Yesterday, before the chaos of the Occupy Wall Street protesters and the Brooklyn Bridge arrests, a smaller (yet equally important) protest was happening in Union Square: SlutWalk NYC.
Protesters gathered in the square at 11 a.m. to prepare their signs and groups for the walk around a small section of the neighborhood to begin at noon. At around 1:30 pm, the marchers arrived back at Union Square in an exhilarating crowd as speakers, poets, and musicians performed their work and spoke their thoughts on the 14th Street stage.
The purpose of the SlutWalk was to bring attention to the disturbing tendency of society to blame victims of rape, suggesting that their provocative or “slutty” clothing and behaviors prompted the attack. This tendency was particularly salient in the minds of the New Yorkers in attendance, as there was significant media coverage about cops making similar suggestions to women in South Park Slope as a way to remedy the recent sprouting of sexual assaults in that neighborhood.
People carried and wore signs that stated things such as “I am a Survivor,” “End Rape Culture,” “No Saints, No Whores, Just Women,” and “Who do You Call When Your Rapist is a Cop?” or, one of the most heart-wrenching: “This is What I Was Wearing. Tell Me I Asked for It. I Dare You.”
(photo by Francesca June)
Others decided to use their bodies as signs, writing “Survivor” and “Slut” on their skin and electing to go topless to illustrate a point about the ultimate freedom inherent in the expression of one’s personal aesthetic (when it is permitted).
Because attending the SlutWalk inspired me to become more active in raising awareness of these issues, I began to research the various organizations that were handing out fliers at the event. Luckily, I stumbled upon one of the most brilliantly written treatises for women’s rights that I have ever read—the What we want, what we believe mission statement of National Women’s Liberation. Please do yourself a favor and read this statement from start to finish, and share it with people who you believe it will (or should) speak to on a personal level.
The “We are Pro-Woman feminists” section is especially sensible, and expands on Pro-Woman theory by stating:
“Women are screwed over, not screwed up. This simple idea is a key part of the Pro-Woman line, a cornerstone of what we consider the most useful women’s liberation theory. The Pro-Woman line explains so many of the contradictions among women, and also points toward the necessity of a collective solution.
We don’t believe that women are brainwashed or conditioned, or that we oppress ourselves. Rather, we do what we have to do to get by in a world that is still run by and dominated by men. Wearing make up, acting flirty, even getting plastic surgery or botox—all are the result of our oppression, and a way of coping with it, not the cause.”
The issue being explained in the second paragraph points to two classic conundrums that resurface in the creation and critique of most social scientific research: Nature vs. Nurture, and Correlation vs. Causation. If it can be agreed upon that women are in fact different from men in measurable ways, are these differences located internally and projected outward (nature) or are they constructs internalized by the pressures, demands, and beliefs of society (nurture)? And if in fact these differences are found in the first place, is being born biologically female correlated with particular traits or does it cause the traits to develop?
Causation, in fact, is virtually impossible to prove, and most psychological literature will use the term correlation when describing the relationship between variables under study. So let’s stick with NWL’s example of wearing make-up and say hypothetically that a study aims to research the relationship between gender and how much time is spent grooming or maintaining one’s physical appearance. If the researchers have a large enough sample size and is relatively unbiased in who they choose to participate, they might be able to definitively say that being female is significantly correlated with a higher amount of time spent on personal grooming. This finding, however, does not (and cannot) separate the female variable into social and biological components and so does not give insight into the cause of the behavior under study.
Remembering this fault is essential to critiquing both scientific and mainstream literature that claim to understand the underlying roots of supposedly inherent and immutable sex differences. It is also necessary to remember when contextualizing an act of rape, and deciding on who and where to place the blame. It is quite easy to say “Women who wear skirts and shorts will attract a male attacker, which will cause him to choose her as his victim” and feel as if you are stating a social fact that expresses genuine concern for the well-being of women. However, it can easily be argued that patriarchy and male-decided standards of beauty “caused” the particular woman to wear a skirt in the first place.
And so the dictation of female dress in the name of safety becomes yet another instance of the ways by which males covertly control the behaviors of females in public settings. This point of view is given from a position of power, freedom, and safety that most women will never truly know. It takes the shame thrust upon women who survive rape, and multiplies it exponentially within their internal perception of who they are. It is an alarming call for the demand of social reform that spans such diverse arenas as the workplace, health care, and hyper-sexualization of women and girls in the media. Ultimately, it creates an environment where sexuality is an act of violence rather than something to enjoy. And as one protester’s sign coyly pointed out on a bright red canvas yesterday in Union Square: “Mutual sex is BETTER.”
(photo by Art and Science Lab)