Los Angeles SlutWalk steering committee member and GMPM columnist Hugo Schwyzer argues that SlutWalk is for men, too.
The sluts are in the streets. From L.A. to London, Minneapolis to Melbourne, this has become “SlutWalk spring.” (Down under, I suppose it’s “SlutWalk Fall.”) SlutWalk began in Toronto, Canada, in response to a police officer’s remark that if women wanted to avoid being raped, they shouldn’t dress like sluts. That exercise in victim-blaming led Heather Jarvis, Sonya Barnett, and a handful of their friends to put together a small march and rally through the streets of Canada’s largest city on April 3.
Perhaps it was the controversy around the name, or perhaps it was the cause itself, but in the less than eight weeks since that first SlutWalk, the movement has become a global phenomenon with widespread press attention. Satellite SlutWalks have taken place or are in the planning stages on six continents. The Los Angeles SlutWalk happens on June 4; I’m proud to be on the steering committee for what we expect will be a major event.
There are many reasons why men should be involved with SlutWalk. The important ones have nothing to do with what the women marching might—or might not—be wearing. (There is no dress code for SlutWalk, and past marches have seen folks rally in everything from bathrobes to bikinis to Brooks Brothers suits.)
When that cop in Toronto made that unfortunate remark about women “dressing like sluts” being more likely to be raped, he was telling a partial truth. He wasn’t right about who gets sexually assaulted—there is no study that shows that women in miniskirts or tube tops are statistically at greater risk of rape than their more modestly-clad sisters. Rather, he was telling a truth about how our culture sees men. And that truth is based on one very great lie.
I’ve been doing work around gender and sexual violence for nearly 25 years. I developed my college’s first interdisciplinary course on “Men and Masculinity” a decade ago. And in all my years of teaching and activism, I’ve come to believe that there’s one lie that’s bigger than any other we tell about men: we cannot reconcile our arousal and our compassion. In other words, the lie says we can’t truly respect what we also desire.
More than a few men, if they’re honest with themselves, know that this isn’t true for them. As boyfriends and husbands, many straight guys discover that they can both lust after and be genuinely in love with the same woman at the same time. We learn (most of us) that the older boys in the locker room were wrong: a hard dick can have a conscience. But we often suspect we’re the only ones who can reconcile our libidos with our ethics.
And so out of fear what other men might do (or, perhaps, what we fear we might dream of doing ourselves) we urge our little sisters and our daughters to “cover up”, to avoid dressing “slutty” in order to ensure respect for men. Deep down, we know that the women we love are as vulnerable to rape in a mu-mu as in a miniskirt. Men rape as much out of rage as frustrated desire—and there is no outfit short of steel armor a woman can wear that will protect her from an obsessed stalker or a drunken frat boy filled with a sense of entitlement.
I’m involved in organizing SlutWalk LA for many reasons. But I appreciate one assumption that the Toronto founders made in particular. Though what constitutes “slutty” clothing is obviously open to debate, SlutWalkers believe in men’s capacity to do two things at once: be aroused by what we see while honoring the humanity of the woman whose body attracts our eye. The most pernicious of all lies about men is that because of our makeup, lust and empathy can’t coexist within us. If you want kind and compassionate men who will respect women’s boundaries, the myth suggests, those women will have to conceal the parts of themselves that will turn men bestial and irresponsible.
There’s another lie SlutWalk refutes. It’s the one that says that men only need to “respect women who respect themselves.”
Too many of us still believe that “self-respect” for a woman means chastity and modesty. If she’s wearing revealing clothing, enjoys attention, and maybe even likes sex outside of a committed monogamous relationship, we call her a “slut”—and accuse her of not respecting herself. Perhaps she does respect herself, perhaps she doesn’t. (Promiscuity is not perfectly correlated with low self-esteem, despite what a lot of pop psychologists tell you.) But in the end, it doesn’t matter. Women aren’t commodities whose value is based on their own fluctuating sense of self-worth.
Common decency means respecting people because they’re people, not because of how we imagine they feel about themselves. So if a woman dresses in a way that we think invites sexual attention, or if she chooses multiple sexual partners, we’re not required to approve of her lifestyle or her fashion choices. But we are required to respect her right to move through public and private space unchallenged and unmolested. That’s not too much to ask for any man.
When I was first publicly identified as an organizer of SlutWalk LA, someone sent me a tweet asking how I’d feel if my daughter turned out to be “a slut.” It’s not as offensive a question as it sounds. It was a reminder to me as a dad that I shouldn’t advocate for others what I wouldn’t want for my own child.
What I replied (in more than one 140 character tweet) was that my daughter was foremost in my mind when I committed to the SlutWalk campaign. I want a world where she is free to grow into a woman’s body without fear of being raped. I want her to have the freedom to express her sexuality safely and joyfully in whatever way she chooses, whenever she’s ready (and not a moment before). And I want her to grow up without shame about her own wanting and about her wanting to be wanted.
I want my daughter to grow up in a world in which all men are safe, responsible, reliable. We don’t have that world yet, of course. But the reason has nothing to do with biology: it has to do with our crushingly low expectations of men’s capacity to reconcile lust and humanity. In order for our daughters and little sisters and nieces to be safer, we must demand better of ourselves as men. And one way to start is to challenge the very roots of our thinking about sex, desire, and respect. That challenge is part of what SlutWalk is all about.
—Photo by troismarteaux/Flickr