When I ask women I know if they call themselves feminists, the answer is often ‘no’. However, when I ask if they believe women should have the same rights as men, freedom from sexual violence, and support each other to achieve these things, the answer quickly changes to ‘yes, of course’. This observation that feminism has become a dirty word is not new: entire books have been dedicated to this phenomenon (including Jane Caro and Catherine Fox’s The F Word and Monica Dux and Zora Simic’s The Great Feminist Denial). Feminism has been criticised for being outdated, alienating and impenetrable – trapped in academia. But perhaps one of the movement’s biggest flaws has been the lack of inclusivity: of young women, of men, and of people previously relegated to the fringes of feminism – sex workers, transgendered people and those belonging to racial minorities. Over the past few months, however, a new kind of feminist discourse has surged in the mainstream media, and no event has achieved more attention than the SlutWalks.
These marches began in Toronto at the beginning of 2011 after a police officer told a group of university students that ‘women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised’. This provoked an outcry, with women the world over taking to the streets in a call to stop victim blaming and eliminate the double standard relating to women’s sexuality (as one sign at the Melbourne march eloquently put it: ‘Man with many sexual partners = stud, woman = slut’).
In the weeks leading up to the march, it was furiously debated what message the Melbourne SlutWalk would impart. Its supporters believed it would reclaim a word that has often had the power to ‘criticise and judge a person’s sexual expression’. Its detractors declared that organisers were in fact ‘making life harder for girls’ and should instead take to the streets for the right not to be called a slut. Despite my support for the march, it was exciting to follow the debate and to see feminism, and its various means of expression, on the agenda and being redefined by the next generation.
The SlutWalk began at 1pm outside Melbourne Town Hall, and consisted of so many people that it was difficult to see, or even hear, the speakers (The Age estimated that around 3000 people attended). Organiser Clem Bastow spoke about the ‘blaming’ of victims of sexual assault, which still widely occurs within both the media and the general public. A young transgender man, Cody Smith, spoke movingly of his rape as both a female and later as a male, and how it had taken him years to stop blaming himself for the abuse. Writers Monica Dux and Leslie Cannold spoke of ending the judgments placed on female sexuality and their belief that reclaiming the word ‘slut’ would ultimately disempower it.
During the march I was pleased to discover that what many critics’ predicted – scantily clad women and ogling groups of men – were not in evidence. While there were a few eccentric outfits, the majority of women wore clothing fitting for a cold day in Melbourne. Attendees at the march were diverse: women of all ages, mothers with young children, and, most surprisingly, men.
Despite many comparisons to the Reclaim the Night marches, which prohibit men from participating, it is SlutWalk’s inclusiveness and encouragement of diversity that has proved its point of difference. How can we achieve gender equality and freedom from sexual violence when we exclude men from participating in marches and feminist debate? The only way to stop violence against women is to educate both sexes and allow men and women to stand up together against inequality and violence. Perhaps this is what the revival is essentially about: inclusion, of different schools of feminism, of young and old women, and men.
On the same day as the SlutWalk, the Feminist Futures Conference was held in Melbourne. Organised by the Melbourne Feminist Collective, and inspired by the F Conference in Sydney in 2010, the FFC aims to provide a safe and supportive space for anyone interested in ‘imagining and creating feminist futures’. As a young feminist in a so-called ‘post-feminist’ world I jumped at the chance to take part.
I was surprised not only at the large number of women at the conference but also at the predominance of young women. Held over two days, the conference was organised around four main panel discussions, followed by a series of workshops on a wide range of issues such as equal pay, multiculturalism, sex work, pornography and even Facebook.
The ‘Why Feminism Matters’ panel began with Professor Raewyn Connell declaring that feminism must have a balance of ‘cultural radicalism and a commitment to social justice’. Elena Jeffreys, sex worker and President of Scarlet Alliance (the Australian Sex Workers Association), then spoke about the disjuncture between feminism and sex work. Domestic violence activist Ludo McFerran discussed the difficulties of unity within feminism, believing it to have become a ‘movement of specialists’, and Alison Thorne from the Freedom Socialist Party ended the panel with a discussion of the connection between capitalism and patriarchy.
During question time it became clear that the speakers did not generally agree with each other about why feminism mattered or how the movement should progress. However, unlike in the debates raging about the SlutWalk, there was no open discussion of these conflicting feminist ideologies; instead, participants avoided engaging with each other’s points of view. During group discussion in a workshop on the increase of pornographic images and the prevailing taboo on critiquing these images, I encountered a similar absence of debate, and also a distinct lack of diversity. Despite the wide range of topics covered in the workshops, the conference consisted of predominantly young, white women.
What the SlutWalk achieved that the conference didn’t was diversity and the opportunity for debate. Disagreement does not a failed movement make. Instead, debate ensures that a movement is not only alive, but thriving.
- Photo courtesy of Jess Rizzi.