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Amber Rose's Slutwalk: is the controversial feminist movement still relevant?

Some activists remain unconvinced that reclaiming the insult is beneficial for women.

Calling all sluts: this weekend in downtown LA, the third annual Amber Rose Slutwalk will take place. The event aims to promote gender equality, and combat sexual violence and body-shaming through reclaiming the derogatory term.

The walk is a central part of the Amber Rose weekend, which will include live music and a conference addressing "social injustice issues" as well as the walk itself, where all the money raised will go to helping provide counselling for survivors of sexual assault. In previous walks, attendees have marched with signs bearing provocative slogans such as "rape came before miniskirts" and "pussy not war".

Amber Rose herself is a model, entrepreneur and celebrity personality, as well as a proud former stripper, who has herself over the years been frequently "slut-shamed" in the media – notably by her ex-boyfriend rapper Kanye West, who once said in an interview that he had to "take 30 showers" after dating Rose before starting a relationship with reality TV star Kim Kardashian.

Like many women, Rose has been victim to this kind of verbal assault upon her body, as well as forms of physical assault, and like many women she has found her own identity implicated in the discussion of her abuse. Frustrated with being held accountable to the sexual double standards men and women face, that manifest from the stigmatisation of all forms of female sexuality including within the sex industry, Rose decided to host her own slutwalk in 2015, encouraging women to reclaim ownership of their bodies. Because, as Rose puts it, "strippers have feelings too."

The Slutwalk movement itself began in Toronto in 2011, after a police officer suggested to women that they should "avoid dressing like sluts" as a precaution against sexual assault. The comment, seen as symptomatic of a wider tendency of victim-blaming, provoked a backlash against the propagation of "rape culture", resulting in the first of a series of Slutwalk protest marches that have since grown into a widespread global movement.

But not everybody has felt equally comfortable embracing the word "slut" – a misogynistic term entrenched in a long history of female sexual subordination. Some were quick to argue that an ability to reclaim the word is limited to those who already have a certain degree of sexual privilege, and in 2011, a group of black female academics, activists, and writers wrote an open letter to the Slutwalk, explaining that “as Black women, we do not have the privilege or the space to call ourselves ‘slut’ without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the black woman is." 

The comment was in response to the early Slutwalk marches, which were widely criticised for their lack of diversity, and since hosting her own Slutwalk, Rose – a woman of Cape Verdean, Irish and Italian descent – has been credited with bringing women of colour into the movement as well as the LGBTQ community, a welcome shift in the demographic that is responsible for the movement’s restructuring into something more accessible. 

Yet despite the movement’s progress in terms of intersectionality, the struggles of women are not homogenous and many remain unconvinced that reclaiming the term is a useful or inclusive feminist strategy. Although the purpose of reclaiming it is to nullify its power as an insult, many feminists believe the key that opens the door to sexual female liberation consists of finding new and authentic ways of representing female sexuality, and shutting the door to reductive, male defined terms.

Although Amber Rose encourages people of all types to join the movement wearing whatever they want, many take issue with the overall premise of "sluttiness" – the aesthetic implications of which are commonly centred on presenting oneself as provocatively dressed and hyper-sexualised. This is an image that Amber Rose herself projects – one that that largely conforms to pornographic standards.

The premise that a woman may choose to objectify herself on feminist grounds is problematic for those who believe that the way to combat female sexual stereotypes is fighting all forms of objectification, by dismantling preconceived notions of female sexuality that are dictated by the male gaze.

For them, Rose’s self-definition as a sex object panders to male sexual privilege, rather than exercising authentic empowerment. Of course, Amber Rose’s own particular brand of feminism is complicated by the fact that she operates in an industry where sex sells, and so in many ways her career necessitates a commodification of her own body.

Her argument is that a woman should have the right to commodify or objectify herself if she so chooses, yet perhaps given the fact that female objectification is so systemic, this only serves as a means to a feminist end, rather than an end in itself.

Critics of the movement have expressed anxiety about how easily its feminist message can become diluted depending on its recipients, something that far-right journalists Milo Yiannopoulos and Lauren Southern exploited when they attended the 2015 Slutwalk in a bid to undermine it.

When interviewing a group of men attending, they asked them whether they simply there to "see the chicks scantily clad", to which they replied "absolutely". This appeared to reinforce the message that self-objectification is never really possible, although questioning how far one representation of sexuality either conforms to or challenges the male gaze can take us in circles, as arguably in light of our patriarchal history, all expressions of female sexuality in some ways are male orientated – until we start to reclaim them. Cue re-entrance of the Slutwalk movement.

