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What to Make of Slut Walks

When I arrived as a freshman at Mount Holyoke in 1966, the college held “gracious living” dinners on Sundays and Wednesdays (skirts were required), housemothers (often widowed, always a combination of motherly and mean) ruled the dorms, men were allowed only in the main floor parlor rooms, and students had to be safely signed into the dorm by midnight on Friday nights—or else. People were just beginning to utter the words “The Pill” out loud. By the time I graduated, housemothers had evaporated into the ether, young women came and went at will, bras had evolved into political statements, men spent nights in dorm rooms, and who knows how many young women avoided pregnancy by daily swallows of that tiny little Pill.

At the time, I didn’t think of these changes as revolutionary. Like the proverbial fish that turns to his companion and asks, “What’s water?” I simply swam along, inside my era, without seeing it. It was a given that the changes were a simple matter of justice. Why shouldn’t second-wave feminism (the name given my era’s feminism) promote complete freedom for women? Granted, Nature had been unfair in assigning pregnancy and childbearing to women, but the Pill had equalized all that. Now that Nature was humbled, second-wave feminism pushed for the final stage of liberation—sexual liberation through birth control (including abortion), personal liberation through the philosophy of self-fulfillment, and economic liberation through equal employment opportunities for the sexes and easy access to divorce.

But we were as wrong that this was the end of feminism as Francis Fukiyama was about it being the end of history. A third wave of feminism has washed over our sand castles. The new feminists are broadening the meaning of feminism. If a woman wishes to walk around looking like a Victoria’s Secret model showing off a new bra, that’s her business. Dressing any way you wish, as well as following your sexual proclivities wherever they take you, is a woman’s right as much as a man’s. Men must ignore whatever signals they think women are sending out and get it through their heads, and groins, that “No means no.”

The argument seems to make some  sense. Why should we tolerate a situation where wild men are admired as studs, while the same behavior in women results in them being derided as sluts? The continued emphasis on women’s virginity, on they’re being “good girls” and “pure,” is nothing but a cultural anachronism that needs chucking.

Which brings me to the “slut walks,” where women in various cities and on college campuses are now demonstrating in marches dressed any way they want—from jeans and t-shirts, with the word, “Slut” plastered across the chest, to dresses that would make the hookers I see in midtown New York blush. They’re intent on taking back the word “slut.” By appropriating it, and hauling it out into the open, and making it ubiquitous, it will become much like the F-word—once a powerful verbal thrust, now a meaningless bit of linguistic filler. The larger purpose is to eradicate, once and for all, the persistent idea that some women “deserve” rape because of provocative dress or bad behavior.

The proponents of slut walks include the feisty 33-year-old Jessica Valenti, co-founder and executive editor of Feministing.com (a blog site with offerings by several contributors and notices of community events) and author of several third-wave feminist books, including The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women (Seal Press: 2008). For Ms. Valenti and many other young feminists, the problem of the sexes inexorably boils down to one word: Men. In my generation, it was the women who needed to do the most changing. Now it’s the men. Specifically, the new feminists are demanding they control themselves, no matter the occasion. Everything hinges, then, on whether, or to what extent, this is a realistic demand.

Raised on second-wave feminism, and living on its spirited emphasis on having it all—work, family, self-fulfillment—I am bemused, but hardly outraged, at the way young women today frequently dress, but pained to see young feminists take the accomplishments of their mothers for granted. Yet every new generation invents the strategies it needs to tackle intractable problems or take on new problems that were never faced before. Because my generation of women was trying to redefine ourselves so we could enter the public arena—an area defined and controlled by men—deliberately wearing provocative dress in public was never in our game plan.

But times have changed. I accept the new feminist argument that for reasons that have as much to do with fashion as anything else, women now dress provocatively. It’s worth noting that it’s hardly the first time in Western culture that men have had to deal with provocative female fashion. In Jane Austen’s time, to offer just one example, women promenaded in public wearing gauzy see-through dresses—very much like slips—while making presentations of their breasts as if they were peaches on platters.

Could slut walks actually effect a change in the deeply rooted suspicion, held by many men and women alike, that some women “deserve” to be raped? I have no idea. The deeper question to ask is whether, or to what extent, the nature of male and female sexuality can really be controlled by culture.

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