by Iulia Matcovschi
She was asking for it. I thought it was consensual. It was in the air. How many times have we heard that as a defense strategy of accused sexual assaulters? One too many, if you ask me and it seems that Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis, the masterminds behind the SlutWalk movement, happen to share the same opinion; an opinion formed by years of objectification and reductionist stereotyping.
SlutWalk London, 2012
On January 24th, 2011, in a move that would be least expected from a police officer, let alone a Canadian one from Toronto; a statement was made saying that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”. What drills the cognitive dissonance even further is the fact that Constable Michael Sanguinetti, to whom this line belongs, was speaking on the issue of campus rape at Osgoode Law School, as part of the York University Safety forum. Naturally, such a statement caused quite an uproar in the press and Constable Sanguinetti apologized and vouched to not repeat the same mistake ever again. While incredibly “I got stuck in the 50s” of him, these kinds of comment reveal an underlying problem that will most likely not be remedied by administering some public shaming. They come from a place where sexual profiling and victim blaming are inherent and archaic notions still have a surprisingly strong position. Especially when in reality, linking sexual assault to clothing is simply bogus, for it not only takes places the blame on the victim and gives the aggressor a loophole; but it also defavorizes women from communities where wearing a veil is customary, yet rape is still a common occurence.
SlutWalk Berlin 2011
The event that served as the final push towards creating SlutWalk was the favorable treatment that convicted Thompson resident, Kenneth Rhodes received from Justice Robert Dewar during his sexual assault trial February 18th, 2011. Describing Rhodes as a “misguided and clumsy Don -Juan” he lowered the three year sentence that the prosecutors were asking for to a two-year house arrest and an apology letter to the victim; seemingly buying into the defense that a woman wearing a tube-top on a hot summer day means an explicit invitation to fondle her privates. He also appeared to ignore Rhodes’ admission to telling the rape victim that “it would only hurt a little in the beginning”.
As one would expect, hundreds of college professors and feminist activists have protested against this decision and asked for Justice Dewar’s resignation. What did happen was that Justice Dewar formally apologized for his comments, met with a “gender equality” expert and began pursuing “further professional development in this area as part of his commitment to become a better judge”.
SlutWalk London 2012
All this put together culminated with 3,000 people gathering on April 3rd, 2011 in Queens Park, Toronto; all united with the goal of reclaiming the word “slut” and getting out of the male dominated framework of categorizing woman based on their outfits and judging them accordingly. The SlutWalk call to action read like this: “Whether a fellow slut or simply an ally, you don’t have to wear your sexual proclivities on your sleeve: we just ask that you come. Singles, couples, parents, sisters, brothers, children, friends.” What that resulted was a dazzling kaleidoscope of outwear, everything from tank-tops to fishnets and so-called “stripper heels». More rallies followed in 2011 and 2012 in Toronto, with the phrase “still not asking for it” becoming the rally cry, being represented on posters, signs and even people’s bodies.
They say that good things come to those who wait. But waiting for justice in a system that is designed in such a way that treats you as a woman first; with the socially constructed hurdles that come with your gender; and a human being second, is like waiting for a monsoon in the middle of Sahara. The women in Toronto have publicly rejected Sanguinetti’s words and soon, Latin America and India joined them. All of those protests wanted to reinforce the idea that one could be sexually assaulted in any state of dress on undress, and targeted local authorities and local religious groups for reinforcing gender stereotypes and violence against women. Some of these protests have even morphed into permanent NGO’s, which kept working on fighting against violence against women and participated in the SlutWalk rallies that were to come.
SlutWalk New York City 2011
Of course there is no way around the criticism that surrounds this movement. There is the name, obviously. Some believe that calling yourself a slut and parading around in nothing but your underwear, is in itself derogatory and reductionists and culturally insensitive. The usual response of supporters is that since the movement is advocating for the right of women to be free of the presumption that “they were asking for it”; it is only appropriate that an amount of nakedness will be involved. My personal theory that it is not the issue of nakedness and even name that is bugging people, is the fact that women are doing it. After all, I can’t image how many protesters there will be if a men walk around naked with signs that say “DickWalk” on them. And this time, it will actually be true, on so many levels.
To continue with the personal approach, it is actually good that the movement has such a derogatory word in its name. For a very long time, the word “slut” has been inseparable from the word “whore”; and in an almost biblical sense, those who are attributed these labels are ‘beyond redemption”. But how many times do we actually take into account the etymology of a word when applying it to someone? Just about as many times as we think of etymology. Thus, putting a regular woman and the label slut together, shows the ridiculousness of the assumptions that many men and women, to be fair, make about rape victims. While SlutWalk hasn’t changed the extremely lenient legislation regarding rape; it has brought the issue to the table, and if we have learned something from history, it’s the fact that once an idea becomes adopted by the masses, it has a chance of transcending the realm of the mind. I, for one, can’t wait to see that.
images from: thelmagazine.com, slutwalktoronto.com, reddit.com