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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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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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