As a feminist strategy, reclaiming negative stereotypes of female sexuality is bound to be imperfect, because if the process of reclaiming is not sufficiently overt, it can risk slipping back into the status quo without challenging it. Many fear that young women will be seduced by an easy-option feminism that encourages them to conform to social expectations under the guise of empowerment.

The Slutwalk movement itself however does seek to challenge the status quo, and Rose's energy and enthusiasm is infective. In her "walk of no shame" video parody, she is pictured smugly walking back home wearing last night’s clothes, carrying her high heels in her hand whilst people catcall her with phrases including: "I respect that you enjoyed yourself last night!" The video is witty, and relatable for any woman who has found herself wandering home after a one-night stand.

And so, for those who take issue with Rose’s brand of feminism, perhaps it’s time to think about it like you would a one-night stand that you're frustrated hasn’t developed into something more. Don’t hate the player, but instead try to change the game. 

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The UK is suffering from an extreme case of generational inequality

Millennials across the developed world are struggling. But the UK stands out. 

 

“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”

Joni Mitchell’s lyrics may refer to her first trip to Hawaii, but they could just as easily apply to UK trends in generational living standards that the Resolution Foundation’s Intergenerational Commission has uncovered. That’s particularly so in light of new analysis comparing these trends internationally.

While there are huge living standards differences between high-income countries, there is also much shared ground, with the financial crisis and demographic patterns putting pressure on younger generations’ living standards everywhere. But the UK stands out. With the partial exception of Spain, no other country in living memory has experienced as large a “boom and bust” in generation-on-generation progress across both incomes and home ownership rates.

On incomes, the millennials (born 1980-2000) who have reached their early 30s are just 6 per cent better off than generation X (born 1966-80) when they were the same age. This is very small progress indeed when compared with the progress older generations are enjoying – baby boomers (born 1946-65) in their late 60s are 29 per cent better off than the silent generation (born 1926-1945).

These sorts of slowdowns have occurred in most countries, but not to the same extent. In the US, millennials in their early 30s are doing 5 per cent worse than their predecessors, but this compares to relatively modest 11 per cent gains for generation X relative to the baby boomers. In fact, in the US – despite higher levels of income – the absence of generational progress is what stands out. Typical incomes in the US for those aged 45-49 are no higher for those born in the late 1960s than they were for those born in the early 1920s.

Back to the UK. The “had it then lost it” story is also clear when we look at housing. Our previous research has shown that young people in the UK face much higher housing costs (relative to incomes) than older generations did when they were making their way in the world. In a large part this is driven by the rise and fall of home ownership.UK home ownership rates surged by 29 percentage points between the greatest generation (born 1911-1926) and the baby boomers, but this generation-on-generation progress has been all but wiped out for millennials. Their home ownership rate in their late 20s, at 33 per cent, is 27 percentage points lower than the rate for the baby boomers at the same age (60 per cent).

This fall between generations is much smaller in other countries in which housing is a key areas of concern such as Australia (a 12 percentage points fall from boomers to millennials) and the US (a 6 percentage point fall). As with incomes, the UK shows the strongest boom and bust – large generation-on-generation gains for today’s older cohorts followed by stagnation or declines for younger ones.

Let’s be clear though, the UK is a relatively good place to grow up. Ours is one of the most advanced economies in the world, with high employment rates for all age groups. In other advanced economies, young people have suffered immensely as a result of the financial crisis. For example, in Greece millennials in their early 30s are a shocking 31 per cent worse off than generation X were at the same age. In Spain today the youth (15-30) unemployment rate is still above 30 per cent, over three times higher than it is in the UK.

But, if everything is relative – before the parking lot came the paradise – then the UK’s situation isn’t one to brush away. Small income gains are, obviously, better than big income falls. But what matters for a young person in the UK today probably isn’t how well they’re doing relative to a young person in Italy but how this compares with their expectations, which have been shaped by the outcomes of their parents and grandparents. It’s no surprise that the UK is one of the most pessimistic countries about the prospects for today’s young.

The good news, though, is that it doesn’t have to be like this. In other parts of the world and at other times, large generation-on-generation progress has happened. Building more homes, having strong collective bargaining and delivering active labour market policies that incentivise work are things we know make a difference. As politicians attempt to tackle the UK’s intergenerational challenges, they should remember to look overseas for lessons.