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PORTSIDE  March 2012, Week 2

PORTSIDE March 2012, Week 2

Subject:

How Sandra Fluke is Recharging Feminism

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Date:

Fri, 9 Mar 2012 00:58:03 -0500

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How Sandra Fluke is Recharging Feminism

Sluts Unite
By standing up to Rush Limbaugh's slur, Sandra Fluke shows
how sex positivity is recharging feminism.

By Emily Bazelon

Slate.com
March 5, 2012

http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2012/03/rush_limbaugh_calls_sandra_fluke_a_slut_how_sex_positivity_has_recharged_the_feminist_movement_.html

Sandra Fluke has pointed out that Rush Limbaugh tried to
silence her when he called her a slut and a prostitute last
week. But the oldest, hoariest trick for shutting women up
didn't work this time. Bolstered by her experience as an
activist and a pitch-perfect call of support from President
Obama, Fluke soldiered on in her efforts to persuade
Georgetown University  to include contraception in its
package of health care coverage. She's 30, not 14, and in
her sober and smart TV appearances, Fluke is doing more than
most of us ever will to take the sting out of slut shaming.
Her forceful presence is the reason for Limbaugh's apology
over the weekend, utterly lame and inadequate as it was. How
can he possibly claim that he didn't mean to attack Fluke
personally after hammering away at her for three days, even
crazily suggesting that women who use birth control should
post sex tapes online "so we can all watch." May the
advertisers who are running from Limbaugh, today joined by
AOL, stay far far away.

Reclaiming the word slut is also the aim of the SlutWalks,
the protest movement that started last spring in Canada and
spread to more than 70 cities worldwide. Taking angry
inspiration from a Toronto police officer who said the best
way for women to prevent being raped is to "avoid dressing
like sluts," the women joining in SlutWalks have marched in
all manner of bras, bodices, and other scanty dress. They
won both enthusiastic applause and ambivalence from the
feminist blogosphere. SlutWalks, and the broader reclamation
projection they and Fluke stand for, represent a cultural
shift that puts women's sexual agency front and center
rather than modestly cloaking it. Could that change also be
the key to reforming rape law for the modern era?

That's the thesis of Deborah Tuerkheimer, a law professor at
DePaul University who is one of the first in the academy to
digest the SlutWalk phenomenon. In a new article,
Tuerkheimer argues that the "rise of sex-positivity," as she
calls it, is "the most significant feminist initiative in
decades." What's distinctive about this reclamation is that
women are insisting both on sex without rape, and on
sexuality without judgment. And that insistence, Tuerkheimer
points out, directly challenges traditional rape law.

In the protest movement of my own college days, Take Back
the Night, women marched to make it safe to walk alone in
the dark. The primary concern was stranger rape and physical
safety. The SlutWalks conception is about acquaintance rape
or date rape - the category of sexual assault that accounts
for 90 percent of the whole. When women (or men) accuse
people they know of rape, it's far trickier for police and
prosecutors to address, because the legality of the
encounter turns on consent rather than force. Traditionally,
rape law focuses on the latter. It sounds retrograde, I
know, but as Tuerkheimer reminds us, in a majority of
states, "a woman's non-consent alone is thus insufficient to
establish rape." This makes it very hard to win convictions
in the he said/she said realm of date rape. And it also
means that a judge or jury can deem a woman who is totally
passive - because she is asleep or drugged, for example - to
not have been raped, even if she said she was.

Rape law also still treats certain kinds of sexual conduct
as unacceptable for women, by exempting it from the rule
that places a woman's sexual history outside the bounds of
evidence that can be admitted at a rape trial. Rape shield
laws prevent defendants accused of sexual assault from
putting a woman's entire past on trial to discredit her. But
courts still allow in this evidence if the judge thinks it
shows a pattern of behavior that's in some way distinctive.
In many cases, it's deviance that's deemed to make a woman's
history distinctive, allowing the court to give the jury the
chance to conclude that a particular's woman's claim of rape
is less legitimate. "Women whose pasts involve consensual
sex of a disapproved kind are presumed to be unrapeable,"
Tuerkheimer writes. "Most vexing are acts of prostitution,
group sex, and sadomasochism."

The women of SlutWalks, of course, reject all of this. They
think women, not old-fashioned judgments rendered by the
state, should define what sex they want and what sex they
outlaw. In this feminist roar Tuerkheimer sees a way to
shift the rape paradigm once and for all. She wants judges
to stop treating certain women as not rapeable based on the
kind of sex they've consented to in the past. And she wants
a new crime of acquaintance rape that topples the rule that
it's only rape, legally speaking, if there's force involved.
On this front, there's progress in the new definition for
collecting local rape statistics announced by the Department
of Justice in January. DoJ now defines rape as "penetration,
no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus," that occurs
"without the consent of the victim."

Tuerkheimer sees the wider feminist rebellion against slut
shaming as crucial to forcing more changes along these lines
from courts and legislators. Feminist consciousness, she
says, could "enable a legal shift that would not otherwise
be possible." I'm not in the habit of imagining that
feminists have such power, but in this season of uproar over
Limbaugh, why not? Tuerkheimer urges the SlutWalkers to
start talking to the law professors and lawyers, and vice
versa. It takes a law professor to say that, of course, but
maybe Tuerkheimer has pointed out a virtue of the muscular
feminism that proudly rejects slut shaming that feminists
themselves have so far missed.

Sandra Fluke plays a role here, too. By making the case that
women need insurance coverage that includes birth control -
to protect their health in some cases, and in others, yes,
simply to have sex - she is reminding us that of course this
is part of who we are. We don't have to modestly avert our
eyes from that reality or keep quiet about it, either.
That's what President Obama understood when he told Fluke
her parents should be proud of her. Feminists have plenty to
be proud of Fluke for, too. For standing up to Limbaugh, for
sure, but also for helping to make the revolt against slut
shaming as mainstream as she is.

[Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about
law, family, and kids. She's working on a book about
bullying.]

==========

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