Entry from May 19, 2011

Since my last post about the phenomenon of “SlutWalking” a furious debate on the subject has continued in the U.K. as seemingly every female columnist for the “quality” papers there has felt herself called upon to comment, explaining why SlutWalking is either a good or a bad thing for women. But although the demonstrations began in Canada and have taken place in the U.S. as well as the U.K. and Australia, there has been almost no discussion of them in the American media. They have rustled the trees of the blogosphere here and caused a slight stirring in the tall grass of right wing chatterers, but they remain largely unnoticed by the mainstream media. It would be nice to think that this is because American feminists are more sensible than their British counterparts, but something inside tells me that this can hardly be the case. On the other hand, the lack of attention from our own pundettes may reflect a dim sense that American readers would be a lot less willing than British ones to take such silliness seriously.

Another reason for the relative silence on this side of the Atlantic about SlutWalking is that the controversy also happens to coincide with the equally silly fuss about the frat boys at Yale who now find themselves in legal trouble for boorish behavior. This included, so we’re told, an incident in 2008 in which pledges held up signs outside the Yale Women’s Center reading: “We love Yale sluts.” As it happens, male camp-followers of the suggestively dressed SlutWalkers have been seen with similar signs — though these are apparently taken by the self-proclaimed Sluts in a spirit of resolute blindness to any other sense of the words than as an expressions of solidarity with their cause. Whatever that is. Presumably, it’s the right to live in a fantasy world where male lust can be continually provoked without ever becoming a danger or an inconvenience to the provokers. American feminists were thus less well-placed than British ones to ignore the irony of male slut-loving.

I’m glad that Germaine Greer, at least, writing in the Daily Telegraph, explored the history of the word “slut,” though she is wrong to call its original meaning — a domestic drudge or a dirty, slatternly woman — obsolete, as it is still used in this way in some dialects of the north of England. But it is true to say that

the word denotes a “woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance; a foul slattern.” A now obsolete meaning connects it with a kitchen maid, whose life was lived in soot and grease. She was too dirty to be allowed above stairs, but drudged out her painful life scraping pans and riddling ash, for 16 hours a day, and then retreated to her squalid lodging where hot water could not be had. The corner she left unswept was the slut corner; the fluff that collected under the furniture was a slut ball. People who thought of sex as dirt suspected the lazy kitchen maid of being unclean in that way as well.

That’s just speculation on Ms Greer’s part, but plausible enough. The virtues once thought to be particularly associated with women, namely chastity (or fidelity), nurturing and cleanliness, presumably come together here to make a complex of “stereotyping” (as we call it now) that so many modern women resent as a limitation on their freedom. At any rate, Ms Greer certainly seems to feel this way. “If women are to overthrow the tyranny of perpetual cleansing,” she writes, “we have to be able to say: ‘Yes, I am a slut. My house could be cleaner. My sheets could be whiter. I could be without sexual fantasies too — pure as the untrodden snow — but I’m not. I’m a slut and proud.’ The rejection by women of compulsory cleansing of mind, body and soul is a necessary pre-condition of liberation.”

I actually have some sympathy with this view, but it too often obscures — as Germaine Greer does — its unspoken and fantastical corollary, namely that this longed-for liberation of those who feel themselves oppressed is supposed magically to transform the prejudices of the rest of us. Alas, the world at large is never going to admire slovenliness as much as it admires cleanliness, any more than it is going to admire feminine promiscuity (real or suggested) as much as it admires modesty and continence. The Sluts may be proclaiming their indifference to the world’s opinion of them, but the exercise is in itself a contradiction of that proclamation. Nature has designed women to be objectified, if you want to use that tendentious coinage, by men, and they will continue to be objectified whatever they wear and whatever they do. The protest is a protest against reality; the liberation can therefore only ever be a fantasy. But perhaps the fantasy is what they really want.

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