home Australia, Europe, North America, Politics, Racism, Sex, Women SlutWalk goes international: The uses and limitations of a simple idea

SlutWalk goes international: The uses and limitations of a simple idea

If the international spread of SlutWalk means anything, it means this: You should never underestimate the power of a simple idea. Nor should you expect that idea to remain simple for very long.

SlutWalk has become massive; its website lists completed or planned events in several dozen American and Canadian cities, with still more marches occurring in Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the UK. But it’s worth noting that its inspiration was relatively small and local. This January, at Osgoode Hall Law School, a Toronto policeman giving a lecture on campus safety told students that, although he’d been “told not to say it,” he thought women should stop dressing like “sluts” so as to avoid being sexually assaulted.

Which, of course, is one of the oldest and worst lines in the book, when it comes to excusing rape. The fact is, anyone can be sexually assaulted; young or old, of any gender, of any race, conventionally attractive or not. The only common denominator in any rape or sexual assault is the presence of a sexual assailant. But the fact that a police officer, someone to whom a victim would be expected to turn to after an assault, could include victim-blaming in his “safety tips”: Well. It was a small incident. But it spoke volumes.

Hence, SlutWalk: Women and men taking to the streets to demand accountability from the Toronto police. Its goals were small and local focused; its message was equally simple and unequivocal. Its branding, however, stood out.

“Whether dished out as a serious indictment of one’s character or merely as a flippant insult, the intent behind the word [‘slut’] is always to wound,” said the organizers, “so we’re taking it back. ‘Slut’ is being re-appropriated.”

And so they did. The SlutWalk movement said — indeed, implicitly demanded — that those who participated in the march should be willing to identify as “sluts or allies.” It was an incredibly catchy, implicitly theatrical premise. Many of the protesters played that up, dressing in the sorts of revealing and provocative outfits that the Toronto policeman had condemned. The cameras tended to find those protesters first.

For some of those who joined, it was a simple way to identify. Some were sex workers, used to hearing that their impermissible sexuality was an excuse for police brutality, legal oppression, and violent assault or even murder. Others were women who enjoyed casual sex, or people who had sex in non-vanilla ways. For others, the label came less naturally; still, since any given woman can be labeled a “slut,” even the most monogamous or virginal among us, it made sense to march in solidarity. The simplicity of the message — no matter who you are, or how anyone else views your sexuality, you deserve safety — made it possible for the movement to gain ground anywhere that message rang true, until the outrage was not so much about anything that one man had done, but about the rage and pain that come with being sexual in a rape culture. And so, SlutWalk transcended Toronto, and the offending police officer, and became an international movement.

And yet. Several women of color have written that the event is based in white culture, white problems, and white assumptions — for example, the idea that one can expect “safety” when dealing with law enforcement in the first place.

“This event will not stop the criminalization of black women in New Orleans,” wrote Aura Blogando, “nor will it stop one woman from being potentially deported after she calls the police subsequent to being raped. SlutWalk completely ignores the way institutional violence is leveled against women of color. The event highlights its origins from a privileged position of relative power, replete with an entitlement of assumed safety that women of color would never even dream of.”

Still others have pointed out that the mere fact of wearing a “slutty” outfit does not always signify freedom, and feeling pressured to do so, or to reclaim the “slut” label, can in fact intensify and re-iterate their oppression: “In the post 9/11 climate,” wrote Harsha Walia, “the focus on a particular version of sex(y)-positive feminism runs the risk of further marginalizing Muslim women’s movements who are hugely impacted by the racist ‘reasonable accommodation’ debate and state policies against the niqab.” Simply telling women that they “can” or “should” be more sexually open or dress more scantily does not make sense, if those women are routinely persecuted for a seeming lack of sexual availability, or for wearing clothes that cover “too much” of their bodies. In a virgin-whore dichotomy, women are of course assaulted on both ends of the spectrum; anyone who plays the game will lose. That’s how rigged games work.

This matters. Because these are the dangers of making an international movement out of a simple, local protest. “SlutWalk” made sense, as an immediate reaction to the events in Toronto: When the police officer blames rape on revealing outfits, you wear a revealing outfit. When the police officer uses the term “slut” in a derogatory way, you use it in a positive one. But once it was exported, its flaws became apparent. It did not, and could not, speak to the needs of every woman; nor could it adequately sum up and address every facet of rape culture. And so, removed from its original context, it stopped being simple, and became simplistic.

Simple ideas are great for attracting crowds, especially when they come with camera-ready spectacle. But there is no way that SlutWalk can be made to bear the entire weight of anti-rape activism; relying solely on SlutWalk as our means of protesting anything — rape, sexism, even something as specific as slut-shaming — will invariably reveal that it does not measure up. No one protest or movement, not even one as widespread and as great at calling attention to itself as SlutWalk, can do that.

Feminism cannot live on SlutWalks alone. The fact that the movement has been so widely embraced does not mean that we should turn to it exclusively. What it means is that other protests can and should be happening; in addition to making the SlutWalk movement itself more inclusive and responsive, it’s essential that its organizers turn the mic over to other organizers, with ideas about protesting rape culture that extend beyond the “reclaiming slut” banner. The best thing for SlutWalkers now is to listen to the people who feel left out, and help them. The Sluts can and should keep Walking. But they should also recognize when to follow someone else’s lead.

