Thursday, October 6, 2011

Occupied: SlutWalk, Wall Street, and Who's Watching Whom

Notice anything?

About 60% of the people snapping photos at Occupy Wall Street were men, and about 64% of the protesters were men. At SlutWalk? Men comprised about 22% of the attendees—and 65% of the photographers.

Well, duh, nothing brings the boys (and their cameras) to the yard like hundreds of women marching in the name of slutdom, right? But I don't think the conclusion here is simply "boys will be boys" or something else along those lines. Let's look at the attendees of each group: There were somewhat more men than women at Occupy Wall Street, which wasn't surprising. In no way did I feel excluded from what was going on at Liberty Plaza, and certainly leftist action has become far more inclusive than it was when Stokely Carmichael remarked that "The only position for women in SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] is prone." But neither was I surprised when, during a recent discussion I had of Occupy Wall Street with a group of people evenly divided in sex, nearly all the men were actively involved down at Liberty Plaza—while all the women, despite having politics roughly similar to the men, kept saying, Don't we need to organize first? or, simply, Convince me. In fact, figuring out why a nongendered movement seemed gendered in some ways was one of my reasons for heading down to the protest. (I came to no conclusions, other than that I'd still like to see some direction within the movement—and that it's necessary, and potentially revolutionary, nonetheless.)

As for SlutWalk, obviously there were far more women than men there, which is to be expected since it's explicitly a feminist event. But the fact that even 22% of participants were men present was encouraging, and I'm going to give the male attendees the benefit of the doubt and assume they weren't just there to gawk at women: The photography gender skew may be explained in part because some men felt that the better way to participate was to document the event rather than try to claim that particular space as their own. (I remember my pro-choice father staying home from the March for Women's Lives in 2004—not because he didn't want to march with me, my best friend, my mother, my mother's best friend, and her daughter, but because transit was a zoo and someone needed to play chauffeur and cook. Dad, dinner was delicious.) More often than not I heard photographers of both sexes ask permission before photographing anything other than crowd shots, and I didn't hear anyone refuse. The air was one of enthusiastic consent, not exploitation. The message of SlutWalk, it would seem, was absorbed.

It should go without saying that I'm sympatico with SlutWalk's goals. But SlutWalk jarred me. The word, sure, the purposefully revealing garb many of the protesters were wearing, the abandon of bodies that I think was designed to be liberating but somehow didn't feel that way at all to me—I didn't get it. I didn't get it, and I wanted to, and I felt guilty for not being able to sign on to the most visible wave of feminist action in several years. I wanted to feel seized by solidarity the way I had in college when I marched in Take Back the Night—hell, when I organized Take Back the Night my sophomore year, so moved had I been in my first march by being surrounded by hundreds of people who were all essentially telling me that it wasn't my fault. I went to see if it was SlutWalk that was my problem, or me.

And when I saw all those men taking all those pictures of all those women, my resistance made sense. My short skirt is, indeed, not an invitation for harassment or assault. But it is an invitation to look at me. And I'm troubled that at a place where the goal was to send a message of bodily sovereignty, plenty were also sending invitations to be turned into an image—an image of someone else's choosing. And I know that part of the point of SlutWalk is that these "images" also talk and walk and breathe and feel and fuck willingly and happily and only when they want to, and I know that the more important point is that our bodily sovereignty must remain inviolate. I get that. But I have to question a movement that seems to draw a good part of its power from being looked at. I have to question a movement whose markers uncomfortably resemble objectification; I have to question a movement that, in attempting to steer the conversation about sexual assault away from women's bodies, invites the gaze right back onto them. I have to question a movement that—when compared with Occupy Wall Street, a nongendered movement aiming to start a dialogue about the uneven distribution of power in supposedly progressive societies—seemed like a show-and-tell of a demographic whose sexual agency has been marginalized, and who are paradoxically urging onlookers to examine the ways in which they have been disempowered by systemic sexism.

