It’s often said that all it takes is a few words to spark a movement. A word, a phrase – sometimes they’re all that are needed to unite people, force them to take a stand, and change the course of history. On January 24th, 2011, a Toronto police officer from York University did just that when he made the flippant comment that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”. Cue the Slutwalk.
Those were the words that sparked a movement – the Slutwalk movement, which has exploded in popularity in the last two years. Cities all across the United States, Canada, and abroad are grabbing hold of the idea, and starting Slutwalks of their own. Some have gone so far to call it the most successful feminist movement in the last 20 years.
Founders Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis organized the first Slutwalk in Toronto back in April 2011, shortly following the police officer’s comments earlier that year. In the words of co-founder, Heather Jarvis, “We had just had enough… it isn’t about just one idea or one police officer who practices victim blaming, it’s about changing the system and doing something constructive with anger and frustration.” Jarvis hoped that at least 100 people would show up at the first rally. She never expected a crowd of over 3,000.
I’m going to be honest – my first impressions of Slutwalks were not all that positive. Slutwalks? Really? How could such a condescending name be connected to such a good cause? How is it actually promoting feminist ideals?
In the words of the founders,
Being assaulted isn’t about what you wear; it’s not even about sex; but using a pejorative term to rationalize inexcusable behaviour creates an environment in which it’s okay to blame the victim. Historically, the term ‘slut’ has carried a predominantly negative connotation. Aimed at those who are sexually promiscuous, be it for work or pleasure, it has primarily been women who have suffered under the burden of this label. And whether dished out as a serious indictment of one’s character or merely as a flippant insult, the intent behind the word is always to wound, so we’re taking it back. “Slut” is being re-appropriated. – Slutwalk Toronto
It’s about changing mainstream ideas regarding rape and rape culture. It’s about taking back the word. It’s about ending the “what was she wearing?” comments. That she was “she was asking for it”. It was about giving women a platform to fight back, and correct the historical misconceptions. It was about putting the blame back where it rightfully belongs – on the perpetrators themselves. To drive home the point, many Slutwalk participants come wearing only scantily-clad clothing, as a way of nonverbally stating that nothing – your clothing, makeup, or behavior – should be justification for sexual assault.
I’m not going to lie – the name still does leave me with an uneasy feeling. However, I’m starting to think that that’s the point. It’s not supposed to be a comfortable fit. It’s supposed to be something that you have to struggle to come to terms with – it’s all part of redefining the word. It’s the only way to change deeply ingrained cultural beliefs. It’s not supposed to be easy. It got me thinking of one of my favorite quotes, written by a woman named Rosie Hardy: “The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”
I think that the same applies to our society – the mere idea of Slutwalks themselves are meant to propel us into discomfort. They’re meant to give us new perspectives, and force us to think about rape in a different light. That’s the point. Cultural misconceptions regarding rape and women’s clothing have prevailed for too long. It’s time to change the conversation.
One Slutwalk at a time.