SlutWalks: Harming the Cause or Providing an Outlet?

[Editor's Note: This post was written by Cindy Kok, IMOW's summer programs and exhibitions volunteer.]

SlutWalk Chicago, June 4, 2011 from Wikimedia

“I'm not supposed to say this,” Michael Sanguinetti said to a group of students at an Osgoode Hall Law School safety forum on January 24, 2011. “[But] women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” Little did the Toronto police constable know, his misguided rape-prevention advice would incite a furious backlash that took form in international SlutWalks, still being organized almost half a year after his offhanded comment.

The first SlutWalk Toronto—founded by activist Heather Jarvis and York University alumna Sonya Barnett—marched on April 3. While the organizers were expecting perhaps 300 people to participate, more than 3,000 supporters showed up, dressed both provocatively and in “normal” daywear, carrying signs that read There is no such thing as an invitation for rape and Slut Pride. Although Sanguinetti had issued a written apology, the issue had outgrown the outrage that stemmed from a policeman’s careless words, and morphed into to a worldwide movement to end the practice of placing responsibility for sexual assault on the victim, as well as to reclaim the word “slut.”

So is it possible that this provocatively-monikered movement will shock new life into the cause well-respected groups like Take Back the Night are already fighting for? While most people can agree that a culture that blames victims (and their way of dressing) for rape is one that needs reform, SlutWalk’s second goal seems to have sparked even more debate and controversy than Sanguinetti’s original statement. As satellite SlutWalks mobilized, first in North America then spreading to other continents, so did commentators, offering everything from enthusiastic support to outright condemnation of the so-called “SlutWalkers.”

For example, Kirsten Powers, a columnist and political analyst, criticized the goal as “not just naïve but also harmful to women,” arguing that the SlutWalks are out of sync with the typical “counterculturalism” of feminism and instead “simply [imitate] a culture that objectifies and hypersexualizes women and girls.”

Others, such as journalist Germaine Greer of the UK’s The Telegraph, say that women are simply reclaiming their right to be dirty (the historical use of “slut” was connected to kitchen maids, denoting “a woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance”) which men already enjoy and “overthrow the tyranny of perpetual cleaning.”

Personally, I’m more inclined to agree with the argument that “reclaiming” the pejorative “slut” would not only be difficult (consider the cases of the word “queer” used in the LGBT community or the “N-word” used in the African-American community) but ultimately unhelpful in empowering women. For those in a “privileged position of relative power,” as Argentinean feminist Aura Bogado blogs, it may feel “harmless to call [themselves] ‘sluts.’” However, for women trapped in the abusive situations—and even “women of color,” Bogado says—such a serious issue cannot be watered down to Greer’s image of SlutWalks as an “endless ‘vicars and tarts’ street party” that’s “fun.”

Despite what critics believe to be misguided or naïve intentions, SlutWalks continue to be scheduled around the world, and organizers in Toronto have planned another SlutWalk for April of 2012, perhaps hoping to make this an annual event. With little sign of dying any time soon, SlutWalks seem to have made a permanent impact in the women’s rights movement, although whether or not that impact is positive remains to be seen.

[Slutwalk Toronto]
[Huffington Post: "Slutwalks Sweep the Nation"]
[New York Post: "Slut Walk: Feminist Folly"]
[Aura Blogando: "SlutWalk: A Stroll Through White Supremacy"]
[The Telegraph: "These SlutWalk women are simply fighting for their right to be dirty"]