I have been keeping an eye on the reports and commentaries regarding the “Slutwalks” that have sprung up recently and I find myself both interested in them but also put off. I am interested because I think that they point to some current dynamics in our society. I am put off because I do not agree with a mentality that I believe is partly present in these demonstrations.
I agree that any form of violence against another person is wrong. I agree that victims should not be blamed for acts of violence perpetrated against them. I agree that people have the right to wear what they please without fearing any form of violence because of what they wear. I may shake my head and personally wonder what they are thinking (i.e. fleece pajama bottoms worn in public) but that is as far as another can go in the public commons. I also think that there is value in being prudent and there is space for the needed virtue of modesty (for both women and men) but, in the end, adults being adults can wear what they please.
But I find myself disagreeing with the stated goal of some in the movement to reclaim the word “slut”. I do not use the word. Neither would I call another person by this word because it is a derogatory from the get go. How can we “reclaim” that which is negative from the beginning? “Reclaim” to me means to restore something to its original meaning or purpose, often being seen as a positive. “Reclaim” as it is being used here seems to me to be the opposite; actually warping the word “slut” from it original context. It is like trying to concoct a virtue out of a vice. This seems an example of double-speak and language manipulation and, I believe, it points to a mentality present in the movement that I just cannot agree with.
An aim of the SlutWalk movement is to reappropriate the word “slut.” “I come from a frame of mind that language is powerful, and you can also change language,” said SlutWalk founder Jarvis, using the word “queer” as an example of a word that was once strictly pejorative but is now a common sexual identifier used by the LGBT community. (taken from “Slutwalks Sweep the Nation” by Laura Stampler, HuffingtonPost.com)
This mentality, it seems to me, is one of viewing sex and sexuality solely in terms of power paradigms and defining the core reality of the human person solely in terms of the material and sexual.
I would like to examine the second aspect first: defining the human person solely in terms of the material and sexual.
As I have been pondering all of this I have been drawn back to the book, “The Cloister Walk” by Kathleen Norris. In her chapter on the Virgin Martyrs, Norris explores the case of Maria Goretti; an eleven-year-old girl stabbed to death in 1902 during an attempted rape. In the horrific violence of the moment this girl choose to be killed rather than raped. She was canonized in 1950. Norris writes this,
Maria Goretti, canonized in 1950, was the first virgin martyr declared such by the church for defending her chastity rather than her faith, and it’s easy to see this development in a cynical light; a perfect expression of a sexually uptight era. Indeed, a popular pamphlet of the time, written by an American priest, dubbed her “the Cinderella Saint.” But our cynicism blinds us to a deeper truth: a martyr is not a model to be imitated, but a witness, one who testifies to a new reality. And our own era’s obsession with sexual “liberation” blinds us still further, making it difficult to see the true nature of Maria Goretti’s witness, what it might mean for a peasant girl to “prefer death to dishonor.” We may make fun of someone so foolish – a male friend recalls with shame how he and his schoolmates snickered over Maria Goretti in the playground of his parochial school, not long after she was canonized – but such joking is a middle class luxury.
For Maria Goretti, the issue was not a roll in the hay. The loss of her virginity in a rigidly patriarchal peasant culture could have had economic and social consequences so dire that it might have seemed a choice between being and nonbeing. And is it foolish for a girl to have such a strong sense of her self that she resists its violation, resists being asked to do, in the private spaces of her body, what she does not want to do? (Here Norris shares how once when she was fifteen she herself was attacked by a man but was able to fight him off.) It happens more than we like to think, even to middle-class girls like me. But the poor are far more vulnerable; perhaps the scandal of Maria Goretti is the recognition that there can be bodily integrity, honor, and even holiness, among the poorest of the poor, that even a peasant girl of simple faith can claim an inner self, a soul that will make room for Christ but not a rapist. Not even a rapist with a knife.
What we resist seeing in late-twentieth-century America – where we are conditioned, relentlessly, by images of girls’ and women’s’ bodies as available – is the depth of that soul, and how fierce a young girl’s sense of bodily and spiritual integrity can be.
Yes, sexuality and sexual identity is powerful and are important aspects of who we are but sexuality is not the sole defining principle of the human person and neither is it the deepest core of who we are. The deepest core of who we are is not our sexuality but the fact that we are made in the image and likeness of God; the Imago Dei. Sexuality is not denied but held in proper balance and purpose only when this deeper reality of the human person is recognized and acknowledged.
Please read again the last sentence I quoted from Kathleen Norris – “the depth of that soul”. When we define the human person solely in terms of the material, an understanding that denies any sense of the spiritual, then we lose that “depth of soul” which the eleven year old saint witnesses to. Further, it seems to me that when the spiritual component of who we are is denied then it is very easy to fall into the belief that the sexual is our deepest core because in the sexual there is a sense of connection and transcending of self that cannot seemingly be found anywhere else in a material-only world. But this is not the case. The truth is that the fullness of bodily and spiritual intergrity is there, we just “resist seeing” the full possibilities of this and of connection with others and of transcending self.
The sin of our age is not that we have loved too much but that we love too little.
Now, let us look to the first aspect: viewing sex and sexuality solely in terms of power paradigms. I believe that this aspect is an understandable result of the denial of spiritual and bodily integrity.
It seems interesting to me that the more “casual” sex and sexuality becomes; the more it is reduced to just another weapon ready-at-hand for use in the culture and gender wars and the more there seems to be an effort to define the relation of men and women solely in terms of confrontation and antagonism.
(I also find it interesting to note how as the divorce rate climbs so too does the cost of weddings go through the roof! Another topic for another post, but related I believe.)
In my reading of the commentaries and interviews regarding the slutwalks and also the watching of youtube videos, I have noticed that the word “power” is used quite often. In fact, I would think that if one were to do a word cloud regarding slutwalks the word “power” would be present in very bold and large letters. Why is this?
A sincere part of this is, I believe, that rape and sexual violence are abuses of power. To regain ones integrity in this sense is to regain ones power. This is valid and an important part of the healing process.
But, I think there is another aspect present in the use of this term that connects to the mentality that I have made mention of. In this sense, I would say that “power” is being used due to the fact that when sexuality is divorced from the deeper context of bodily and spiritual integrity (the Imago Dei) it quickly devolves into just another form of power politics.
Sexuality and power are linked. We ought not be naive about this.
There is a latent power in sexuality – the power to create, to connect and even (if just for a moment) transcend self – when held in relationship to the core reality of the human person, the Imago Dei, this power is focused, given purpose and directed higher. It can even participate in the very mystery of creation. When divorced from the Imago Dei this power has lost its purpose and focus and it cannot be called higher because there is nothing to call it higher! Therefore, it quickly devolves into power politics – an empty shell of what it could truly be.
The very frustration and vitriol given expression when sexuality is viewed solely in terms of power paradigms is itself a witness, I believe, to the error and fallacy of the resistance to see and acknowledge the Imago Dei in the human person and the possibility of bodily and spiritual integrity.
We frustrate ourselves when we deny the fullness of our anthropology.
Viewing sexuality solely in terms of power politics is a reduction and not an exalting of the latent power present in sexuality.
Can power politics create life? I do not think so.
The slutwalks will, I am sure, continue and the word “power” will be used for a variety of reasons.
These are interesting times in which we live…