Harriet Walker: March yes, but that word you use is helping no one

The word holds nothing for us but humiliation and subordination

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Most women know how it feels to be called a slut. Whether it has been spat vituperatively at them or bandied supposedly in jest, the emotion remains the same.

And there is nothing remotely empowering about it. The sentiment behind the "Slutwalk" is admirable. It is also correct, current and crucial. But its marketing has let it down.

Prompted by the advice of a Toronto policeman – that women, in order not to be raped, should avoid "dressing like sluts" – the Slutwalks craze sweeping the globe is designed to be provocative and help send the message that rape is not brought on by clothing choices, but forced upon women by the men who hold them down, drug them or drag them into alleyways.

It is encouraging to see young women massing in this way; to show that the spirit of feminism lives on, even in a generation who, thus far, have had more freedom than any of their antecedents.

But the battle is not yet won and protesting off-piste at the lexicon of sexist terms – that is, attempting to reclaim the term "slut" and give it positive connotations – is like starting an ancillary blaze when a forest fire is raging nearby.

Let's not bother reclaiming that word: it holds nothing for us but humiliation, subordination and the weight of centuries of sexual inequality and oppression. We demean ourselves by applying it to one another.

"Slut" is not a generic noun – it is applied distinctly, according to a value system instigated and perpetuated by men. And likewise, the race riots of the Sixties were not carried out in slave costumes or Black and White Minstrels get-up, whereas basques, corsets and stockings are a common feature of Slutwalks. Why should we appropriate archaic clichés when we can come up with our own feminist code of sexual ethics?

This is increasingly important at a time when women are encouraged not to think of themselves as feminists. But the lesson here has already been proven: despite the relative sexual freedom enjoyed by both young men and young women nowadays, there is a lingering inequality in the way people react to it. No one will high-five you for calling yourself a slut.

For that reason, disown it. March for your safety and your rights but never, ever call yourself a slut.

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