The Power of SlutWalks

New movement against sexual violence is generating support -- and considerable controversy -- on many campuses.
October 5, 2011

It’s been six months since the first “SlutWalk” stormed the University of Toronto, and neither the excitement nor the criticism shows any signs of dwindling. The march was triggered by a city police officer who told students that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” Since then, students have either organized or been involved in events in more than 70 cities, demanding not only an end to sexual violence, but also the not uncommon tendency of many to blame or shame the victim.

Perhaps inevitably, SlutWalks have been repeatedly compared to the popular and well-established Take Back the Night event, which since 1975 has united sexual assault victims and supporters of their cause in annual vigils and marches on campuses around the world. In the last few months, SlutWalks have been attracting more attention -- and more controversy, setting off debates about gender, race and political symbolism. But whether the SlutWalks have real staying power – and what they’re contributing to conversation around issue – is still being debated.

Regardless, the energy surrounding SlutWalk is palpable. Unlike Take Back the Night, it’s popping up in organic and often impromptu fashion in several countries, with no central office or network to help coordinate. (SlutWalk Toronto is available to offer advice, but none of the events are technically affiliated with each other.)

Then, there’s also the fact that the extent to which people equate the two events tends to depend on how offended they are by SlutWalk. Chief among the criticisms is the event’s title; while organizers say they want to “reclaim” the word “slut,” many question the value – and feasibility – of doing so. And while participants are encouraged to wear whatever they want, and most dress how they normally would, some are scantily clad; at SlutWalk NYC last weekend, one woman pole-danced while male onlookers filmed the scene with their phones. The risque attire is meant to drive home the point that women have a right to be free of sexual violence however they dress.

All of it is vastly different from the somber tone of Take Back the Night. But despite the different approaches, Heather Jarvis, the student who helped organize SlutWalk Toronto and is now studying at the University of Guelph, says the end goals of both events are the same.

“We need to stop sexual violence and we need to stop it period,” Jarvis said. “This isn’t a party – people are very emotional…. This has just hit a nerve with people in some way that has gotten them to get up and get energetic about needing to fight this fight.”

Photo: David Nelson

Students march in a SlutWalk in Ithaca, New York.

When a University of Wyoming student said she feared a campus smoking ban would force her to cross the street to smoke and increase her odds of being sexually assaulted, a student government representative told her she shouldn’t smoke, then. Disgusted that his response was to tell her to change her personal behavior and imply that women have some role in being assaulted, the university’s Women’s Action Network put together a SlutWalk in just a week. More than 100 people participated.

Jules Arthur, coordinator of Wyoming’s STOP Violence Program, isn’t the only one who worries that the cause of SlutWalk gets lost in the media frenzy and negative feelings that the moniker has prompted. But if it generates conversation, that’s a good thing, she said.

“Some students who came to the walk showed up more for the exhibition than the message,” Arthur said. “But if people start to listen, and that’s what makes people stand up and pay attention, then I’m all about using [slut], as long as the message gets across.”

But Katherine Koestner, executive director of the national Take Back the Night campaign, sees no place for the word in the fight against sexual violence. While she appreciates the fact that SlutWalk is creating excitement around the issue, the stereotypes it’s exhibiting along the way seems counter-intuitive, she said.

“Using the word ‘slut’ as an adjective to describe women in any way, shape or form just reinforces that pigeonholing of women and tying our value to our worth as sexual beings,” Koestner said. “The things that we’re trying to accomplish are talking about where women find comfort and where women can heal after being the victim of abuse and objectification and sexualization…. We believe collectively that the violence against women and violence against anyone shouldn’t be based upon gender or what one is wearing. But the source of female empowerment or power of the person – I don’t think all of us would ever agree that the power comes from the freedom to wear what you want.”

Hundreds of black women (many of them professors) have endorsed an open letter to SlutWalk, which says that to call themselves sluts would validate “the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the black woman is.”

“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,” the letter reads. “In the United States, where slavery constructed black female sexualities, Jim Crow kidnappings, rape and lynchings, gender misrepresentations, and more recently, where the black female immigrant struggle combine, 'slut' has different associations for black women. We do not recognize ourselves nor do we see our lived experiences reflected within SlutWalk and especially not in its brand and its label."

Valerie Ann Johnson, a professor and director of Africana women’s studies at Bennett College, who signed the open letter, finds it difficult to embrace a movement that embraces that word – though she does recognize the jolt that it’s instilled.

“Those of us who come from a legacy of a part of us having been sold and rendered as property, we’re still dealing with that piece of it. And we don’t have that kind of sexual agency yet,” Johnson said. “I think that an opportunity has opened up for there to be a richer, deeper dialogue between these different groups of women. There’s a lot of excitement that’s been generated by this activity, and that has a positive value.”

One of SlutWalk NYC’s organizers said after the Oct. 1 rally – which drew 4,000 people – that she and others had discussed, and are still discussing, possibly changing the event’s name.

Emily Stoner, who graduated from Ithaca College in May and organized the SlutWalk in downtown Ithaca last month, said it’s about people being dissatisfied with the status quo. While Take Back the Night has become rather institutionalized and by-the-book, SlutWalk is fresh activism, and that's appealing to people, she said.

“It’s tough because SlutWalks are really misunderstood,” Stoner said. “The name is great because it gets attention, and the name is horrible because unless you take the extra step,” to read up on it, you get the wrong impression.

“Take Back the Night is wonderful. I would never say anything negative about them. It’s just, you do things differently when you’re starting fresh and you have no money and you’re on your own,” Stoner said. “We’re fighting for the same thing. So I don’t think we could be pitted against each other.”


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