Walking a Fine Line: SlutWalks Mix Anti-Rape Messages with Provocative Attire

Philadelphia SlutWalk

August 6, 2011 SlutWalk held in Philadelphia

SlutWalks are going global. These protests, held in Delhi, Boston, London and many other major cities, are spreading the message that women’s clothes and sexual appetites are not an invitation to sexual assault, rape or discrimination. The protests stemmed from a Toronto policeman’s comment earlier this year: “Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”

SlutWalks have received mixed reviews from the media. Writer Rebecca Traister asserts in her New York Times article “Ladies We Have a Problem,” the underlying message conveyed by SlutWalks is an objection to the idea that “a woman who takes a variety of sexual partners or who presents herself in an alluring way is somehow morally bankrupt and asking to be hit on, assaulted, or raped…[and this objection] is right and righteous.”

Despite the assertion that a woman cannot be blamed for her own sexual assault, Traister expresses issues with the methods of the protest, questioning the value of “owning” a word with such vitriolic and misogynistic power. Echoed in other opinions, like that of online blogger, Mona Gable in “My Mixed Feelings about SlutWalks” and journalist Andrea Demeer in “Slut walks just buy into the myth,” are questions over the efficacy of such a strategy.

Demeer asserts that “sluts don’t exist. [That the word] slut is a four-letter word [and] nothing more or less than the modern equivalent of the 16th-century accusation “Witch!”…And, of course, witches weren’t real either;” she claims that we have to ignore the accusation with confidence that no woman is a slut—she is simply a human being.

Intrigued by the concept and the controversy, Vision 2020 Project Director Catherine Ormerod attended Philadelphia’s SlutWalk on August 6 to share her perspective.

I packed up my sense of optimism and hope that a small group of people can change the world.  I added to that my serious discomfort with the marquee word of the protest and my camera, and I headed off to see what I would find at last Saturday’s Philadelphia SlutWalk.

Incensed young women appropriated the policeman’s language and crafted a made-for-the-media protest against rape and victim blaming.  Much has been made of the challenging word “slut” and the outfits of the protesters. What I wanted to see was how the protest played out in the streets.  What was the ratio of street-spectacle to serious messaging?

What I saw at the Philadelphia SlutWalk were homemade signs that proclaimed, “Blame the Perpetrator not the Clothes.”  “Don’t tell me how to dress, tell them not to rape.” “Shame rapists not victims!”  “A dress does not mean yes.” One of the more poignant sights was a practically bare-chested young woman with a sign that said, “I did not wear this when I was raped.”

I saw protesters dressed in provocative clothing and stiletto heels. Others wore superhero costumes, and most–perhaps even a majority–wore flip-flops, shorts, sweatpants or jeans.  And a good percentage of the 500-plus crowd was young men.  All were united in their outrage by the victim-blaming sentiments that the policeman had voiced, but that clearly saturate our culture.

What I found at the Philadelphia SlutWalk was less about the controversial word slut, and more about young women and men drawing a line in sand and saying, “We’ve had enough of this tired conversation.  We demand that the conversation about rape and sexual assault change.”

As in other cities, the Philadelphia SlutWalk created discussions in all the media and on the street about rape, victim blaming, police training, women’s sexuality and male responsibility.  I saw young women and men finding their voices and using them powerfully, provocatively. 

What I found at the Philadelphia SlutWalk is a protest movement with messages we can all respect.

Have you attended a SlutWalk? Do you have an opinion on them? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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About equalityinsight

Vision 2020 is a national coalition of organizations and individuals united in their commitment to achieve women’s economic and social equality. Join Vision 2020 today! http://www2.drexelmed.edu/vision2020giftsonline/Individual.aspx
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