Women’s History Month: What is slut-shaming?

Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis

This is Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis, the founders and organizers of the first SlutWalk. Image courtesy of Feministing.com.

As I’ve said before, I grew up going to church every Sunday morning and often spent my weeknights at Bible studies and choir rehearsals. The likelihood of me attending church today is pretty slim though the mood to visit will strike me every so often.

Sometimes I do go specifically to enjoy praise and worship. I love a choir who harmonizes well. I love soloists who put themselves and their experiences into their performances. I also love praise dancers. For anyone who has never attended a predominantly Black church or witnessed praise dancers, these are praise dancers.  Praise dance is a form of worship in which the word and spirit of God is expressed through movement.

A few years back, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and happened upon a video posted by an old acquaintance. The video was of a solo female praise dancer. As I watched her perform, I wept. She looked like she’d received some level of formal training but what she added to that training was truly amazing. Every movement, gesture, extension, turn was pure heartfelt expression. I truly felt blessed in watching her.

I started to leave a comment to thank my friend for sharing, but then I read her comments and the comments of others; they were slut-shaming this girl. Slut-shaming is defined as “ the action or fact of stigmatizing a woman for engaging in behavior or wearing attire judged to be promiscuous or sexually provocative.” Comment after comment expressed how her attire was “totally inappropriate” for church and that she “obviously was intent on tempting the men of God” by wearing what she was wearing. Y’all, she was wearing standard dancewear: a form-fitting leotard and skirt that allowed her to move and allowed the audience to see her movements.

Each of the commenters seemed to have completely ignored how wonderful a dancer she was. Instead they focused on her appearance and her body. She had a gorgeous body, a dancer’s body. But it didn’t matter that she was using it to worship the God who’d created it. She was written off as a temptress and a Jezebel.

About five comments in, I was fairly pissed so I left a comment pretty much asking what the hell was wrong with both my video-posting friend and her fellow shit-stirrers. I also called them out for blaming this talented young woman for being the cause of any impure thoughts, as if lecherous onlookers bore no responsibility for their own thoughts or actions while sitting on a damn pew in the middle of a damn church service. I feel as angry now remembering this as I did while living it.

I think part of that anger was directed inwardly because I know I’ve been guilty of slut-shaming myself. In the past, I’ve agreed that women should dress however they’d like to dress but I’ve always added the caveats of making sure that their attire is appropriate for the occasion and is in consideration of how others may perceive them. I’ve realized that this form of thinking still places onus and blame on women for others’ behavior and that ain’t right—which is why I’m strongly considering taking part in the next Slutwalk Atlanta event.

As per this 2011 Time article on SlutWalk history:

On April 3, 2011, approximately 3,000 women (and men) marched the streets of Toronto in what they dubbed a SlutWalk. Angered by the comments of a Toronto police officer — who had ill-advisedly said that women shouldn’t “dress like sluts” if they wanted to avoid being assaulted — marchers rallied to protest blaming rape victims for their own assaults. To date, more than 50 satellite walks have taken place in major cities around the world, including Boston, London, New Delhi and Sydney. Dozens more are being planned and the original organizers have said they plan on making SlutWalk an annual event.

Founded and organized by feminist activists Heather Jarvis and Sonya Barnett (who you can learn more about at the link here), SlutWalks now take place annually in more than 200 countries as a stand against derogatory labeling, victim blaming and sexual injustice.

I’ve talked about respectability politics as it pertains to people of color on this blog before, but not until today did I fully realize how slut-shaming is a unique brand of respectability politics women practice for approval, acceptance and personal safety. We should not have to subject ourselves or each other to this as neither the outfit nor the behavior of any woman (outside of self-defense) has ever prevented a rapist from raping, or nasty man from being nasty. It’s insane to me how often women perpetuate and reinforce their own subjugation—even to the point of deciding which women are “worthy” enough to be rape victims. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

Just last week, 200 women gathered outside of an Italian courthouse to protest what has to be one of the most ridiculous, outrageous court rulings I have ever heard. An excerpt from coverage of the protest in People Magazine noted:

In 2015, two men were accused of raping a 22-year-old Peruvian woman, whose name has not been publicly released, the outlet said. They appeared in court for the first time in 2016 until the decision to acquit them was made by a group of all-female judges in 2017.

The three Ancona court judges claimed that the alleged victim’s story was not “credible” enough since she looked “too masculine” to be raped, according to the Italian wire service Ansa General News.

Their arguments were reportedly based on a photograph on the woman, as well as the two men allegedly stating that they were not attracted to her. One of the defendants even allegedly had the woman’s name in his phone under “Viking,” The Guardian said.

I can’t even, Y’all. I gotta go eat an avocado and burn some incense.

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