I may only have occasion to say this once in my life, but I have to thank Rush Limbaugh.
I have to thank him for making SlutWalk’s point for us – by showing exactly why we’re here today.
The word ‘slut’ calls to mind many things; in Shakespeare’s time it was a woman who didn’t keep a clean house. When I was in junior high it was the girl who wore a lot of makeup and got boobs first, the one all the boys stared at. For most of my life I’ve heard it applied to women who were ‘too sexual’ – or maybe just sexual in some nebulous way of which the user didn’t approve; maybe she wasn’t ashamed of her body or had sex with too many people - or just with the ‘wrong’ partners. Maybe she was the girl your boyfriend started dating too quickly after you broke up, or the woman who wore something too revealing, or the one who was vulgar or bawdy or too friendly and flirty with too many men. Whatever behavior it was being used to describe, the meaning was clear: less than. Unclean.
When Mr. Limbaugh used the word to describe a modest-looking college student who wished to testify before Congress about insurance coverage and birth control, however, he showed his ass. Now we know: a slut is any woman you think you might be able to discredit or shame into silence by humiliating her sexually. A slut is someone who’s gotten too close to the source of her power and is consequently to be feared – because to claim the full measure of our sexual possibility is to unlock the potential of an integrated self and become whole, and a whole woman is a powerful woman, a fearsome woman… a dangerous woman. Why do you think it’s so important to some people to keep our sexuality contained, sanitized, domesticated? Women are infinitely more than our eroticism – but it’s a potent part of who and what we are.
Sexual radicals – sex workers, lesbians, ‘sluts’… women who wish for their insurance to cover birth control – are canaries in our cultural coalmine; they show us where the air is foul. Instead of huddling together and reviling those who endanger our illusion of equality by venturing too near these behavioral boundaries, you might want to ask yourself why, if we’re truly free, there are boundaries at all – and why, instead of disassociating ourselves from those whose business or pleasure brings them close enough to those barricades to show the rest of us where they are, we don’t concern ourselves with tearing them down. True equality is not conditional: it doesn’t have to be earned and neither can it be compromised; it’s not for others to bestow or rescind. What we have now is not equality, but conditional privilege; we affirm that – and implicitly accept it - each time we seek to punish or ostracize those among us who test its limits. This isn’t about a certain kind of woman; this is about all of us, about what we’re allowed and what happens when we get out of line.
It wasn’t fear that got us this far; be assured that it won’t get us any further – and, as we can all plainly see by this new epidemic of laws regulating our bodies, it’s not even going to keep us where we are. Instead of fearing the loss of the ground we’ve fought for, I suggest that we allow our anger to feed our courage to conquer what remains. We’ve never been so close – or stood to lose so much. We’re already going to have to fight – again - to keep what we’ve won; as long as the gloves are off, let’s kick some ass.
I’m not here because I want to be called a slut. No: it’s because I’m claiming all the positive things about my womanhood, my personhood, my birthright, that this language seeks to take from me. It’s my body, my sexuality – MY right to decide the time, the place, the context, companion and circumstances for myself. I get to set the guidelines for how I look and act: decisions about women’s bodies aren’t supposed to be made by committee. I’m here to reveal the tactic of attacking my dignity through my sexuality for the cheap trick it is. I’m asking you to look at what words like these really mean – the baggage they carry, the harm they do. I’m asking you to fight for the sovereign right of all women to define their own experience and to look carefully at the condemnation and contempt directed at those who dare to claim what lies beyond the borders words like that are intended to enforce.
I’m here for my friend, who called me twenty-one years ago tomorrow and told me that she had been raped. She sounded so small, so fragile, so unlike the person I knew; when I saw her I found that she was physically unrecognizable, too - brutalized beyond recognition. She wanted to stay with me, she said, because she was afraid to sleep in her own home, terrified that her rapist would return. She told the police what had happened, about the five hours she had spent blindfolded, tied to a chair, unable to see which direction the next blow would come from. When she got to the part about how he had told her while he was raping her – repeatedly - that he wanted her to move the way she danced, how she had tried to do what he said so he wouldn’t hurt her any more, their faces changed, closed.
So, she was a stripper; he had seen her at the club. Maybe, despite the disfiguring bruises that covered her, this hadn’t really been a rape. They used a rape kit, took his DNA – and then, even though she told them she thought she knew who it was, never followed up. Once they found out what she did for a living they treated her violated body as if it were a stolen bike. It’s bad enough to have to say that no one did time for what happened – but that’s not true: my friend did twenty years. Twenty years of living in fear, of wondering if he’d come back or that he might be watching her from somewhere in a crowd, savoring the memory; of knowing that he’d gotten away with it. I’m here today for her.
Did you know that according to some statistics, 97% of men who rape never spend a day behind bars? Why do you think that is? It’s not because what happened to my friend is an isolated incident.
I’m not here because I hate men; I love men; they’re our friends, our fathers, our brothers, our lovers; I’m here to empower women and help us find a way to navigate the deep complexities and convolutions of our fraught gender-relations and be free to love and enjoy men in respect, dignity and good health, under terms of mutual consent and equal power.
I’m here to insist that equal protection under the law isn’t based on someone’s notion of virtue or merit. I’m here to say that inspiring sexual desire doesn’t mean submitting to oppression, degradation or abuse. We have the right to enjoy our power to compel, excite and appeal without being subjected to harm, blame and shame. There is no such thing as ‘asking for it’. No one ever asks to be raped. No one ever invites assault. No one ever deserves to be harmed. Sex is natural; violation is unacceptable.
I am not unclean. I am not undeserving. I am not less than. This body and all its possibility belongs to me, and the opinions of those who don’t live in my skin may not dictate what is good and right, necessary and proper for me.
I’m here because I will not be shamed into silence, into compliance, into invisibility.
You don’t have to like my choices – you do have to respect my rights.
My Short Skirt
From The Vagina Monologues
By Eve Ensler
My short skirt is not an invitation
that I want it
or give it
or that I hook.
My short skirt
is not begging for it
it does not want you
to rip it off me
or pull it down.
My short skirt
is not a legal reason
for raping me
although it has been before
it will not hold up
in the new court.
My short skirt, believe it or not
has nothing to do with you.
My short skirt
is about discovering
the power of my lower calves
about cool autumn air traveling
up my inner thighs
about allowing everything I see
or pass or feel to live inside.
My short skirt is not proof
that I am stupid
or a malleable little girl.
My short skirt is my defiance
I will not let you make me afraid
My short skirt is not showing off
this is who I am
before you made me cover it
or tone it down.
Get used to it.
My short skirt is happiness
I can feel myself on the ground.
I am here. I am hot.
My short skirt is a liberation
flag in the women's army
I declare these streets, any streets
my vagina's country.
My short skirt
is turquoise water
with swimming colored fish
a summer festival
in the starry dark
a bird calling
a train arriving in a foreign town
my short skirt is a wild spin
a full breath
a tango dip
my short skirt is
But mainly my short skirt
and everything under it