9 thoughts on “SlutWalk goes international: The uses and limitations of a simple idea

  1. Victim-blaming & the resultant under-reporting of sexual assaults is a serious, important issue to address in society. Unlike a “Take Back the Night” rally, what is sad here is that this is an emotional reaction to idiotic phrasing about PREVENTION.
    The ‘blame’ is ALWAYS & 100% on the assailant. This does not mean that, in certain situations, there aren’t reasonable precautions one can take to lower the risk factor. Isn’t it common sense not to be wearing provocative attire when walking alone late at night in a bad part of town? If said female were sexually assaulted it would not be her fault, but wouldn’t the risk be lowered if her attire hadn’t drawn the attention of the sicko in the alley? (*I understand that rape is really about violence/dominance, but sex is a part of it. Furthermore women are often sexually assaulted w/o penetration (rape) i.e. NYC Puerto Rican Day Parade)

    I feel this ‘movement’ is more sensationalism than substance, and it appears to polarize viewpoints rather than foster meaningful debate & understanding. Wouldn’t it have been significantly more powerful to have worked with the police, showing the officer the stupidity of his words, and have him speak to encourage more reporting of sexual assaults? I believe his intentions were good (it was a public service forum to discuss prevention, wasn’t it?), but he was immediately vilified as a misogynist. It’s quite insulting to many men (and women) to be looped in as ‘siding with the rapist’ when they are working to address the common goal: stopping sexual assaults from occurring.

  2. J. Eps,
    We’re lucky that you’re around to let us know the rules. Now that all us dumb women know that we shouldn’t dress provocatively, then I’m sure we will follow that rule and there will be no more rapes. Like in countries that have women wear full body covering. There’s no rapes there, because all the women cover themselves modestly, right?

    And I’m sure that no one thought to tell the officer that he should rethink his position. Oh, wait, the officer admitted that he was told NOT to say exactly what he said. So, sure, he meant well. Or he’s an arrogant, unthinking ass who has no idea what causes sexual assault.

  3. “But once it was exported, its flaws became apparent. It did not, and could not, speak to the needs of every woman; nor could it adequately sum up and address every facet of rape culture. And so, removed from its original context, it stopped being simple, and became simplistic.”

    That’s not really a flaw, so much as a statement about everything. Among other things, your post and my comment do not speak to every woman’s needs or address all of rape culture, yet that doesn’t automatically turn them simplistic. Certainly they’re not comprehensive, but even with a variety of sister events it couldn’t address every facet of rape culture or speak to every woman’s needs.

    That just seems like a weird way to make the argument.

  4. I was raped and I don’t support SlutWalk.

    They’re not subverting the word ‘slut’ they’re reinforcing the sexual objectification of women – the slut or ‘temptress’ is a powerful cultural archetype, and always will be, which lawyers in particular use as a well-worn legal tactic that’s about money not human rights. Should they use it? Of course not! But an ideology doesn’t stop having negative social connotations or ramifications overnight just because people say it should.

    Misogyny is rampant in our culture and the pornification of women dominates popular media. It’s so deeply disappointing that young women have bought into their own objectification to the point whereby they’re willing to reinforce it and promote it because it’s been marketed as cool. I believe they’re naive to allow themselves to be photographed as ‘promiscuous’, too – it may not seem so empowering when their images are taken out of context later.

    Raising money for rape services or walking against rape would have been much more useful than fighting for their right to be a sex object. I’m pleased the sensationalism has stirred wider debate about victim blaming and I believe feminists can learn from their clever marketing techniques to communicate more valuable messages.

    But those who walk are not walking, or speaking, for me.

  5. Slutwalk or taking back the word slut in general is a huge step towards fixing a lot of problems all over the world.
    The biggest one that I see is the that it may level things out in the male vs female double standards department a bit.
    Millions of women live with huge amounts of shame and have depression because they think of themselves as sluts. They must often hide the amount of sexual partners they have had from close friends, family, spouses… while their male counterparts have no reason for doing the same. The male can actually boast of his conquests. What a bunch of bull that is.

  6. Kate,

    Thank you for making my point.
    I’m so glad you carefully read & understood my comment that all women are dumb and that not dressing provocatively will immediately stop rapes everywhere against everyone on the planet forever.

  7. “Isn’t it common sense not to be wearing provocative attire when walking alone late at night in a bad part of town?”

    No, it’s not. Buttoning a blouse further up doesn’t protect anyone from rape.

    Walking past a rapist is a bad idea.

  8. “Couldn’t they have unraveled underlying problems in society, addressed systemic violence that’s been normalised to the point where it’s invisible and changed the way huge parts of society think without making anyone feel uncomfortable?”

    No, they couldn’t.

  9. Hello!

    My name is Nicole and I am one of the organizers for the Boston Slutwalk. I just wanted to let you know we are listening. I took to slutwalk because I live an alternative lifestyle (poly, kinky, queer) that has made it impossible to prosecute my assault. Its something that I desperately need myself.

    I think slutwalk is the start of the next phase of feminism, it won’t be the whole part and maybe not even the biggest part, but its a damn good start.
    Women are not a monolithic group and not one movement is going to fit everyone’s needs.

    I was upset by how our event was whitewashed, we did outreach but not nearly enough. That is something I am going to focus on for next year, I knew that the day of the event.

    I do want to say Slutwalk is doing good. Its the first widespread, somewhat unified activism I have seen in my adult life. I see people who have engaged in heavy victim blaming actually start rethinking things. That’s progress.

    I am hoping that as this movement matures, its message will mature with it. I hope it is more inclusive and starts to tackle those complex issues you mentioned above. Its why I read these articles and take them seriously. I know in Boston, we are all first time organizers- college students who stepped out of our comfort zones to do this. We’re learning by experience and this kind of criticism is what we need to know where to go next.


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