Perhaps this is generational: Perhaps the girl I was in the '90s would have happily been chanting "Yes means yes and no means no" at SlutWalk had I been in college today instead of 1995. Perhaps my resistance to SlutWalk and my mild bafflement at Occupy Wall Street stems from me not being young enough, or postmodern enough, or subversive enough. Perhaps my earnest South Dakota roots will show wherever I go. Perhaps, after all, I just don't get it. All I know is that as impassioned as the cries were from women at SlutWalk—whether they were wearing lingerie and the word "Slut" scrawled across their chests, or the jeans and hoodie they had on when they were raped—they were just as earnest as my sense of alienation while watching women reject rape culture while jumping headfirst into another culture that's intensely problematic for a lot of women. I want a dialogue about consent, and I want that dialogue to hold the concept of mutuality in a sacred light. And I am unwilling to siphon off my complicated feelings—our complicated feelings—about being looked at in order to make that happen.


A word about methodology: I attended both SlutWalk NYC and Occupy Wall Street and spent a timed 20 minutes counting everyone I saw either actually snapping a photograph or actively videorecording the events. (I didn't count people who appeared to be there for professional purposes, nor people who simply had a camera in hand, as that would have been everyone. The revolution will be twitpic'd, it seems.) I then stood from an observant distance and from that vantage point tallied up the number of people I saw, dividing them by sex, following a 180-degree visual arc. This is not the most scientific of methods, but my numbers for Occupy Wall Street are close to those published this week in New York, so it seems to work well enough.


  1. This is very interesting to me. My husband and I went to our local SlutWalk, because I wanted to show some solidarity for what has become the most visible feminist-affiliated public demonstration in several years, even though, like you, I'm kind of conflicted about the whole thing. Blame it on my upbringing as a good Mormon girl?

    Anyway, B had some reservations about the spectacle of the thing, and he wondered how many of the participants were there because it gave them an opportunity to dress outrageously or gawk at others dressed outrageously, and how many of the participants were going to carry forward with the harder work of combating rape culture. I suspect he'll find your post interesting, and I'm planning on sharing it with him.

  2. I've been hesitant to express my opinion about SlutWalk because, to be honest, I think it's kind of bullshit. I don't think feminism can be advanced by anyone, man or woman, who things that sexualization is a way to get equality. It's an eye catching movement that I don't really understand, to be honst. I'd like to think that equality is more than short skirts.


  3. "I have to question a movement that seems to draw a good part of its power from being looked at."

    Autumn, when I read this climax of your piece (very nicely done, by the way) I was reminded of the work of Catherine Hakim on erotic capital as a fourth form of personal asset (in addition to economic, cultural and social capital). I quote-linked her at my blog this week (, having just rediscovered her via a mainstream news outlet. I think you'd find the 2010 paper she wrote on the subject for European Sociological Review interesting. I link to it in my post above.

    Part of her theory is that feminism has unwittingly adopted the "moral" ideologies prohibiting women from employing their erotic capital from the patriarchy, which instituted them to overcome the relative advantage of women in this area. Relating that back to your "questioning" statement above, then: Is the idea that it's morally/ethically wrong to use one's erotic capital as a means to accomplish feminist ends inherently anti-feminist?

    (Tangentially: I wish I could have joined you at both protests. I'm a marcher and rabble-rouser from way back and have felt deeply moved by what I've seen of both events. Thanks for this really creative and insightful post.)

  4. The problem with the SlutWalk is that the marchers are protesting the association of provocative clothing with rape by... wearing provocative clothing. If dressing sexy and getting raped have nothing to do with each other, why protest rape by walking around in lingerie?

    Oh, and "slut" is an ugly word, and there is no point in trying to "reclaim" it. No one wanted to claim it in the first place. Promiscuity is a bad choice for men, although our culture condones it more; but it is an even crazier choice for women, who can get pregnant. A promiscuous woman bears more of the physical danger and gets less respect from men, even from promiscuous men--there's just no upside. So there's no way I would associate myself with a Slut-Anything.

