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Laurie Penny on proest: let’s get those sluts walking

Sex is not the problem. Sexism is. Arbitrary moral divisions are being renewed between "innocent" women and "sluts".

What is a slut? In the past, the word was used simply to mean any woman who didn't behave: a woman who was "dirty, untidy or slovenly", a slack servant girl, a woman who failed to keep her house in order and her legs closed before marriage, a woman who invited violence and contempt. Today, in a world sodden with images of shorn and willing female bodies, a slut is any woman with the audacity to express herself sexually. That should tell you everything you need to know about modern erotic hypocrisy.

On 11 June, London hosts a SlutWalk. The phenomenon began in Toronto after a local policeman instructed a group of female university students to stop "dressing like sluts" if they didn't want to be raped, a point of view not unique among men in positions of power. The protest that followed has infected the imagination of women in cities around the world, from Dallas to Delhi, who are sick of being bullied and intimidated into sexual conformity.

We like to think that we live in a liberal, permissive society - that, if anything, the problem is that there is too much sex about. This is a cruel delusion. We live in a culture that is deeply confused about its erotic impulses; it bombards us with images of airbrushed models and celebrities writhing in a sterile haze of anhedonia while abstinence is preached at the heart of government.

In Britain, the release of an official report declaring that girls are being too "sexualised" has coincided with parliamentary lobbies for young women to be "taught to say no". Join the dots with police officers telling women that "no" is insufficient if they happen not to be dressed like a nun and an ugly picture begins to form. What we're looking at is a concerted cultural backlash against female sexual liberation.

Give us protection

Sex is not the problem. Sexism is. Arbitrary moral divisions are being renewed between "innocent" women and "sluts". Young women, in particular, are expected to look hot and available at all times, but if we dare to express desires of our own, we are mocked, shamed and threatened with sexual violence, which, apparently, has nothing to do with the men who inflict it and everything to do with the length of skirt we have on. Some of us have had enough.

Faced with savage public opprobrium, told that our sexuality is dirty and dangerous, today's young women would do well to take inspiration from the gay rights movement.

For decades, LGBT protesters have marched to demand the right to express their sexuality without fear of victimisation and to show that, whatever society thinks of them, being queer is not a source of shame, a threat to innocence or an invitation to violence. Like them, sexually active women deserve protection just as much as those whom polite society considers "pure".

Some may wish to reclaim the word "slut" to celebrate its implications of bad behaviour. What's more important is that we refuse to let the word sting, or draw distinctions between "good" and "bad" women, based on outdated notions of sexual purity. Now, more than ever, it's time for "sluts" to walk - and walk tall.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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