by Stephanie Gilmore
In Cuernavaca, Mexico and Tegucigalpa, Honduras, it was called Marcha de las Putas. In New Delhi, it was Besharmi Morcha. Morocco was host to a Marche les salopes under the name Woman-Shoufouch. In London, it was Slut Means Speak Up. In Helsinki, Philadelphia, Atlanta, New York, Melbourne and the place of origin — Toronto — it was SlutWalk.
No matter the name, in cities across the globe, women and men of all gender, class, religious, racial and ethnic identities took over the streets to fight back against cultural norms of blaming victims for sexual violence. They’re not doing so without internal conflict, which is certainly significant. But the rapid spread of the SlutWalk movement offers a window into the promise and potential pathways for contemporary activism, locally and globally.
The origins of SlutWalk have been well publicized: On January 24, 2011, a Toronto constable invoked a well-worn observation that if women didn’t want to be raped, they needed to “avoid dressing like sluts.” Of course, this tired cliché makes men (men are statistically perpetrators of sexual assault, although all men are not rapists, which should be readily understood but bears repeating) appear to be too stupid or animalistic to prevent themselves from raping someone. Even more to the point, it puts the blame on women. Women in Toronto said “we’ve had enough,” came up with “SlutWalk,” and harnessed an opportunity to reject victim blaming altogether.
Around the world, women and men have followed suit, and SlutWalks offer an avenue to fight back against the normalization of victim blaming and the realities of sexual violence.
Responding to Burning Concerns
Every culture or community has nuances and distinctions when it comes to gender norms, as well as how they are policed. Cultural and social expectations of one’s gender or perceived gender do not apply to everyone evenly or equally. But even as I write that, I know that victim blaming – putting fault onto a person for being sexually harassed, assaulted, raped or killed — is pervasive around the world. So many factors shape sexual power and victimization.
To be clear, men can be and are victims of sexual violence. The brutalization of Black men’s bodies in the U.S. history of lynching was a form of sexual terrorism predicated on the insistence that Black men were sexually lascivious and uncontrollable. The attack on queer bodies that do not conform to rigid gender norms is also a form of sexual violence that is understudied and underreported, yet no less real. In many places around the world, from the streets to the military, women are systematically violated, terrorized, even killed, simply for being women.
While there is a global dimension to the SlutWalk movement, the local dimensions speak to a groundswell of feminist activism. I had the good fortune to be in Cuernavaca when local feminists organized the Marcha de las Putas. The women talked about the culture of victim blaming and slut shaming, but they used the forum to speak against femicide in Morelos and across Mexico, where female homicides never seemed to be investigated with an appreciation of gender hatred. In Tegucigalpa, activists decried local realities of femicide: according to the organizers, a woman is murdered every 24 hours in Honduras, yet 90 percent of these murders are not investigated by law enforcement authorities.
In Philadelphia, Broad Street Review editor Dan Rottenberg offered an impetus for local activists when he opined, “Earth to liberated women: When you display legs, thighs or cleavage, some liberated men will see it as a sign that you feel good about yourself and your sexuality. But most men will see it as a sign that you want to get laid.” This un-classy comment was in response to journalist Lara Logan, who bravely came forward to describe the vicious sexual assault she experienced from a mob in Egypt’s Tahrir Square in February 2011. Rottenberg made his crack when, months later, Logan was photographed at an awards show in a cleavage-revealing dress.
In Helsinki, people mobilized around SlutWalk to decry lenient new prison sentences for crimes of sexual violence, while in Buenos Aires, people organized against the backdrop of a study suggesting that a rape is reported every six hours. These examples highlight the local realities of the perpetuation of sexual violence, reminding us that SlutWalks are not just something fun (which they are) but also necessary for exposing sexual violence and resistance to it publicly, here, there, and everywhere.
Historic Concerns, New Roll Out
This movement is not led by media stars. Indeed, one of the most compelling facets of the SlutWalk phenomena is that it originated and is sustained because of ordinary people saying “no.” Ever heard of Hannah Altman? Nad Carranco Lechuga? Lauren Chief Elk? Oona Simonlin? Flavia Baca Hubeid? Probably not. But they were key organizers behind Slut Walks in Philadelphia, Cuernavaca, San Francisco, Helsinki and Buenos Aires (respectively). They didn’t need to follow strong leaders … because they discovered that’s what they already were.
“Big names” were irrelevant, in part, thanks to the world of social media. SlutWalk is vibrant on the Internet: it is possible to “like” almost every SlutWalk on Facebook and follow each one on Twitter. This “real time” social media means, among other things, that the mainstream press could not simply rely on the same old faces and feminist stars to get a sense of what was happening. Instead, it had to pay attention to the emergence of ordinary people who were pushing the movement into public consciousness on the Internet and rolling it out on the streets of cities around the world.