    I think you are spot-on about the dissonance between means and message. The SlutWalkers wanted to protest the objectifying male gaze, but what could they do to attract attention to their cause? Why, dress in a male-gaze-attracting way, of course! They knew they would draw stares and attention and yes, male photographers. Perhaps it is a subversive thing--"Yeah, look me over, buddy--but no touching! Neener neener!" If I were a man, I would find that really insulting.

  5. Regarding Meredith's post, I think you've got it all wrong.
    It is not protesting the objectifying male gaze exactly. That's another related issue. It's saying 'we can wear whatever we want and don't deserve to be harassed or sexually assaulted for it'. So women, being able to wear sexy clothing, without being sexual harassed. The point is being able to practice wearing whatever clothes you want without fear of being raped or attacked. In which case many wore undergarments as a 'screw you, this doesn't deserve rape either' gesture. Because a man can control his damned self, just as a woman can.

    Promiscuity is not a bad thing. Having sex with many people is not a bad thing. And it is no reason to be less respected. I do not myself, but there is no sane reason why sex should be put in a negative light or used for a reason for any sort of opinion on someone.
    The mind set of 'teasing' men is a problem to begin with. You don't see me acting that way around men who take their shirts off, thinking that they're 'teasing' me and I should be able to act however towards them because they're sexy.

    I did not go out in my underwear because I was seeking the male gaze. I went out in my underwear because I should not have to be afraid. How despicable to suggest that I would use my sexuality for attention like that for such an important cause. You really think rape victims are looking for male attention? A lot of people who attended raised their hands when they were asked if they had been raped or sexually assaulted in some way. They are doing it for themselves, and for other women, not the stupid male photographers. I think that is exactly what slutwalk is fighting against to begin with.. That kind of perspective.

  6. I agree entirely with Tanya. I went in my outfit that I wear to Rocky Horror Picture Show (a corset, short skirt, fishnets, the whole 9 yards). I've never been sexually assaulted (thank the FSM) but I never feel comfortable coming home from Rocky Horror on the subway. I always take a taxi- but that's expensive. I want a world where I would feel safe going on the subway in that outfit.

  7. Caitlin, the question of "an opportunity to dress outrageously" is interesting. I think that's part of the ethos of SlutWalk for some--certainly not all--of its participants. That we should be able to wear outrageous gear, including "provocative" clothing, and be safe, which, duh, we should. But I worry about what that means as far as the self-as-brand--is the right to wear corsets in public worth marching for? Safety is worth marching for, of course, but the intense fashion focus seemed to displace the point.

    Courtney, I'm relieved to hear from other feminists who aren't quite on board. It's been so successful in so many ways that I've really wondered if I'm just not getting it. And there IS an element of "sluttier is anything less slutty than what I wear"; my mother wrote to me after reading this post to remind me of a discussion we had after the March for Women's Lives in which my mother and her best friend couldn't understand why I, my best friend, and my mother's best friend's daughter were okay with feminists embracing clothing that was sometimes restrictive. We, of course, trotted out "because we want to be seen for our whole selves." So perhaps I'm being hypocritical here--I don't know.

    DeeDee, I'm reading "Erotic Capital" now, actually! I'll be posting my thoughts here once I've processed them. For now I can say that the particular quote you linked to is interesting and I wish that Hakim made more of a *feminist* case for it instead of pitting feminists against erotic capital. (Though the way she writes of erotic capital, it's totally anti-feminist, but anyway.) To answer the question you put here: I actually don't think it's wrong to use one's erotic capital as a means to accomplish feminist ends must be anti-feminist, because the ways in which any individual employs erotic capital can be multifaceted. It doesn't need to be an exploitation of one's looks or sexuality; it can in fact be a naturalized way of being comfortable with both of those things. I suppose I'm a bit two-faced here: I'm comfortable with feminists using erotic capital in a naturalized sense because *that's what I do.* To be strategic about it seems cunning and antifeminist...but that's just because it crosses my personal line. That's a long way of saying I don't know!

