The dress debate

1 June 2011

Written by: Jessica Buccolieri

When feminist and ethicist Leslie Cannold greeted the Melbourne SlutWalk rally with ‘Hey all you sluts’ last Saturday, I had to wonder whether feminism had ever taken place.

It was a cold, grey day, but even so, around three-thousand ‘sexy and chaste, radical and conservative’ women and their supporters gathered to reclaim their inner ‘slut’.

Neither chaste nor sexy – and minus the fishnet stockings – I listened as the numerous speakers advocated for the rights of women to dress as they please, and not become targets for rapists.

I learnt that the word ‘slut’ dates back to the Middle Ages.

‘Those who throw it at us want to take us back there’, said Cannold. ‘The Middle Ages were a time when a woman’s virtue was judged by how she looked and with whom and how often she had sex.’

The SlutWalk protests have also gone global, with plans to stage them in the US, the UK, the Middle East and Europe. They began after a Canadian policeman advised a group of college students that they should not ‘dress like sluts’ if they wanted to avoid being sexually assaulted. Outraged by his sexist caution, the women tweeted their sisters and a global movement was ignited to reclaim the word ‘slut’.

Standing among the ‘sluts’ on Saturday, it was difficult to find much in the way of dissent – although feminist Onnie Wilson told the Sunday Age she would have preferred men to have their own rally, calling for an end to violence against women.

Melbourne writer Fatima Measham said, in an opinion piece for the National Times, that the idea of reclaiming the word ‘slut’ ignores those who would like to see an end to ‘victim-blaming’ but don’t want to exist in a ‘slutty subculture’.

For Masters student Ruby Hamad, support for the word amounts to merely legitimising ‘the divisive language of patriarchy’.

Gail Dines, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston, told The Age that the reclamation would reinforce ‘stereotypes’.

‘Men want women to be sluts and now they’re buying in.’

While The Age covered the SlutWalk protest well, presenting various views, the ABC’s democratic forum Q&A failed to give Professor Dines the respect she deserved.

After her appearance on the show, the author of Pornland said, ‘I felt like I had walked into an adolescent boy’s club with everyone sniggering about pornography’.

Preferring to be light-hearted and entertaining, the show denied the issue at the heart of her book – how porn has hijacked our sexuality.

Professor Dines has studied the porn industry for over two decades and describes the growth and practice of pornography as a serious health issue. She writes about feminists who fought for sexual liberation in the 1960s and ’70s, who struggled for the right to have sex on their own terms – a choice not defined by men.

Dines said what we have today ‘is a sexuality that has its roots in porn. It is sold to us as empowering’. As such, the issues of pornography and the SlutWalk movement are not unrelated and deserve equal attention.

Helen Lobato is a Bachelor of Media Studies student at La Trobe University.