SAN FRANCISCO–On July 23, about 30 dedicated activists assembled for an politically and socially incisive panel discussion about building SlutWalks, the international movement of women fighting against blaming rape victims and the oppression of woman more generally.
The tone for the open discussion was set by brief presentations from two Bay Area SlutWalk activists, Mer Stevens, a member of the International Socialist Organization and a job coach for people with developmental disabilities, and Marc Rome, San Francisco Socialist Action branch organizer and an activist with the United National Antiwar Committee.
Stevens put the SlutWalks in context by addressing the frequent high-profile sexual violence cases—most famously, the recent rape charges against Dominique Strauss Kahn—in which the media blamed the accuser. The right-wing New York Post shifted the guilt from Kahn, known as “The Great Seducer” of women, to the victim, claiming that “[t]he maid, who routinely traded sex for money with male guests, parked her cleaning cart outside [Strauss-Kahn’s] Suite 2806 on the morning of May 14 and keyed her way into the room.”
The way in which law-enforcement and governments perpetuate and contribute to victim-blaming mass psychology sheds another light on how the rulers of society shape social conscious. Stevens presented the recent example of the acquittal of two New York City police officers who had been accused of raping a woman.
She cited Arturo Gonazlez Rascan, who, in his capacity as Chihuahua, Mexico, state prosecutor, painted a misogynistic portrait of the nearly 13-year epidemic of murder and rape that claimed the lives of nearly 400 women workers of Ciudad Juarez: “Women with a nightlife who go out very late and come into contact with drinkers are at risk.” This violent history and open state-sponsored victim-blaming created the objective conditions by which SlutWalk Mexico City—and SlutWalks in general—have been so successful and empowering. The 5000 Mexican women marching in the streets in protest filled the vital subjective role of leadership building.
Rome’s presentation echoed Stevens’ view that the response in the streets by women has more to do with their outrage against systemic sexism than against any single sexist incident. He pointed to the long history of media objectification of women as one aspect of how women have been enduringly relegated to second-class status.
Addressing a lesser-known story in the The New York Times of the gang rape of an 11-year-old in Texas, he illustrated how even the “liberal” press perpetuates the myth that rape-victims are at fault. The reporter, a man, asked how the girl could “have been drawn into such an act.” He offered an answer: the victim “dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at the playground.”
Rome also made the case for viewing rape in today’s culture through the lens of the study of the history of civilization and war. By the time of the ancient Roman republic, women had become the property of men. Even throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, rape of women has been “standard operating procedure,” often ordered by the highest military leadership bodies.
Both Stevens and Rome addressed the tactic of mass mobilizations in the streets, which has defined the SlutWalks and points the way forward for the movement, although its political and social goals have yet to be definitively determined.
The floor discussion, guided by chairperson and SlutWalk coalition activist Lauren Smith, raised many important questions for the movement.
Several commentators took up the question of whether men benefit materially from the oppression of women. It was noted that women perform $11 trillion in unpaid labor in cooking, cleaning, and child care every year. This staggering amount of free labor, which is arguably keeping capitalism afloat, also keeps women who are dependant on a single breadwinner out of the “official” job market or forces working women to endure a “second shift” after they’ve clocked out. All men, regardless of their personal relationships with women, stand to earn more in sectors where they do not have to compete with women for “men’s work.”
Working-class men who think they have any real material interest in the continued oppression of women, however, would be making an extremely shortsighted assessment. By threatening to replace better-paid male workers with lower-paid women, bosses shrink wages for everyone. Is there a place, then, for men in feminist discourse? Indeed, there is no other way out of sexism. Men must recognize their gender privilege and actively eliminate their own potential for oppressive behavior—while committing to building a political movement to overturn the system that fosters sexist and racist oppression and prejudices.
Though most of the publicity for the Aug. 6 San Francisco SlutWalk has focused on what the movement is against rather than what it is for, the forum was also a place for organizers to share what they hoped to gain from the march and from a long-overdue mass movement of women. A popular desire among the women present was for a greater sense of safety in their everyday lives. This produced some speculation on the depth and breadth of social change required to simply make it possible to walk alone at night without fear.
Casting aside illusions about reforming or educating the police, there was also broad agreement that communities should take control of policing rape and domestic abuse situations. Community organization is furthermore capable, in the short term, of achieving free access to abortion and contraceptives instead of prohibitively expensive services not available to poor women, whose burden multiplies by the child. On the flip side, one participant advocated defending women on welfare who are trying to keep their children from being taken away by the state on charges of neglect.
Consciousness-raising is an important aspect to any public action, and perpetuating the present discourse also requires lowering the age at which this discourse becomes available. Reaching out to adolescent girls in schools and in the community at large with a less sterile approach to learning about sexuality is an important part of sparing young women anxiety and confusion and prevents the men in their lives from exploiting their vulnerability.
Helping young girls understand the role of the family and the media in shaping their expectations for themselves will provide them with the tools to consciously resist those expectations, and arm them with the intellectual capacity to identify sexual abuse not as an isolated occurrence but a symptom of an oppressive social and economic structure for which they are not at fault.
Lastly, there was unanimous agreement that one of the most important goals of this movement is to be part of an international struggle that rejects the imposition of Western cultural definitions on “third world” women. This will inevitably entail a re-examination of the word “slut” and its potentially alienating impact on women who have been sexually exploited or whose ethnic identities have been overly sexualized in Western media. However, the discussion did not produce much interest in “taking back” the word or standing by it in the long term. Rather, there was a commitment to understand and build a movement to eradicate the oppressive influence of capital as it intersects with race and class in the lives of women.
> The article above was written by Erica Theis and Marc Rome, and first appeared in the August 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.