It’s not about the clothes

Organizing against sexual assault is incredibly important, and I appreciate the efforts of those at the College who are working to provide better resources for survivors and increase the effectiveness of the punitive response to sexual assault. These are the goals of the recent SlutWalk that took place on campus on Oct. 5. I am writing because of my deep concern about the broader implications of this event, and I am asking the community to consider an alternative that can achieve the same results.

Rape and sexual assault are about power, not sexuality; they are deeply rooted in cultural representations of women that reinforce stereotypes of race, ethnicity and class. It is necessary to respond to statements implicating women for their own sexual assault  because such statements perpetuate a culture of sexism and victim blaming. Focusing as the SlutWalk does on what women wear serves as a distraction from the real issue –  the need for equality – and that’s one of my fundamental problems with the walk’s attempt to reclaim the word “slut.”

Reclaiming something implies prior ownership. The history of the word “slut” is steeped in negative representations of women, starting with the Middle Ages when it referred to women who were unclean or untidy in their appearance, and evolving into its current form. As long as we continue to live in a world where women are treated unequally, it will continue to be used against us. And there’s evidence that shows that when labeled as sluts, girls suffer depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem.

It is also important to listen to the voices of those women who so articulately described their exclusion from these events in an open letter to the SlutWalk organizers published in the Huffington Post on Sept. 23 of this year. These women, who were of African descent, explained how the use of the word slut has and continues to disproportionately impact women of color. They remind us of how it was used as a part of slavery in constructing the sexuality of black women, leading to their murder and rape – hardly a word worth reclaiming.

It is distressing that the organizers of the walk believe that supporting a sexual culture is the solution to reducing sexual violence. The sex industry loves this mentality because they can continue to promote incredibly debasing, dehumanizing representations of sex that directly lead to the porn-focused culture that we live in today. Those in control of the sex industry, primarily white men, are cheering all the way to the bank as they distribute material that leads directly to increased sexual violence. This encourages the voyeuristic mentality that the SlutWalk feeds on, with straight men openly expressing their pleasure at watching women parade past them in their underwear. This is certainly the kind of “feminism” that men who embrace a culture of dominance can support; women focus on how they look and men keep the power while being sexually titillated.

In addition, the assumption that men and women are equally impacted by being labeled a slut is disingenuous, as it ignores how the sexual prowess of males continues to be celebrated, not castigated. There is no doubt that boys and men are harmed by a culture in which they are encouraged to embrace a psyche of dominance, and where they are punished for showing emotion. However, their mainstream sexuality is framed very differently, free from the negative associations of the word “slut.” Rather, conquest is rewarded and celebrated by many men. Welcome to our rape culture.

Endorsing a culture in which women are taught to flaunt their sexuality in the name of power limits all women to a very narrow definition of success. Without looking at the power structures, where straight, white men still control the majority of our government and economy, we will never move beyond fighting for the right to take off our clothes. If you believe that feminism is the fight for humanity, then it has always been something that all people can, and should, fight for. You, as a student body, are an incredibly creative group, and I have confidence in your ability to make real change happen. Why not use that creativity to come up with your own label, one that is truly empowering and inclusive?


Alexis Ladd P’15 lives in Boxborough, Mass.

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