Griggs: Sluts, sexuality and stigma
Feminine sexuality is viewed in many different ways, all of which fit under a patriarchal umbrella. One way to view femme sexuality is that women are supposed to be docile and submissive, allowing the supposedly more powerful man to be in charge sexually. Some might be led to believe that women aren’t sexual at all. In contemporary times, this idea is reflected by the fact that the multi-billion dollar industry of pornography caters almost exclusively to men, with a subset being marketed “for women.” Women are supposed to desire love and family, merely putting up with sex to please their man.
This idea may seem to contradict the other mainstream depiction of female sexuality, which portrays women as sinful, evil sex goddesses that can easily lead a poor, unsuspecting man astray. After all, it was Eve, the woman, who ate the forbidden apple, condemning the rest of mankind to a life of sin. There is the femme fatale, popularized in early 20th century film noir but ancient in origin: sirens, in Greek mythology, were mermaid-like sea nymphs who lured sailors to their deaths with their beautiful singing voices. Salome, the biblical seductress, demanded John the Baptist’s head on a platter, and her stepfather King Herod, so entranced by her beauty, made it happen. John the Baptist died, and it was Salome’s fault — I mean, she was so hot! Herod had to do it, right?! The idea of the femme fatale recognizes the fact that women are sexual creatures but still strips men of any responsibility, because men are just more sexual than women are, and they can’t help it.
The notion of the femme fatale is still very relevant today, and nothing illustrates this better than the comment from Toronto Police Constable Michael Sanguinetti that prompted Heather Jarvis and Sonya Barnett to begin the movement of the “Slutwalk” in Toronto and elsewhere.
“You know, I think we’re beating around the bush here,” Sanguinetti reportedly said to a group of students at the Osgood Hall Law School at York University during a talk on health and safety in 2011. “ … Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”
He later apologized, but the comment was obviously obscene, and it reflects an opinion shared by many. Dress codes at schools frequently dictate that women and girls should not wear clothes that might distract male students and teachers. This attitude is not okay. Men need to take responsibility for themselves, and the only person responsible for sexual assault or even being “distracted” by a low-cut shirt (or, I dare even say it, a bare shoulder) is the perpetrator of the assault or the gazing eye at school. However, do movements like the “Slutwalk” help? Furthermore, does a woman-centric effort to take back our sexuality coupled with the reclamation of the word “slut” assist the feminist movement or take away from it?
“I’m not trying to censor language,” Tanenbaum said in a 2015 interview with The Daily Beast. “But at the same time I’m concerned. I look around campus and every single day we have a new report of an act of sexual assault on a college campus, and that gives me pause. The fact is that most people don’t use words like ‘slut’ and ‘ho’ the way we in the feminist in-group use it.”
I agree. We have to look around at the society we are living in and ask ourselves: “How will my words make other people feel?” Coming on the heels of International Women’s Day, I want to make myself very clear: women should absolutely be able to embrace their sexuality and it is never, ever the victim’s fault if they are sexually assaulted. Sanguinetti’s words were wrong. But the reaction to it was wrong too.
In a society where femme people are constantly under scrutiny by “the male gaze,” it is difficult to know whether or not the choices we make as women to reclaim our sexuality are contributing to the already-present dehumanization and objectification that we go through on a daily basis. If people of all genders still call women “sluts” in a derogatory way, which they do, how can we reclaim it for ourselves? Feminists should be working toward a future where sex is not stigmatized and women are not seen as objects. However, in the current system, this is still the case. And until we reach this sexual utopia, where, at the very least, men take responsibility for their actions, we’re going to have to find a different word.