  8. Meredith, it's difficult because while I think that the clothing and the name is what has made SlutWalk so much more successful than Take Back the Night, it's also what has made it more problematic. I share your views on SlutWalk making an association (that I don't want) between clothing and assault, even as the goal is to dissociate them--and that's what I'm not understanding. But in any case, SlutWalk has jump-started a much-needed conversation, and I'm thankful for it in that sense. It's divisive in some ways but it's also getting stuff done, and I'm not sure where to draw my personal line here.

    Tanya, I'm glad to read your thoughts here, and the more I hear from participants, the closer I can come to understanding what it's about. I think that the most effective message SlutWalk sends is exactly what you wrote here: "Because a man can control his damned self, just as a woman can." The message that rape is about the rapist, not about the victim, is one that's been overlooked. But there's a point I'm not quite understanding: "I did not go out in my underwear because i was seeking the male gaze." I understand that you meant for SlutWalk, but I suppose I'm genuinely not understanding that point as applied to life. Why do women wear short skirts and bustiers? It's not for physical comfort, that's for sure. When I wear sexy clothing, I'm wearing it *because I want to be seen as sexy.* I DO invite the male gaze sometimes. I don't dress in high heels "for myself." I mean, yes--I do it to feel a certain way in a public sphere, in that sense it's for myself. But I don't do it at home alone. I do it when I wish to be seen in a certain light. But that has become mixed in with "asking for it," which obviously is problematic. I suppose the "look but don't touch" thing has merit, but I don't want to conflate the two AT ALL, and I don't think that mixing the two messages is helping. I'm a lifelong feminist, and I've been assaulted, and *I* don't get it. I don't get it! I don't understand how someone who doesn't have a personal understanding of feminism and assault can be expected to get it.

    Sarah, I want that world too, absolutely. But I think that part of what I'm not getting about SlutWalk is that it brings the focus back onto what we're wearing instead of pointing to sexual assault as the systemic abuse of power that it is. You don't feel safe not because you're wearing a corset, but because you're a *woman.* I mean, nuns are raped. I feel like SlutWalk puts the focus of the conversation where we don't actually want it. But that said, it's certainly getting the conversation going, and by that criteria (and others, for sure) SlutWalk has been a success. I'm not displeased that it exists; just unsure and questioning. In any case, thank you for reading and sharing your experience--the more I read, the better.

  9. you know, when it's 100 degrees and humid out, I do wear short skirts and tank tops for me-because I find it stifling hot and uncomfortable to be in jeans. It doesn't all have anything to do with sex. There's also the what's considered asking for sex in one context isn't in every context-like the Rocky Horror example mentioned.
    Your objection to look but don't touch also misses the nuance that I may want to be sexual with/for/to attract one person/subset of people and not want to have sex with others. Wanting some sex doesn't mean wanting to have sex with everyone.
    Basically, I'm highly in support of saying "clothes don't give you the excuse to negate context"

  10. KB, I hear you--I wear skirts pretty much all the time (literally every day in the summer) because I find them more comfortable. Believe me, I know that wearing skirts can have a variety of intentions, and DEFINITELY those intentions don't have to be related to sex. I get that by announcing your identity as a sexual creature to a desired partner, you're not articulating your availability to everyone in your path. I absolutely, 100% agree that we way we dress shouldn't signal our sexual availability.

    But the way we dress DOES send signals--and it should. It's part of how we announce our identity to the world. But there's a contradiction in some strains of SlutWalk that's troubling me, which I read as: I can dress however I want and it's not supposed to mean anything. I argue that our clothing means something--NOT that we deserve to be assaulted or that we're "asking for it"--and that context DOES matter, and that that's why protesting wearing lingerie doesn't do much except draw attention right back where I personally don't want it to be. Right back on our bodies, right back to women being viewed by others.

