Feminism | Posted by Kate S on 04/13/2012

You Don’t Have To Walk In High Heels To Protect Me From Sexual Violence

Recently, there was a heated discussion over the International Women’s Rights Collective (IWRC) email thread. It started when a member posted an article from the Huffington Post about 50 members of a fraternity in Western Kentucky University raising awareness about violence against women by walking around the campus in five-inch red heels. And yesterday, there were great articles from the New York Times and the New Yorker about the inefficacy and fallacy of social media as a form of activism. So I’ve been thinking…

I have always been critical of “conscious-raising efforts,” partly from my own experience in high school. Immature attempts to send provocative emails with graphic pictures—the so-called fetishization of otherness, of victimhood—have taught me that these implications do matter. The point of organizing a hunger banquet, for example, is to communicate the inequality in food distribution and how the intersectionality of race, gender, and class affect that distribution. When this event is publicized as an opportunity for the wealthy folks to go hungry in “their” honor, it creates a binary that reinforces the existing power structure that created maldistribution of resources in the first place because “going hungry” on their behalf creates a sense of entitlement. I often heard students from my high school say that they now “understood” global poverty from their experience in hunger. If the product of activism results in such ignorance and entitlement of privileges, it is time that we seriously reconsider what activism means.

The ultimate goal of activism is to make inclusive, wholesome and sustainable change. It’s about dignity at the individual level, equality at the communal level, and justice at the social level. When an “activist” puts an image forward as the face of victimhood, it reproduces the power structure that created that injustice in the first place. The act of charity thus becomes an act of entitlement over power structure. Teju Cole from the Atlantic recently published a fantastic article about the “white savior industrial complex.” He points out how donors, having agency over their money, dictate the means of change, often in the form of the most unnecessary items for the people whom the money is for. Buying t-shirts and TOMS shoes may make us, the beneficiaries of capitalism, feel better about ourselves, but it does not make a difference that it pretends or aspires to make.

I want to apply this to the high heel activism that I found to be terribly vexing. I want to question how the kind of cause may have an influence over the means of activism that are deemed acceptable. The high heel activism of WKU frat boys was inspired by the notion of “walking in their shoes.” They took it quite literally and marched around the campus in heels, noting how painful and difficult it was. In fact, high heel activism has become rather a commonplace demonstration as more and more communities are organizing a “walk for women” where participants walk around in heels. I question why this conjured up so much hype online as, to me, it seems neither inclusive nor sustainable. What is so revolutionary and “social justice-y” about men walking around in heels? And after many days of thinking about this, here are three things that I find to be problematic:

1) Essentializing women into a pair of five-inch red heels does an abominable injustice to the lived experience of women and men who survived sexual violence.

High heels may contribute to sexual violence but it is a much bigger problem. It’s cultural and structural. Gender inequality manifests itself in the office, in schools, in homes—it’s everywhere. If women in high heels are going to become the legible and accepted image of a victim, the resources allocated to supporting survivors of sexual violence will be distributed a certain way.

2) We as a culture seem to hold men to a different standard, especially when it comes to gender and sexuality activism.

There is nothing extraordinary about people supporting and helping and loving each other. I recognize that we unfortunately live in a world where people simply being aware of their privileges get so much credit for their valiant act of self-awareness. Especially when it comes to gender inversion. When a woman acts like a man, the legitimacy and professionalism that is attributed reflects how our culture valorizes “masculine” qualities, as poignantly described by Simone de Beauvoir. But when a man acts like a woman, he is either mocked or considered funny. For example, remember SNL’s “Single Ladies” skit where Justin Timberlake danced in a leotard next to Beyonce? Or the recent ABC show “Work It” about two unemployed men cross-dressing as women for an advantage in the era of women?

Alternatively, a man can also be valorized for his effort in trying to understand the mysterious other sex. We as a culture cannot even take “gender subversion” at its full value. It is this very attitude that lets some frat guys in Kentucky walk around in heels and call that activism. You really want to stop sexual violence? Stop using sexist language. Stop holding parties that turn women and men away because of their appearance. Stop buying sexist and misogynist magazines that encourage the media to hypersexualize and objectify women. And, even that, my dear friends, is not activism. It’s a simple act of dignity and compassion.

3)  “Doing good” does not, and should not, excuse us from being critical about what we do.

This is what I  personally find most upsetting of all. Just because we live in a gendered and capitalist world, it seems it’s a common belief that whatever gets people talking and raising money is okay because it does the job. It is disheartening that this is the attitude we have come to adopt. Of course I appreciate anyone speaking out against violence against women. But if we call ourselves “activists” who call out oppression, then we should hold ourselves accountable for the means of doing that as well. I ask: what exactly is the job and how is walking around in a pair of heels achieving that? Pink ribbons for breast cancer and red heels for women make sense culturally for a reason. It makes activism easy, in theory and in practice. Buying pink things during breast cancer awareness month and walking around in red heels may make you feel like you contributed to a good cause. But did you really? All it means is that you bought a carton of pink peeps from CVS and now your feet hurt from walking in heels. It works because it is busy work that makes people feel good about themselves.

