Slut. According to the dictionary: “a dirty, immoral or untidy woman”. We use it to describe someone who is purposely sexually promiscuous, but also tend to equate the word with revealing clothing -- even going so far as to assume that women who dress a certain way are looking for a certain type of sexual attention. In many cases, this assumption allows our society stand by as women (and men!) are violated -- too blinded by the title to recognize that rape has absolutely nothing to do with a person’s appearance and everything to do with power and control.
On August 13, 2011 in Washington D.C., women’s advocacy and empowerment organizations gathered together on the National Mall to challenge the way we interpret the word “slut”, decry the excuses we make for people who abuse it, and demand a culture that truly values sexual empowerment, equality and safety, rather than abuses it.
The event was one of more than 80 SlutWalks that have occurred around the nation and across the globe. The SlutWalk movement began in the early spring of 2011 after a police officer who was speaking at a crime prevention and safety forum in Toronto recommended that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” (Read more about this event and get a taste for some of the controversy surrounding the topic here: http://www.excal.on.ca/news/dont-dress-like-a-slut-toronto-cop/).
Women took to the streets to protest this blatant victim-blaming and shaming, wearing clothing that exposed their bodies and might typically be classified as “slutty”. Capitalizing on shock value (but maintaining an extremely basic message) the SlutWalks are meant to show the world that no matter what a person wears, he/she does not deserve to be raped.
D.C.’s SlutWalk participants were no different. Women and men, young and old, scantily clad and those wearing average sightseeing apparel, joined together in the shadow of the Washington Monument (or as the keynote speaker Andrea Bredbeck referred to it: “the f***ing biggest phallus on the planet!”). We listened to the stories of sexual assault survivors and the various ways they have used their horrific personal experiences as motivation for action, outreach and advocacy. Through powerful poetry, tearful re-tellings and everything in between (think: self defense lessons!), speakers described frighteningly similar experiences with repeat attackers, unsympathetic law enforcement, and the inevitable question: “What were you wearing when it happened?” They shared with us a commitment to combating victim-shaming social norms and policies that issue no consequences for rapists. As rain poured down and thunder crashed, we stayed -- refusing to let a storm dampen our spirits or drown out the SlutWalk’s mission to end rape-permissive culture.
While SlutWalks broadcast a generally accepted message of women’s empowerment and sexual equality, there are many people, including those who consider themselves to be die-hard feminists, who take offense to their tactics. Many people feel that dressing in revealing outfits and using vocabulary derived from misogynistic disrespect is a backwards step for women -- simply a non-effective excuse for women to exhibit their bodies.
When pressed to justify the scandalous name for this movement while being interviewed on a morning news show, Jessica Vallenti, a well-known advocate of SlutWalk, retorted,“Do you think I would be sitting here today if they were called EmpowermentWalks?” Her sentiment was echoed by one of the speakers at the D.C. rally. “People are uncomfortable with the word slut? They are uncomfortable talking about victim-blaming? Do you want to know what’s uncomfortable? Rape!”
I must say -- while I had my doubts originally, when I sat sharing a broken umbrella with a fishnet-wearing woman who I had never met before, listening to survivors speak amidst cracks of lightening and feeling the tremendous sense of community created by a network of passionate, empathetic, activated women -- I fully understood the power of the movement.
What do you think? Would you participate in a SlutWalk in your city? As empowered women, we all must join the fight to reclaim safety and sexual equality -- but is a SlutWalk the best way to do it?
Edited by Jody Smith