Bodies In Protest

slut pride
Protestors at Slutwalk

Two moments of transgression:

When Slutwalk came to Boston, I went in spite of my doubts about the empowering potential of the word slut. It was part political desire, part social experiment—I wanted to protest sexual violence and feel empowered, and I wanted to see what empowerment under the banner of slut felt like. Misinformation on the event’s Facebook page meant that my three friends and I ended up about a mile away from the actual start point for the march, leaving our group of four to walk to Boston Common with our protest signs at our sides. It didn’t take long for the two men who had been trailing us since we left Government Center to approach us. Instinct told us to pretend like they didn’t exist, experience told us doing so was a shitty deterrent for harassment. “Are you a slut?” My friend Julie and I kept our eyes locked on one another as one of the men asked us this, while the other man began sizing up our respective signs and telling us how ineffective they would be. As we continued our cold shoulder strategy, “Are you a slut?” turned into “Why can’t you talk? Don’t you even know how to talk?” His persistence broke through Julie’s concentrated efforts to make him disappear with her mind, and she said calmly, “We know how to talk. We just don’t want to talk to you.” In response to this rejection, he upped it a notch. Half sneering, half grinning he threatened; “You’re going to get raped.”

One day when I was escorting for Planned Parenthood, one of the three “regulars” who showed up without fail to protest abortion on clinic days asked if I knew that God loved me. I ignored him and walked the next patient from the parking lot to the steps of the building, attempting to act as a barrier between her and the loudest of the other protestors. Upon resuming my spot at the entrance to the parking lot, he asked me again. When he got no response he said, “God loves you, and I love you Sara. Did you know that I love you too?” I wanted to tell him that he knew nothing about me, and that, in fact, the more he learned the less likely he would be to love me. I wanted to tell him that while he might think telling a total stranger you love them in the context of protesting abortion might seem like an act of kindness to him, to me it felt invasive, disingenuous, and only put me more on guard than I already was in his presence. Instead, I told him only to stop talking to me. He asked me why, to which I responded by repeating my demand. So he tried one last time; “Is that what you really want?” Yes, I told him. “Okay,” he agreed, “if that’s what you want, but always know I am here if you change your mind.”

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I have tried to make meaning of these incidents many times over since they happened if for no other reason than that they keep invading my brain when I am thinking about any number of other things. Most recently, they keep popping up as I turn over the question of reproductive freedom—who gets to define it, who has it, what does it promise? Already influenced by activists who understand reproductive rights to be intimately related to things like economic justice, queer politics, fair labor practices, environmental health, and prison abolition, the persistence of these incidents seems to say that they are also relevant to these questions and a political platform of reproductive freedom.

Mostly, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that in these moments my body became a problem. This is not, of course, an exceptional experience. All of our bodies become problems at one point or another as we go about our day-to-day lives. However, some become problems more often than others for the simple reason that we do not all move through the world with equal ease. One way this fact is made knowable is through how we exist in and use public space—who (supposedly) should and shouldn’t be in it alone, who can engage in PDA without fear, who relates to stairs as a barrier instead of access to buildings, who is entitled to express their opinions and who has to defend them endlessly, who will most often look around and see few others who look like them, whose family is labeled as such and whose goes unrecognized or persecuted, who at a certain point simply begins to anticipate harassment motivated by ignorance and fear. When these more “troublesome” bodies go public a small transgression occurs. The outcome of this transgression can take many forms—a sense of empowerment, assault, feeling invisible, connection with others, or business as usual—but it is a transgression nonetheless because their mere presence upsets the status quo.

As a young, white, able-bodied, cisgender woman who presents more on the side of femme than not, the process by which my body became a problem was very particular. Indeed, the events I describe above transpired in way that directly correlates to these characteristics. Due to the privileging of whiteness as the norm, those harassing me defined me most by my gender; to them I was first and foremost a woman and, thanks to compulsory heterosexuality, probably assumed to be straight. This resulted in them seeing me as a vulnerable, sexual but not hyper-sexual, female body, which they, by virtue of being both male and white, are especially entitled to look at, lust after, talk to, yell at, touch. When women’s bodies are understood as inherently accessible, women are expected to account for this by policing their own movement. The myth that women themselves make their bodies more accessible when they choose to populate public space means that they are always already in the wrong place. Transgression number one.

Obviously, however, I was doing much more than occupying public space in these moments. In both cases, I was actively claiming my right and the rights of others to move through the world without harassment and fear, and to do so in whatever way they deemed fit with regards to their reproduction and sexuality. The harassment I received in turn was an attempt to rectify the order of things, to return me to their idea of how I should exist in our shared space. I was a woman in public using my voice, and in the case of escorting quite literally my body, to protest the idea that women’s bodies are a site that inevitably motivates constant political debate, ideological conundrums, misdirected concern, or excessive attention. I was using my body to enact a particular politics just like they were. Transgression number two.

For me, these incidents force a question that I am not sure I have an answer to: What happens to the body in moments of protest, however small? As I have tried to show here, I do not think bodies are easily separated from verbal exchanges, political platforms, or personal politics. Instead, I think they quite literally determine, at least in part, how those aspects of our lives that become “political,” whether by our own actions or the actions of others, unfold.

Here is what I do not mean by this. We often hear of certain bodies as the playgrounds or battlefields for sparring political agendas. This, for example, is what the “war on women” would have us believe about the politics of abortion and contraception; various political platforms either actually or fraudulently concerned with these things make women’s bodies vulnerable and action-less. These invocations reveal little while naturalizing instead of questioning the assumption that some bodies just are vehicles for political conflict, as if by nature. This strips certain bodies of their own complexity and specificity, and reduces them to pawns in somebody else’s war. Probably most importantly, it shuts down the possibility of any other political outcome than the one that has already been assigned.

Here is what I do mean. The body is capable of determining the political because we live ideologies, culture, and power dynamics through our bodies in a way that forces these things to be in constant motion and contestation. As evidenced by these anecdotes, this means bodies are incredibly powerful, capable of empowering or overpowering. For reproductive freedom specifically, and feminist politics more generally, it might be useful to try and harness this power by thinking about how bodies can be the starting point of, as opposed to the repository for, alternative political agendas. Starting with the body enables us to ask: What if, in its broadest iteration, reproductive freedom meant freedom from our bodies being made into problems, and freedom to cultivate, both structurally and creatively, the different ways we occupy space? Moving to the body in protest provides the opportunity to find out the answers to these questions, to feel out what these freedoms might look like, and how to make them a reality. That is a feminist politics I would put my body on the line for.

 -Lady Rage, Contributor 

1 Comment
  1. This is a great piece. I am a woman, and happen to live in Boston, and all too often I hear women “policing their movement” and providing the preamble “even up here…” As if by being in the liberal northeast, they shouldn’t have to do this. But unfortunately, we do.

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