Is language reclamation something that all women are ready for?

In 2011, a Toronto policeman’s comment regarding women avoiding sexual assault by not dressing like sluts sparked an event known as “SlutWalk”, a march where individuals are invited to dress how they want, including topless, to protest this culture of slut shaming. At UBCO, SlutWalk has been happening since 2015 to raise awareness of the reality of sexual assault, that it happens no matter what someone is wearing.

The underlying point of SlutWalk is language reclamation of the word “slut”, a word that is used to denote a woman who supposedly has a lot of sex. Language reclamation is a common thing especially within gender theory, where groups try and take back words that have been used to dehumanize them or discriminate against them.

Is the movement of SlutWalk intersectional though? That is, is reclaiming the word “slut” something that all women want to do? SlutWalk has been criticized by some in the past for its lack of intersectionality. For example, Indigenous women face more danger from sexualization, and the historical ramifications of Indigenous rape and sexual abuse continues to present day. Another example is transwomen; take the recent bathroom laws in America as evidence that transwomen are unsafe in bathrooms, let alone ready to go topless and reclaim the word slut.

Students at UBCO further this point. According to one previous participant, the SlutWalk movement is “definitely isolating for some identities”. Another student acknowledges that the voice of sex workers is also rarely heard, and criticizes the beginnings of the movement, saying that “POC and Indigenous peoples are not listened to by police every day and no one starts marches for them”.

Another student points out that the march as a whole almost inherently excludes men, who can also be victims of sexual assault, and demonizes them as the sole perpetrators of slut shaming despite the reality that women do it to other women. As one student sums up, reclaiming the word slut is painful and unsafe for some women who face sexualization that stems from colonialism and racism, and is very different for white women, who face a different kind of slut shaming.

This is not to say that SlutWalk isn’t a good thing. Women should absolutely have the right to reclaim language and march for their right to dress how they want. There are, however, ways to encourage more intersectional resistance, beginning with the realization that reclamation isn’t necessary for empowerment.

One student suggests that we focus on using words that are true about women, like brave, strong, powerful, instead of reclaiming negative words like slut. Another points out that the uncomfortableness surrounding the word can be good. Being uncomfortable can be a productive way to spark change, and it marks the abnormalizing of the word.

The essential point is this: women can choose to do what they want. For those who march in SlutWalk, good for you. Keep rebelling against the patriarchy. For those who don’t, good for you too. Keep rebelling in your own way. To those who criticize women for not participating, or those who refuse to acknowledge that reclaiming the word slut is not an intersectional action, don’t keep doing you, and rethink your judgement.