The term ‘SlutWalk’ first appeared as a blip on my radar around June or August. The term piqued my interest and I began to read about the basics of what a ‘SlutWalk’ was supposed to be. The entire phenomena started in January when Constable Michael Sanguinetti of the Toronto Police told students at a local university that, “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”. While the officer went on to apologize for his words a few days later, they’d already drawn attention from women’s rights activists who were outraged that Sanguinetti had seen fit to place the blame for such a heinous crime on the victim. In response, feminists Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis co-founded a SlutWalk protest march in Toronto that sought to fight back against what they saw as the Toronto police department’s, and in extension, a patriarchal society’s scapegoating of women.
Women have, for ages, been given the message that what they’re wearing is inappropriate; those skirts too short, that salwar kameez too tight. Constable Sanguinetti seems to be only one of many people who feel that if a woman is showing skin, she is at least partly to blame for the rape. Even in the US, rape cases are notoriously under-reported, because many women are afraid of the reaction from a society that engages in victim blaming (4). In more patriarchal societies, attaining justice seems damn near impossible (5). But in such societies, even wearing a burqa isn’t a guarantee that you’re safe from this kind of sexual harassment and assault (6). Government and religious institutions, too, are guilty of standing idly by or actively covering up this crime. I find it inspiring to see women now speak out against the status quo en masse.
But what’s been even more interesting to me, however, is how the women participating in these marches are responding to each other and our gender’s ideas on what it means to be a strong, independent woman. The SlutWalk coordinators, for example, talk about taking back the word ‘slut’. While I agree that the name ‘SlutWalk’ is cheeky and brings some much needed attention to these issues, I and a lot of other women would never feel comfortable identifying ourselves by that term. Another fascinating example of this ideological conflict within in the movement comes from an article titled ‘An Open Letter from Black Women to the SlutWalk’ (7). While this moving piece of writing is worth reading in its entirety, the following words stood out most strongly to me.
As Black women and girls we find no space in SlutWalk, no space for participation and to unequivocally denounce rape and sexual assault as we have experienced it. We are perplexed by the use of the term “slut” and by any implication that this word, much like the word “Ho” or the “N” word should be re-appropriated. [...] We don’t have the privilege to play on destructive representations burned in our collective minds, on our bodies and souls for generations. [...]It is tied to institutionalized ideology about our bodies as sexualized objects of property, as spectacles of sexuality and deviant sexual desire. It is tied to notions about our clothed or unclothed bodies as unable to be raped whether on the auction block, in the fields or on living room television screens.
What has been most gratifying, however, are the conversations I have been able to have with friends as I worked on this article. Suddenly the topic was being brought up at the dinner table and both my male and female friends were eager to add their opinions to the mix. While everybody was content to agree that rape was a terrible crime, they weren’t sure who to place the blame on. Many of them (the girls included) argued that the rapists were mostly responsible, but felt that the female victims also had a certain degree of culpability. What if, they asked, she made the mistake of walking all alone at night? What if she was wearing short skirts? Didn’t that mean that she wanted to be looked at? Touched? Wasn’t she clearly being a tease? I wasn’t thrilled to hear these questions because in this day and age it should be clear to everyone that the answer is a big resounding NO. But I was glad that at least we were having these conversations; that I had the chance to bring forth my own arguments and change their minds. While I ultimately don’t align myself with Slutwalk’s methods, I do support their message.
salwar kameez – a traditional South Asian dress consisting of loose trousers and a long tunic
burqa – an outer garment worn by Muslim women to fully cover their bodies
Photo Credit: Francesa June
[Note: I was able to get in touch with one of the former organizers of Slutwalk NYC with regards to the featured picture and she asked me to point out that the subject of the photograph is a trans*boy -- a reminder that rape is a problem that people of all genders face.]