Saturday, May 7, 2011

the language of our oppressors: why “slutwalk” should reconsider its name

There will be an event in DC in August called “SlutWalk DC.” SlutWalk is self described as an event that will “bring together people of all genders, ages, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and economic statuses to raise awareness about and bring an end to ‘Rape Culture,’ ‘Slut Shaming,’ and ‘Victim Blaming’…In addition to creating dialogue, we intend to re appropriate the term ‘Slut”: Anyone who enjoys consensual sex.”

Let me be clear. I completely support the general objectives of the event. I want to live in a world where rape is non-existent and where women can express their sexuality fully and comfortably. 

What I’m not sure I support is the reclamation of the word “slut.” I understand the concept behind it: to take an oppressive, derogatory word and turn it into a positive descriptor can not only takes away its negative impact but defeat those who use it negatively. Words hold only the power we give them. I know this. 

But as enticing and empowering as this idea may seem, the reality of word reclamation may be more complicated. Linguist and political analyst George Lakoff has argued that framing an issue boils down to the language you use to frame it in. In many of his pieces he discusses the framing of immigration policy. The Republicans were able to succeed in their anti-immigration campaign because they used language that was concise, simplified, and jarring. Bush specifically talked about “illegal aliens,” an incredibly pejorative term describing undocumented immigrants. The term caught on and everyone involved, from newspapers to Democrats began using it. And soon it became apparent that the Democrats were losing this fight. Why? Because, Lakoff says, they adopted the language of their opposition. They could not counter-frame because they had already began using “illegal alien,” a term already so heavy with negative implications.

I see parallels between this example and the attempt at reclaiming words like “slut” and “whore.” While on the surface the action may seem empowering, but ultimately we are using the language of our oppressors. It will become impossible to create a counter-frame, as it were, against this anti-woman sentiment that is so prevalent in our society. We can say we’re reclaiming the term, and that’s fine. But those who use it derogatorily will continue to do so, probably feeling more comfortable throwing the terms around in an accusing fashion now that these words have made their way into even the feminist movement. 

We need to move beyond “slut” and “whore.” There is no need to dwell on the language of those who discriminate against us. We need not give credence to the disparaging epithets that are thrown in our path. We can find better words and terms that provide for an open discussion about women’s’ sexuality. I want to move beyond a rape-culture, and I think this is the first of many steps we can take to do so.