Even if the rapidity of this movement’s take-off can be attributed to Facebook pages and Twitter hashtags, the physical presence of people demonstrating in the streets goes beyond screen activism.
Showing up for the movement matters. It always has. People who march in SlutWalks are building on a long legacy of fighting against sexual violence, and the way that it burns deeply into individual, community and public consciousness.
The stories roil through history. One with which many could identify emerged posthumously from civil rights icon Rosa Parks who, in 1931, had endured attempted rape at the hands of a white male employer, according to writings found after she died in 2005. “I was ready to die but give my consent? Never, NEVER, Never,” she said. Beyond the individual silences and the condoning of sexual violence, people have been fighting back against sexual violence around the world, developing new language that identifies sexual violence as a violation of a person’s legal and human rights. The understanding of rape and sexual violence is slowly changing, even as the laws often fail to protect victims. In some cases, sexual violence is condoned, and even celebrated. The result leaves a need to publicly confront and challenge social attitudes toward sexual violence and a rape culture.
Navigating Difficult Issues
Of course, social movements are not without conflict. From April, with the first SlutWalk, to August, when I participated in SlutWalk Philadelphia, and October when SlutWalk entered New York, many people in the United States were quite critical of the burgeoning movement. The very use of the word “slut” to galvanize activism was especially contentious. For example, Crunktastic, a writer with Crunk Feminist Collective, contemplated why some women of color approached SlutWalks with ambivalence. “Here’s the source of my ambivalence: as I read the mission statement, I was struck by the righteous indignation these women had over being called slut. While that indignation is absolutely warranted, it also feels on a visceral level as though it comes from women who are in fact not used to being fully defined by negative sexual referents.”
|Of course, |
social movements are not
And, as the many authors of the Open Letter from Black Women to the SlutWalk initiated by Black Women’s Blueprint make clear, the idea of reclaiming “slut” is untenable because of the long history of assumptions about Black women’s sexual availability. SlutWalk, in their critical opinion, is not understanding or absorbing this history.
Others have been critical of the continued absence of transgender people in larger conversations of sexual violence generally, and SlutWalk in particular. Still others are decrying media attention to the scantily clad young women rather than to the significant issues of sexual violence. These critiques are not to be overlooked, but it is important to recognize that conflict is often a source of vitality in social movements.
In and beyond SlutWalks, then, these vital conversations are taking place. The movement on the ground is paying attention. In Philadelphia, queer people shared the stage and audience with straight people; trans people mixed with cis-gender people, and, African Americans, Latinas, South Asian and white people joined at all levels. None of us who spoke (the entire list of speakers is on the website) embraced the word “slut.” I said in my own talk, that this is not a word I or my people created; it is not mine to claim, reject or negotiate. But my co-speakers and I all acknowledged the importance of being present for the movement, whatever the movement is called, and to use the space — and every space — to fight back against sexual violence.
Space to Create
Time will tell if the SlutWalks are going to end up being “so very 2011” without any real future progress. But they are, for the time being, using creative openings for continuing political and cultural work. SlutWalk Austin and Austin RAGE (Radical Action for Gender Equality) are hosting a panel on the political war on women in Texas and around the United States. SlutWalk Nashville is inviting people to photograph the shoes they will wear at SlutWalk and tell the story behind them in a web-based series called My Walk, while SlutWalk Toronto now posts “My Story” on its website.
|Creative openings for |
political and cultural work
In DC, SlutWalk organizers also pulled together a “flash mob” under the slogan “prosecute, not protect” to commemorate the 17th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act. In Cuernavaca, organizers have used SlutWalk connections to interact and inform people on legislative efforts to decriminalize abortion and to push for legal recognition of femicide. SlutWalk Toronto is already planning a second demonstration for April 2012.
This dynamic is not new to feminist and social justice activism: SlutWalks are building on a long and complex history. In the 1970s, women took back the night; now, in addition to taking back the night, SlutWalkers are taking back the day.
Stephanie Gilmore is a feminist activist and assistant professor of the women’s and gender studies department at Dickinson College. For the 2011-12 academic year, she is a postdoctoral fellow in women’s studies at Duke University. She is completing “Groundswell: Grassroots Feminist Activism in Postwar America” (Routledge, 2012) and has started a new research project on how students negotiate sexual violence on residential college campuses in the United States.
Also see: Sexual Rights: Advocating for Vibrant Reframing by Juhu Thukral in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
Also see: Getting Over the (#stale) Online v Offline Debate by Amanda Marcotte in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
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