No, I do not want you to walk around in heels to protect me from sexual violence. No, I do not want you to buy things to prevent me from getting breast cancer (because you physically cannot do that). No, I do not want you to make donations for my victimhood. My liberation should not have to depend on the comfort of your feet or your purchasing power, because it is mine and I should be able to exercise it without your charity. If you want to be an activist, you are going to have to make changes in your life, albeit how cumbersome it is. Question your language. Question the way you treat people. Question what you know about race, gender/sexuality, and class. Question how you view institutions. Get ready to be uncomfortable. To be confronted. Then let’s work together to bring about the kind of change that is inclusive, multidirectional, and sustainable. But, until you let go of the lazy ideal of change via “walk a mile in her shoes,” you can keep walking in those stilettos.

Originally posted on Kate’s tumblr, Non Serviam

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  • Anna @ at 4:05 pm, April 13th, 2012

    Killer article!
    I have always rejected simple “awareness” campaigns, but I have never taken the time to analyze why this kind of “activism” bothered me. Your reasons are clear and accurate. Good work.

    I’ve heard the word “slactivism” used for this kind of action. It is very frustraiting to watch.

    This fall quarter at my university there was a group selling hot dogs to support breast cancer research. Apparently the group didn’t realize or think to pay attention to the fact that hormones like those in hot dogs contribute to ones risk of breast cancer! It’s unfortunate that we have to seriously question the motives of modern day “social activism.” I wonder if Vienna beef (the company that made the hot dogs they were selling and who’s brand was plastered all over the campaign) approached this “fight against breast cancer group” simply for publicity. Sure seems like it.

    “You really want to stop sexual violence? Stop using sexist language.”

    And those damn “pink” or “red” campaigns. They tell you that buying a red cellphone will support the fight against AIDS in Africa when really the creation of that phone contributes to the hyper-exploitation of African resources and workers.

    Not only are most of these campaigns not doing anything good or productive, they are actually contributing to the problems that they claim to be fighting.


  • Amrutha @ at 4:50 pm, April 13th, 2012

    I’m twenty-two-years old, and just a few days away from graduating with my BA in Political Science-Economics. I am so glad that fbomb provides a platform for girls and women to share their stories. Believe it or not, there was few avenues when I was 16. That was only 6 years ago. Our voices needs to be heard. Now is the time and place for feminism.

  • Anonymous @ at 8:38 pm, April 16th, 2012

    You make it appear as though the participants in the “Walk a Mile in their Shoes” campaign are doing a disservice to the victims of abuse, when in reality their goal is to raise awareness about that particular issue. What good are you doing while spending hours drafting, editing, and revising this pretty little article filled with pretentious vocabulary?

  • Juliana @ at 8:21 pm, April 17th, 2012

    SUCH a great article. Yes, the intentions were good, but good intentions are not enough, and are not always harmless. And when you think about it in the end, what message is this march sending? Walking in high heels is hard, you should respect women for doing it. Which, really, is totally beyond the point. How about simulating what it is like to be the center of attention of everyone in a public space? What it’s like to be cat called, jeered at, etc. That would be more productive.

  • cathrene @ at 9:33 am, April 20th, 2012

    Walk in her shoes!. My daughter was sexualy abused by her step grandfather but can’t lay charges because she is suffering and dying of Huntingtons so another sick basterd will get of scott free because f bomb lwas in south africa.. Melissa is only 18 years old and is suffering because spoke out against her abuse ..

  • Colleen @ at 11:19 pm, April 24th, 2012

    I am personally disgusted and confused by this specific event, which seems to be objectifying women in the name of social activism. I think what upset me the most was the choice of the red heels as a representation of all sexual abuse victims. Since red heels (colloquially known as “fuck me pumps”) are typically associated with women who dress in a provocative manner, the event propagates the idea that wearing revealing or sexy clothing/shoes will likely result in rape. It also reinforces the notion that super sexualized women are the only ones subjected to sexual abuse, completely ignoring the vast majority of victims including children. Furthermore, the act of wearing high heels to represent all women who are sexually abused is a completely sexist notion. Not all woman wear high heels and many are not wearing them when raped.

    I agreed with every point made in this post and think this is an issue that deserves more thought. Just because “it’s for a good cause” does not mean that we, as a society, should accept activism that reinforces sexual stereotypes.

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