  11. I stumbled upon this article from some of your comments on the "Hot Chicks of OWS" article on Feministe. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised! It wasn't at all what I expected to read when I clicked on the link. I too understand the basic ideas and motivations behind SlutWalk but still felt uncomfortable viewing the footage of the event, feeling that we were going about this all the wrong way. I want to fight against rape culture and desperately wanted to attend the event for those purposes, but I absolutely can't stand the idea of fighting objectification of women by objectifying ourselves. You said it quite well in that last comment. There are ways to accomplish these goals that are more effective, more intelligent, and generally more useful. Let's stop trying to fight fire with fire.

    A note: I just realized while typing this comment that I have actually been afraid to voice this particular opinion on any of the feminist websites I read. I assumed I was in such a minority holding this viewpoint that I would get trolled all over the place. So I really hadn't put much thought into WHY I was uncomfortable with SlutWalk until I read this. Thanks for getting the discussion in my brain going again.

  12. Jess, I'm glad this piece could help you articulate some of what has been problematic for you with SlutWalk. It's hard with SlutWalk because it's a hugely visible feminist action, and I always want to support that because it just doesn't happen often enough. And for that matter, I DO support SlutWalk in certain ways, and I don't think it's unilaterally a Bad Thing. But...yeah, see all of the above!

  13. I have to question a demonstration whose purpose is not clear upon looking at it. I happened to be nearby a SlutWalk in progress last summer and took the opportunity to ask the people watching it what they thought it was about. In doing so, I discovered that the only people who actually knew what the point was supposed to be had read about it online before coming. Maybe I'm crazy, but doesn't that defeat the entire point of a demonstration? A lot of the signs I saw being carried around bore decidedly ambiguous messages that were largely indecipherable to anyone who hadn't already done extensive background reading and there seemed to be a general lack of direction to the whole thing.

    I very much support the concept, as it is tackling a very real and very serious issue and, on top of that, has so far remained free of the divisive and problematic elements which often plague feminist rhetoric. I do, however, feel that it could stand having some more thought and organization.

    1. William, that's a good question, and I think it's indicative less of SlutWalk in particular and more of what you might call postmodern protest? If SlutWalk was unclear in its purpose, OWS was more so (in my opinion), but the people involved were hardly vague about their intent. That is: The fractured sense of both seemed to be a part of the idea of the protest--that by rallying around a cause with specific branding, each sub-group (or even each participant?) could sort of "own" the "brand" of the protest. It doesn't quite track to me--but then, I'm 35, which is hardly over the hill but puts me out of the age group that's at these in the greatest numbers.

    2. I see. I don't really get the idea, but it does sound like the kind of thing that neurotypicals talk about trying to do (I'm autistic, it gives me a bit of an outsider's perspective on social issues). If doing that helps them in some way I hope they're able to keep doing it un-molested (some of the things that have been done to protesters recently have been simply scandalous).

    3. Frankly, William, I don't really get it either! But agreed that if the participants are gleaning something from it, then it should proceed in a safe manner. And yes, the forms of oppression (subtle and not-so) during some protests were horrific. I didn't cover it here but hearing of sexual assaults at Occupy camps was disturbing.

    4. Quite right. I found it quite disheartening to see major media outlets giving the sexual assault cases just as little attention as they did the police brutality. It was even more disturbing to see how many members of the Twitter and Facebook communities in which the Occupy movement was based didn't see them as anywhere near as serious an issue. I suspect that people feeling unsafe around their fellow protesters will do far more to hurt that movement than external violence, which often merely reaffirms and radicalizes protest groups.

      I can't help but feel that our continued treatment of rape as a gendered issue (both as a society and within the academic community) may be seriously contributing to this problem (many people seeing it as "not their problem", for instance). If I ever get my hands on the people who drew up the NCVS I'm going to give a very long lecture on proper scientific thinking and how not to skew your numbers by designing your questions on the basis of a pre-existing hypothesis.