On April 3, 2011, thousands of Torontonians took to the streets to protest remarks made by Toronto Police Const. Michael Sanguinetti to York University students that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”, as well as the underlying message that it is the responsibility of potential victims to prevent their own sexual assault by not doing anything to “encourage” their potential attackers (in this case, dressing the “wrong” way). And the Toronto SlutWalk was born, drawing approximately 2500 participants, both women and men. Since then, news of the SlutWalk movement has spread, and has spawned plans for a similar event in Edmonton. The Edmonton SlutWalk is scheduled to take place on June 4. There is a Facebook event page where anyone interested can RSVP and get all the information. As of this writing, there are 927 people confirmed to attend.
When I heard on Twitter about plans for an Edmonton SlutWalk, I was one of the first in line to sign up. And I will march proudly on that day, first and foremost to protest publicly the rape apologism and victim-blaming mentality so rampant in our culture that our own law enforcement officers, the very people charged with protecting us and the ones on the front lines of seeking justice for victims, feel no qualms about engaging in it. That is the primary message of Edmonton SlutWalk: until we as a society stop blaming the victim and asking what she could have done to prevent her assault, until we start holding rapists accountable for their crimes instead of mitigating them with excuses about what the victim did to provoke her assault, until the idea that “she was asking for it” is completely eliminated from our accepted social value system, justice will continue to go under-served. Victims will continue not to report the crimes against them, and the legal system will continue to fail its victims. This is a message I am passionate about, and one I feel is worth a public protest. In Edmonton.
But there is another, secondary, issue at work with the SlutWalk, and that is related to the name of the event itself. Since word has spread about the event, I have noted many objections to the name “SlutWalk”. I’ve seen remarks from other women to the effect that they are uncomfortable marching for a cause they believe in under the “SlutWalk” banner, and don’t wish to associate themselves with the word or to label themselves as “sluts”. I’ve heard comments that it was a poor choice of name, because it makes it sound like the primary objective of the event is about promoting promiscuity, rather than about issues of sexual assault awareness. I’ve seen remarks suggesting that the event is merely an excuse for a bunch of women to dress provocatively in public and seek attention under the guise of a political and social protest. I’ve even seen remarks suggesting that the event would be a good place for horny guys to pick up easy chicks.
Personally, I am all for the name “SlutWalk”. There is no doubt that the word “slut” is a four-letter word — a loaded one. I heard it for the first time when I was 9 or 10 years old. There was a boy in the neighbourhood who used to bully me to the point of obsession, and it was but one of many insults he lobbed at me over the years. I went home that day and I asked my mother what a slut was, because I didn’t know. She asked me where I had heard the word. I explained. She told me not to worry about it.
Thinking back to this incident gives me clarity when I consider my take on the word “slut”. Obviously, at this time I was too young to know what a slut even was, let alone engage in the behaviour that the word symbolizes. And the boy in question couldn’t have been more than 11 or 12 himself, so I’m thinking that his understanding of the word was also somewhat undeveloped, and certainly lacked nuance. But he knew enough to recognize that the purpose of the word was to demean women/girls. It is a word designed to police and control our behaviour. It is a word used to make us feel ashamed of our sexuality, fearful for our reputations, and hateful of ourselves and each other. Regardless of the personal choices we make in our private and sexual lives, regardless of the reality of those lives, somebody can throw the label “slut” on us and suddenly we’re worth less. Well, I have a huge fucking problem with that.
The bottom line is that, whatever my feelings are now on the choices I have made about the men that have been in my life, I stand by those choices. And I’m sure as hell not going to apologize for them or tolerate others’ judgment of them with misogynistic labels like “slut”. Whether or not I am a “slut” is a matter of who you ask, I guess, but at the end of the day I’m not afraid to confront the label, what it means to me, what it means to other women I’ve known, and what it means to men too. In public. With other like-minded individuals. I’m enthusiastic about marching under the banner “SlutWalk”, not so I can get dressed up in skimpy clothing and draw “the wrong kind” of attention to myself, not because I am trying to pick up guys, not because I am trying to “reclaim” or “empower” the word, but because perhaps by bringing the word “slut” out into the cold light of day, together, we can work toward taking the negative power out of the way it’s wielded somehow, and raise awareness that the “slut was asking for it” rape myth is just that.
One thing I know for sure is that you cannot tell if somebody is a “slut” based on the way she is dressed, and that no matter how a woman is dressed, or how many men she has slept with or how easy she is rumoured to be, none of these things are ever an invitation to violence or an excuse to rape. People in positions of authority, such as police officers and judges, should be held to a higher standard of conduct than repeating and supporting rape myths, and letting rapists off the hook with excuses that victims were dressed like “sluts”, or were “sluts”, or suggesting that not “dressing like sluts” is an effective rape prevention technique.
As it relates back to protesting under the “SlutWalk” banner, I think it is important to talk about the word “slut”, as well as the cultural implications of its use, particularly related to cases of sexual assault and consent. I understand that it may be off-putting to some, that it may conjure up some negative connotations, that it may draw some negative publicity and some less than supportive public commentary. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter to me whether I consider myself a slut, whether other people consider me a slut, whether other people think I dress like a slut. What matters is that every woman, from a street sex worker to a Member of Parliament, has the right to safe public space and the right to withdraw consent at any point without fear of violence, no matter how she dressed, no matter her history, no matter her reputation. Every woman has the right to say no. Even “sluts”. And I think that Edmonton SlutWalk will be a positive contribution toward this converstion.
I look forward to participating in this event and I can’t wait to meet others who are also committed to this issue.