A Critical Analysis of the Toronto SlutWalk

The Toronto SlutWalk is a powerful form of resistance against gendered oppression. It is important to consider the truths it reveals about hierarchies of power, patriarchal relations and the political context of neoliberalism within which the situation has unraveled. In this section, I will use a Foucauldian framework to demonstrate how the politics and policies surrounding the SlutWalk are reflective of the current neoliberal climate. Within this climate, individualism and responsibilization have become key components of our daily lives. I will show how constructions of women as potential national security risks produce and reinforce a hegemonic social and moral order. Finally, I will demonstrate how the law keeps these patriarchal power relations in place and the possible effects acts of dissent such as the SlutWalk have in destabilizing these seemingly immovable forces.

A central feature to neoliberalism with respect to crime control is the autonomy of the individual in taking responsibility for his or her personal security. Power is thus equated with a willingness to be a responsibilized and prudent citizen of the state (Rose, 2000, p. 334). This may seem to be a relatively new phenomenon for the public but is nothing new in the lives of women. Women have long been bombarded with responsibilizing strategies to manage their risk of sexual assault and violence. Women are actively making these decisions on a day-to-day basis when they choose whether or not to go out, when to go home, which streets to avoid, and so on. They have internalized risk logics without really being conscious of the broader discourses their decisions reflect. Acts of violence are de-gendered, stripped of their complexity and perceived as an inevitable incident that women ought to prevent by conforming to a standard of appropriate femininity.

The SlutWalk movement seeks to place the perpetrator at centre stage so that victim blaming will no longer occur. It aims to collapse understandings of womanhood that dismisses women as an internal national security risk that must be policed (Kinsman, 2010). National security is an ideological practice that places certain groups at the centre of the nation-state and dismisses others into the margins (Kinsman, 2010, p. p. 149). Security risks are constructed based upon capitalist, racist and patriarchal ideologies. Steedman (2010) links these understandings to historically specific moments during which they arose. For instance, after the Cold War, the traditional family structure was central to Canada’s social structure and any form of dissent would weaken the nation state’s fight against communism (Steedman, 2010, p. 57). Women’s role in upholding morally upright family traditions and values has become a central feature of Canadian capitalism. Any form of radicalism in the form of sexual promiscuity or liberation is thus perceived as risky and subversive due to the threat it poses to the social order (Steedman, 2010, p. 60). The focus on cleanliness in the bourgeois order is key to an understanding of the perceived destabilizing force of women’s sexuality. Sexuality was a threat and ultimately a possible rupture in bourgeois civility (Gordon, 2006, p. 50). As a “moral contagion” (Gordon, 2006, p. 49), female sexuality has the potential to disrupt a social and moral order that has historically disempowered women. With their acceptance and conformity to hegemonic ideals of femininity, women have the potential to be included as citizens of the Canadian nation state (Rose, 2000, p. 335).

The law is a basis of legitimacy in hegemonic societies and people often use the law to change the order if they deem it to be problematic or unjust. The law, however, has perpetuated unequal gender relations despite rallying and reform by social activists. Laws surrounding sexual assault continue to cast suspicion on complainants and employ strategies that discredit women who stray from constructions of ideal femininity. Even with legal discourse, it is not uncommon to hear an echo of Michael Sanguinetti’s caution to refrain from dressing like a slut in order to avoid sexual victimization. In these situations, individuals may opt to go about seeking change through alternative channels that fall outside the legal system. The aforementioned systems of power at play continue to be challenged by women’s movements. As Foucault has said, where there is power, there is resistance and the SlutWalk is but one method of dissent. It is not top down and hierarchical, which is evident by the fact that SlutWalk protestors are resisting oppressive practices (For a more in-depth explanation of the SlutWalk’s objectives, click here) and exercising their power to do so. Protestors have made it clear that they prefer police to not be in attendance at the SlutWalk protest but police have expressed that their presence is necessary (Hamilton Spectator, 2011) in order to ensure safety and maintain order. As representatives of the state who have historically policed not only social disorder, but moral contagion (Foucault, 2009, p. 314), the response should be no surprise. The name “SlutWalk” in itself is an exercise of power. Labelling is an important aspect in controlling deviance and there is a hierarchy of credibility whereby those people in positions of power are granted the ability to label those who are not (Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke & Roberts, 1978). By reclaiming a word that has historically been used as an insult against women, SlutWalk protestors are asserting their power in defining who they are. It is clear then that the state does not simply exercise power over women, but that as Foucault has claimed, power operates in relationships and is dynamic in the various forms it takes.

The SlutWalk movement is concerned with empowering women and altering current practices that increase their insecurity in public spaces. Protestors’ attire and behaviour is threatening because it challenges the bourgeois order and has the potential to encourage other women to take on similar forms of radicalism. For protestors, however, sexual liberation is not a radical ideology that ought to be vehemently resisted. The changes protestors hope will occur is the decreased regulation of female sexuality and women’s increased freedom to occupy spaces without having to feel responsible for any potential violence they may encounter. Perhaps in the future, the socially constructed ideal woman will be erased from the public’s imagination and women will be free to wear what they want and behave however they would like without it being a direct reflection of their moral value. Perhaps the law will become a legitimate source of protection for women who are victims of sexual violence without fear that they will be judged, stigmatized and discredited. The SlutWalk is pushing for these necessary societal changes that will continue to resist and challenge the normalization of gendered oppression rooted in patriarchal power relations and ultimately aid in achieving equal rights for women.

 Works Cited

Foucault, M. (2009). Security, territory, population. Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977- 1978. New York: Picador. Pp. 311-328. [29 March 1978 lecture]

Gordon, T. (2006). Producing capitalist order: Police, class, race and gender. In Cops, Crime and Capitalism: The Law and Order Agenda in Canada (pp. 29-51). Halifax: Ferwood Publishing.

Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clarke, J.N & Roberts, B. 1978. Crime, law and the state. Pp. 181-217 in Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order. London: Macmillan.

Hamilton Spectator. (2011). SlutWalk: The victim is not to blame. Hamilton Spectator. Retrieved from http://www.thespec.com/news-story/2204224-slutwalk-the-victim-is-not-to-blame/

Kinsman, G. (2010). Against national security: From the Canadian war on queers to the ‘war on terror’. In Locating Global Order: American Power and Canadian Security after 9/11, edited by Bruno Charbonneau and Wayne S. Cox (pp. 149-66). UBC Press.

Steedman, M. (2000). The red petticoat brigade: Mine mill women’s auxiliaries and the threat from within, 1940s-70s. In Whose National Security? Canadian State Surveillance and the Creation of Enemies, edited by Gary Kinsman, Dieter K. Buse and Mercedes Steedman. Toronto: Between the Lines.

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