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South African "Sluts" Tell Men: "Control Yourselves, Not Women!"

"Slut Walk" phenomenon comes to Cape Town. More protests planned for Johannesburg and Durban.

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Whether the messages on these placards are raunchy, poignant, witty or angry, the memorandum is unambiguous. Women have had enough of being told that they are the ones to blame – of being taught to police themselves instead of men being taught not to rape – of being labelled as sluts as if this label justifies their mistreatment.  And uncannily it is this very label that fuels the movement.  It seems that in the reclamation of the slut label, the word has been alchemically transformed into an elixir for change. 

Few would have guessed that this little word contains so much power.  It has been used against women for centuries – to denigrate workingwomen, persecute women with libido and even burn women at the stake.  It has been used to hyper-sexualize and objectify women and to turn women into repressed joyless vessels and sexual victims.  It has been a tool of control utilized to maximum effect by misogynists, witch hunters, and rapists throughout the centuries. 

But now that women have seized and reclaimed this word it is being wielded as a revolutionary tool to rebel against this ongoing patriarchal hold on the feminine. This four-lettered word has proved its potency in a short space of time and has catapulted the issue of sexual abuse and rape right into a global public arena with an effectiveness never witnessed before.

While there are some feminists who dismiss the use of a word that has such negative connotations to make a point about sexual assault and women’s empowerment, the Slut Walk has become a global phenomenon that has been endorsed by feminists such as Germaine Greer, while Eve Enlser, famous for the Vagina Monologues, is quoted in numerous slogans carried by Slut Walkers.

Poet and feminist, Alice Walker, has also recently sanctioned it in an interview with Guernica Magazine.  She succinctly encapsulates the essence of the movement in her interpretation of the use of the controversial word when she says: "I've always understood the word ‘slut’ to mean a woman who freely enjoys her own sexuality in any way she wants to; undisturbed by other people's wishes for her behavior. Sexual desire originates in her and is directed by her. In that sense it is a word well worth retaining. As a poet, I find it has a rich, raunchy, elemental, down to earth sound, that connects us to something primal, moist, and free.”

In my view the word slut is a signifier for the resurgence of the primal sexual nature of women that has been pushed underground and controlled by a misogynistic order for centuries.  It seems to me that women are responding to a collective archetypal call to seize back the freedom to be themselves.  It is also about rebelling against the social and public discourse that has been controlled by a patriarchal hold over language, a phenomenon that continues in the neoliberal discourse of today.  It is about the power of the word slut – a power that resides within its etymology.

In short, a slut has historically been defined as a woman who is at once hyper-sexual (having “too much” sex, “dirty” sex, or sex with too many partners) but also a woman who is filthy, incompetent, or in some way distasteful. The sexual definition is the one that persists to this day – women are constantly called sluts in an attempt to shame and denigrate them. Slut-shaming has become a form of controlling women and a means of pushing the libidinous wild woman underground and silencing her.  It is a word that perpetuates the patriarchal agenda in multifarious ways. 

 
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