SLUTWALK: The Anti-Rape Brigade

The complexities surrounding the onus of sexual abuse just got thicker. Enter SlutWalk, a worldwide movement set to directly address rape and women’s rights.

Words: Anna Graizbord

“Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized” was a statement made by a representative of the Toronto Police Department on January 24th, 2011 at a campus safety information session at York University’s Osgood Hall Law School. Though the incident drew some local publicity, as well as students and faculty demanding an apology, Toronto natives Heather Jarvis and Sonya JF Barnett were sick of hearing this brand of victim-blaming rationalization, and decided that something more needed to be done.

Heather Jarvis, co-founder of SlutWalk, explains that the name of this initiative, now a movement, came directly from the language the Toronto police officer used. Not only is SlutWalk working to challenge this language, positing that “sluts” don’t have one monolithic aesthetic (“promiscuity doesn’t have a ‘look,’” Jarvis says) but, in a larger sense, SlutWalk aims to fight widespread ideologies that blame sexual assault victims via a damaging “slut” or “sex-shaming” rhetoric.

What started as an initiative founded in Toronto to address a specifically Toronto-based incident, SlutWalk marches and events started spreading, owing a great deal to social media, across the country of Canada, and later to major cities within Australia, North America, Europe as well as some South American countries. At the time of this writing, there have been/are 55 SlutWalk satellite marches organized across Canadian and American cities, as well as another 25 in cities across the rest of the world.

SlutWalk has drawn much criticism from all sides of the political spectrum— most often precisely in response to the word “slut”. In the most common of criticisms, SlutWalk has been characterized, to extrapolate a little, as a bunch of women parading around with their tops off, or in some such other alarmist, pearl-clutching portrait. Of course, the characterizations from this sort of position are simply a reflection that many people across the globe largely buy into the idea that only “sluts” are raped. One instance that made this abundantly clear was on the BBC radio show World Have Your Say on May 10, 2011— a veritable barrage of angry sex-shaming callers who said things that ranged from proclaiming SlutWalk
champions of rape, though more commonly that scantily clad women deserve to, and should, be sexually assaulted.

More interestingly, however, SlutWalk’s inclusivity and intersectionality has been called into question from various left wing critics. One writer from The Crunk Feminist Collective and another from To The Curb, raise that the very indignance specifically directed at the word “slut” betrays a lack of intersectionality— specifically as it relates to the way Black women and possibly younger or older people may have differently experienced sexual assault and sex-shaming in their communities and in their larger societies. In other words, that SlutWalk only speaks to young, middle-to-upper class educated White women, and as such, only these
types of women participate.

Jarvis re-emphasized that when SlutWalk first started, “…we [the founders] never anticipated anything beyond Toronto…for doing it in six weeks, we made mistakes…I just hope that we can say…‘we can improve.’ But…in six weeks, we did a good job in Toronto about reaching out to a lot of communities. Not everybody…but it’s not as if we only triggered on to the fact that there are intersections in identity after all the criticisms came out…”

Jarvis says she and the SlutWalk founders and organizers understand and acknowledge that although not every community or person may experience slut shaming and sexual violence in the same way, nearly every human knows what it feels like to “…be called a derogatory word that is meant to make you feel worthless—sometimes without provocation…and especially around sexuality…There are so many slurs and epithets thrown around sexuality,” Jarvis
elaborates. “Slut,” as illustrated by the Toronto Police, may be just one of the words that are commonly used in this way.

Furthermore, Jarvis says that some of these sorts of race-based critiques negate the women of color and the individual communities who were part of originating, have been instrumental, or have taken it entirely upon themselves to participate and spread the word about SlutWalk both in Toronto and in many other cities. Jarvis stresses that it is not the aim of SlutWalk to acknowledge one marginalized community at the expense of another—something Jarvis says many of the American criticisms themselves can tend to do, especially with regards to what she perceives as a lack of understanding about the major presence and experiences of Canadian Indigenous communities, “…who experience sexual assault at three times the rate of most others.”

At the very least, Jarvis hopes the complicated conversations happening around SlutWalk will get more people to start talking about sexual violence around the world within and between each and every community. She’s satisfied that even if people are criticizing the SlutWalk approach, at least it has brought the conversation into the foreground.

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