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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

Photo: Getty
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On the important issues, Louise Casey all too often has little to say

Far from moving the debate on, this new report on integration adds little to the report I commissioned in 2001. 

For 15 years, “numerous government reports on community cohesion and integration have not been implemented with enough force or consistency” concludes Louise Casey’s review of  integration.  The government’s lukewarm response suggests their effort will be as “diluted and muddled” as all the rest.

There’s a deeper reason why governments shy away from the measures that are needed. The report's wealth of data sets out a stark if sometimes contestable picture of a divided society.  But no amount of data can really bring the lives of our fellow citizens to life. As the Brexit vote underlined, this is now a nation divided by class, geography, education, wealth, opportunity and race. Those divisions colour the way we live our lives, the way we see problems in society, the relations we have with others, and our political choices. The report, like many before it, stops short of setting out that reality. It’s easier to pretend that most of us pretty much agree on most things; but just few people don’t agree and they must be the problem. Predictably, much of the early coverage has focussed on the Muslim community and new migrants. If only it were so easy.

According to Casey “in this country, we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously” and we do it “across political divides”. Apparently “creating a fair, just society where everyone can prosper and get on” is a cornerstone of British values. Yet for page after page the report chronicles the serial failure of this benign consensus to tackle educational under-performance, and economic and racial disadvantage. If we all agree, how come we haven't done anything about it?

These problems are not certainly easy to solve, but more lip service is paid to tackling them than effort. The practical material issues documented here need addressing, but punches are pulled when hard answers are needed. Given the dramatic impact of mass migration on cohesion, is integration possible while current rates of immigration persist? Can we find the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage when those who might benefit from the effort are divided against each other by suspicion, race, geography and values? After all, rather than progressive policies producing a cohesive society, social unity is the precondition for the introduction of progressive policies.

We don't actually actually agree on what our “fundamental values” mean in practice. We can all sign up to democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as those are put into practice – see the court case on Article 50 – we are divided. When judges are popularly seen as “enemies of the people” and a vote in an elected parliament as a threat to democracy, in what sense are law and democracy fundamental?

Casey usefully highlights how treating homeless families equally, irrespective of ethnicity and length of residence can create the perception that minorities are being favoured over long standing residents. Our differing views on what is “just” and how “fairness” are defined can tear us apart. Is it fair to favour the newcomer over the indigenous? Is it just to put length of time on the waiting list above housing need? We often don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, let alone try to find common ground.

The continual invocation of Britain and British values lends an air of unreality to the report.  Most people in England include British in their identity, but Englishness and English interests are of growing importance. In a worrying development, some areas of England  may be polarising between a white Englishness and an ethnic minority Britishness. Integration won't happen without a shared national story that combines a unifying national identity with the acceptance that we all have more than one identity that matters to us. Ignoring the reality of complex and multiple identities closes off one essential way forward.

None of this means that the criticism of some reactionary and occasionally dangerous ideas and practices in the Muslim community should be ignored and not confronted. But in a country where the established church opposes homosexual relationships and praise for Vladimir Putin's Russia is now mainstream politics it is hard to believe that all our problems can be reduced to the behaviour of a minority of a minority community.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University