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

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

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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.