Griggs: Intersectionality in reclaiming words

(Stacy Yurishchev/Emerald)

The reclamation of sexual objectification and historically objectifying words is a cisgender white woman’s game. It’s easy for us white girls to pretend that “free the nipple” campaigns are enough to end numerous systems of oppression, some of which we haven’t even considered. But white women need to do some things, and knitting pussy hats isn’t one of them.

There are many groups of people in this country who can’t embrace this supposedly empowering movement. It’s been noted multiple times in different post-women’s march think pieces that transgender women have felt especially left out of reproductive system-focused feminism.

“ … pussy hats set the tone for a march that would focus acutely on genitalia at the expense of the transgender community. Signs like ‘Pussy power,’ ‘Viva la vulva’ and ‘Pussy grabs back’ all sent a clear and oppressive message to trans women, especially: having a vagina is essential for womanhood,” said Marie Solis for Mic.

This is a complicated issue to unpack. On one hand, it’s essential to make sure that transgender women are included in definitions of womanhood. On the other hand, some of this genitalia-centered rhetoric is a direct backlash to President Trump’s attacks on the female reproductive system, especially his now-infamous “grab ‘em by the pussy” comments and his ongoing fight against abortions. This was solidified in January when he signed an executive order “banning foreign nongovernmental organizations that receive certain kinds of American aid from counseling health clients about abortion or advocating for abortion law liberalization.”  

So, while transgender women certainly should not be left out of any definition of womanhood, there definitely needs to be a conversation about the female reproductive system, and I think there is some merit to taking back what the government seems so privy to take away from us. And there is one group of people who seems to be totally left out here: transgender men, some of whom have vaginas and uteri that cause significant psychological pain for them and is rarely addressed.

I take issue with this usage of the word “slut” for multiple reasons, one of these being that the reclamation of it is pretty exclusive to white women.

“Being intersectional is being intentional,” said Fatima Roohi Pervaiz, director of the ASUO Women’s Center. “It’s taking into account other people’s experiences.” Intentionality and critical thinking seem to be something that is missed by a vast majority of well-intentioned white women wearing pussy hats or handmade vagina costumes. We just need to recognize that we all have different experiences.

Being intentional really isn’t that difficult, either. Roohi Pervaiz recounted a recent experience about the February performance of “The Vagina Monologues” by the University of Oregon’s Panhellenic women.  When she asked the organizers if they might start the play with a statement mentioning that not all women have vaginas, they were happy to oblige.

“Having deep, meaningful conversations and dialogue is essential to getting to the root of [these issues],” said Roohi Pervaiz.

But not only transgender or non-gender conforming people feel uncomfortable with the reclamation of objectification. In my last article about similar issues, I discussed the SlutWalk, a movement started in 2011 by two Toronto women as a response to a Toronto police officer’s comments about how women should dress in order to avoid getting sexually assaulted. I take issue with this usage of the word “slut” for multiple reasons, one of these being that the reclamation of it is pretty exclusive to white women. In a 2011 “open letter from black women to SlutWalk organizers,” this exclusivity is explored.

“As Black women, we do not have the privilege or the space to call ourselves ‘slut’ without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the Black woman is,” the letter said, which was signed by The Board of Directors and Board of Advisors of Black Women’s Blueprint and endorsed by organizations such as the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community and the Los Angeles Black Women’s Network, amongst many others. I’d imagine the sentiment remains similar today: black women do not have the privilege to take back their sexuality the same way that white women do. And we all need to acknowledge this.

We need to advocate for the rights of people with vaginas and uteri. We need to stop the objectification of femmes. But we also need to realize that not everybody feels safe or wants to do that by wearing pussy hats, and change some of our rhetoric to reflect that. If we’re going to wear pussy hats and participate in “slut walks” and free our nipples, we’ve got to also have some “Protect Trans Lives” signs in our hands, and we need to show up at Black Lives Matter rallies and lift up women of color who don’t benefit from the same privileges that we do.

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