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Slutwalking into History

Slutwalkers put the shame where it belongs.

There seems to be a lot of slutwalking going on these days. According to news reports like this one, the protests that began in Toronto last month have gone global. If you're unfamiliar with the concept, the slutwalk protests aim both to reclaim the word "slut" from those who use it to try to shame women for being openly sexual creatures and to redirect that shame to where it belongs: aimed squarely at men who feel justified in sexually abusing women.

The message is something like, "Fine, I'm a slut. Now, buzz off!" Fair enough, I'd say.

Now, all this tumult over women wanting to publicly proclaim their lack of shame over being sluts may strike some as much ado about nothing. But scratch just a little below the surface and you'll find that this is a very serious issue. About as serious as they come, actually.

In Sex at Dawn, we argue that what we might call "slut shaming" is part of the suite of behaviors introduced to human societies along with agriculture, no more than 10,000 years ago. We hold that the absence of significant private property in pre-agricultural societies left men largely unconcerned with the paternity of children. When there's no property to "keep in the family," family itself is less about blood lines and more about mutual respect and affection. Others argue that paternity certainty has always been an obsessive concern for the males of our species. Either way, men have been harassing, insulting, and restraining women in order to control their sexual behavior for many centuries, at least. And when those measures didn't work, women were (and are) burned, drowned, or stoned til dead.

When the now-classic The Ethical Slut first came out in 1997, some were scandalized by the authors' definition of a slut as "a person of any gender who has the courage to lead life according to the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you."

These days, the notion that a woman can be sexually uninhibited, have multiple partners, and yet be a decent, ethical person—maybe even admirable, doesn't seem so radical to most people. At least in the abstract. At least in progressive cities in the western world.

But once we wander out into the less progressive areas, we find that the war on women is anything but over. Republican politicians claiming to be deeply concerned with fiscal matters are spending millions of dollars to further restrict women's access to basic reproductive health care, coming out with wild lies on the Senate floor to justify themselves, then claiming such lies "were not intended to be factual." Right. Who expects prepared statements from senators on the floor of the Senate to be factual?

Part of the message being sent by the slutwalkers is that the way a woman dresses cannot be used to justify her sexual persecution. Mini skirts don't cause rape, in other words. Rape is not the victim's fault.

It's hard to imagine that anyone would make such an argument, but of course, they do. When Eman al-Obeidy burst into a Tripoli hotel restaurant to tell journalists she'd been gang-raped by soldiers, police threw a bag over her head, screaming that she should be ashamed. The fact that she refused to accept that burden of shame and has now become an important historical figure in the Middle East provides a glimmer of hope in otherwise dark days.

Christopher Ryan is the author of Sex at Dawn.