reactive against the environment.

    The reality is that fashion has a double standard – wear skimpy skirts and nearly see-through pants (don’t even get me started on wearing leggings as pants!) to be cool (well for the younger ones anyway), but then you’ll be branded ‘skanky’ for showing some skin, or get honked at, heckled or given ‘the look’.

    I can just give my (about $10 worth now LOL!) 2c, but I wouldn’t participate in SlutWalk, and I’d like to meet someone who could tell me why they are participating in it without getting emotional, defensive, aggressive, generalise for all women or generalise about all men. :)

  5. 8 Poker Player 10 October 2011 at 12:30

    The Fang Shihan article shows you what to do when you just want to be catty but want to sound articulate.

    • 9 Tasha 10 October 2011 at 13:56

      I don’t understand why ‘she’ (if it’s true) would pretend to be a guy in this case either… What is to be gained by posturing as a man, and probably labelled a misogynist at that, than a woman? Either way, she’s making a bad name for male journalists, or reinforcing some kind of idea that all women should think alike on this sort of issue, so she has to pretend to be something else to differentiate herself.

      So psychological either way. Then again, if she is actually a he, well… um… i guess it makes it easier haha

  6. 10 sphgal 10 October 2011 at 13:05

    can you tell me for example how you are going to make someone like lets say Darkness of the Brotherhood accountable for what he regularly says about women. We have all been trying for years to take him to task, but to no avail. Any suggestions will be greatly welcomed.

  7. 11 Anonymous 10 October 2011 at 14:15

    fang shihan is her real name. go google

  8. 12 Anonymous 10 October 2011 at 14:15

    On the objectification of men in popular culture: I think that this sort of argument (swapping genders and asking how feminists would like it) is disingenuous. Nothing takes place in a vacuum. In-principle objections aside, the objectification of women is especially insiduous because of how mainstream, and often unquestioned, it is — and because, by contributing to rape culture, it has serious consequences for the lives of women, beyond just “being offended” (or whatever).

    In an ideal world with fully equality, the objectification of men and women would be equally problematic/unproblematic. But in the context of the vast power imbalances in the real world, simply swapping the genders in an ad – or a generalisation, or a particular incident – misses the point.

  9. 14 James Ang 10 October 2011 at 16:00

    “Don’t call yourself a slut unless you are prepared to live and defend like one.”

    Fang Shi Han is not a pseudonym. She is young Singaporean woman who recently stood up to ask Lee Kuan Kuan if the latter’s appearance and interjections had costs his party’s votes. The video of that is posted on New Nation. Her article on Slutwalk is irreverent, and obviously aimed to provoke responses from it’s organisers. To that I think she has succeeded.

    • 15 Poker Player 10 October 2011 at 20:49

      “Her article on Slutwalk is irreverent, and obviously aimed to provoke responses from it’s organisers. To that I think she has succeeded.”

      Spitting in a crowded bus would also provoke responses and require no less ability, and deserve no less less triumphalism.

      • 16 James Ang 11 October 2011 at 08:50

        When you start drawing analogies of spitting on buses with a blog article, you are on a slippery slope to intolerance and censorship.

  10. 17 newnationsg 10 October 2011 at 16:16

    Like the video, don’t quite understand your article, but glad you sound smarter than I did – Fang Shihan

    • 18 Poker Player 10 October 2011 at 23:22

      Backhanded self-abasement?

      This sort of response reminds me of human shields in the Gulf Wars. They got SAMs and interceptors, but this is way easier – protection without actual fighting.

      • 19 James Ang 11 October 2011 at 08:55

        Again, poor analogy. Over dramatic. It’s a blog article. Don’t visit the blog if you don’t like it. Her point is simple : Anyone can get raped, not just sluts.

  11. 20 ANiceGuy 12 October 2011 at 11:27

    http://www.zombietime.com/deconstructing_slutwalk/

    SlutWalk San Francisco, August 6, 2011

    Something everybody needs to take a look :-)

    • 21 JustMe 13 October 2011 at 01:14

      Sorry, that article is just… badly researched and reeks of condescension. The author has no knowledge of rape culture, demeans sex workers, and there’s just a host of other comments that are just… it’s not a very good article to quote, I’m sorry.

      Under a picture of a woman of colour holding a sign:
      ["My skin colour is is not code for my sexuality." (For those who still need some clarification: In modern universities, students are taught that African-Americans are stigmatized by the dominant culture as overly sexual beings. The schools don't teach them how to spell "color," but they do teach them advanced racial political theory. Go figure.) ] <– This comment tells me the writer is American, and my personal opinion is that he/she thinks he/she knows everything about the world, including the process a rape victim goes through to bring his/her rapist to justice.

      • 22 ANiceGuy 22 October 2011 at 15:50

        It’s a photo-blog with loads of sarcasm in it.

        My intent was to show what happens at ground zero in a Slutwalk event. Very contradictory and messy.

        I hope by sharing that link, people can see both sides of the event and engage in critical modes of thinking and discussion regarding Slutwalk.

  12. 23 David 18 October 2011 at 23:43

    The commoditizaion of women is nearly as old as the world’s oldest profession.
    Hollywood, bollywood, K-Pop, J-Pop, SG’s night scenes, and most clubs in anywhere feature women as highly sexual beings. Dressed in minimal clothing. Always tight, short and revealing. Girls dance with moves that simulate sex. Movies and television show men treating women poorly, getting sex almost in demand.
    So slutty behaviour is all but expected.
    Now few girls grow with the desire to become a slut. Societal pressure however, peer groups and outside forces tend to minamlize parental influence, and media and society have come to the point where any Religious appeal for morality has come to be scorned.
    Secular morality, the whatever one can get away with or in other words situational ethics rules how young women and men treat the other.


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