Slutwalks – Grassroots Uprising Against Sexism

by Ona Tzinger
On Jan. 24, Toronto police officer Michael Sanguinetti stood before a group of students at York University and volunteered his misguided assessment of the route to rape prevention, stating: “to prevent victimization … women should avoid dressing like sluts.”
Sanguinetti couldn’t have anticipated the backlash that followed this unbridled display of sexism in remarks that shed light on the backward mentality around sexual violence against women among police officers in the 21st century. His comments sparked a wave of grassroots demonstrations known as “slutwalks,” which have blossomed in recent months into a global phenomenon linking feminists of all stripes.
 The original march, “Slutwalk Toronto,” was organized by a group of five women who expected a modest turnout but were made aware of the latent anger about the situation of women when nearly 3000 came out to march. Since the initial action, marches drawing thousands have spread successfully to cities in Europe, Asia, Australia, South America, and in nearly 45 cities in the United States and continue to build momentum and gain attention among youth and adults through Facebook and word of mouth.
The organizers of the original Toronto march have described the action as a response to victim blaming in cases of sexual violence. They noted: “The idea that there is some aesthetic that attracts sexual assault or even keeps you safe from [it] … is inaccurate, ineffective and even dangerous.” March participants recognize that such thinking magnifies the suffering of sexual assault victims by suggesting that they and not their attackers are the real culprits.
People of all gender identifications, sexual orientations, ethnicities, classes, religions, shapes, and sizes are invited to join the struggle and “spread the word that those who experience sexual assault are not the ones at fault, without exception.”
Some people are asking how the words of one police officer could have triggered such a response. The answer is very likely that people realize that his sentiments are representative not just of an individual opinion but of a systemic problem in which women are routinely scapegoated for sexual assaults against them and shamed for being open and comfortable with their sexuality.
Certainly, Sanguinetti’s comment is not an isolated incident. Police officers and others in the criminal “justice” system have a history of blaming the victim in cases of rape, and this is only part of the anti-victim culture around rape that has begun to resurface since essential gains made in the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in four college women report surviving rape or attempted rape since their 14th birthday, and nearly 70% of rape survivors know their attacker. Despite these sobering statistics, according to an Amnesty International survey, about 1/3 of people think women are partly to blame for being raped if they were drunk, had been flirting, or were dressed provocatively at the time of the incident, suggesting that institutionalized victim-blaming is guiding mainstream thinking. In this climate, it is no surprise that women are angry and are standing up to demand their rights.
These successful actions are encouraging for seasoned and newly politicizing feminists and indicate that women are ready for a real fight.
Although not the primary intention of the uprisings, the character of the slutwalks raises important theoretical questions about the direction of the ongoing struggle for women’s rights. Most likely because the demonstrations were born rather quickly via Facebook, the politics of the actions have yet to fully develop. However, the actions have opened up an important space for feminists across the globe to begin a serious dialogue about these issues.
The organizers of the original march have said that claiming the word “slut” for themselves was one of their driving objectives. And, while people are invited to come dressed as they please, most of the photos that have been circulated feature young women clad in corsets, fishnets, and stilettos, with signs that read: “I’m a slut; don’t assault me!” or “Slut Pride!” While perhaps the most visible aspect of the marches, this is not the whole picture. Some participants and supporters of the actions have expressed that they are fighting against sexual assault and institutional victim-blaming and not participating in a third-wave project of re-appropriation.
While admittedly, using the sensational title “slutwalk” has had some effective marketing appeal and may have drawn new layers of people and media attention, the term “slut” is rife with patriarchal and sexist ideology. Thus, this aspect of the actions has garnered substantial and legitimate critique among feminists. By claiming the word “slut,” as women, we fail to break out of the Madonna/whore dichotomy that was imposed on us. It seems that carving out an authentic and organic sexuality for ourselves would be more effective in achieving true ownership of our sexuality.
Why not abandon it all together and call out the system that allows for terms like “slut,” “bitch,” and “whore” to become so commonplace in mainstream culture that a police officer would think it was logical (a) to call a woman a slut and (b) to excuse sexual assault and (c) to go so far as to blame the victim of sexual assault because of how she was dressed?
The word “slut,” which appeared in Middle English around the late 1400s, meant a person or thing that was dirty or slovenly. In time, it was used to describe a woman of low character. There was a drastic increase in the use of the word soon after the end of World War I as women were gaining autonomy and threatening what used to be male-dominated realms of society. Why would we want to reclaim a word that limits our mobility and chides us for enjoying freedom including sexual freedom?
Some modern self-defining feminists have argued that they stand by the word because it’s not problematic if it is used to describe the behavior of men and women. However, the word “slut” is inherently sexist. Notably, there is no equivalent for the promiscuous sexual behavior of a man except the marked category of “manslut,” which leaves us to believe that without adding “man,” slut automatically refers to a woman. In fact, there is hardly a concept for a “manslut,” a term which is often welcomed by men as recognition and approval of their masculine prowess.
It should also be noted that while reclaiming the word “slut” might sit well with certain communities of women, it is quite a different experience to be called a slut as white woman of privilege than for women of color who are routinely portrayed in Western imagination and popular culture as over-sexualized. Women of color have a different historical experience with the word “slut” because they were once the sexual property of white men.
When we examine the history of the American women’s movement, we can see many schisms along ethnic lines. One example is the largely white birth-control movement of the early 1900s, spearheaded by Margaret Sanger. This fight was met with skepticism among women of color because the movement failed to conduct a critical analysis of the history of forced sterilization of women of color in the U.S. Only when the movement realized that true reproductive freedom looked different for different kinds of women, could it be successful.
In this same way now, it is important as feminists that we recognize that the plight of all women is not the same. While it may be easy for women of privilege, including white women, to feel empowered while claiming for themselves an open and “slutty” sexuality, we are not living in a void, and our actions reverberate most strongly among women of color who bear the brunt of institutionalized sexual violence and victim blaming. Further, for hundreds of thousands of women who are trapped in the sex trade, who are primarily women of color, the postmodern idea of self-identifying as a slut would likely be uncomfortable.
By claiming that as women we are individuals whose individual choices matter and should be acknowledged, we must not mask the fact that as women our choices are highly limited within a patriarchal structure. We must not give ourselves a false illusion of freedom of choice while never tackling the deeper systemic issues that limit our choices and our actions to begin with.
Lastly, by attempting to reclaim the word “slut,” we fail to unmask it for the sexist construct that it is. Why recognize that there is even such a thing as a slut by claiming proudly that “we are all sluts?” Let’s dump the word, and take back our sexuality with words that were not imposed on us! Let’s recognize that as women we are more than merely our sexuality!
That said, the grassroots uprisings we are witnessing around the globe are an important development because they indicate that women and their allies are ready to fight institutional sexism. They represent an important break from events such as “Take Back the Night,” which reinforce the victimization of women by presenting police officers as our saviors and protectors.
The slutwalk phenomenon has provided the action that will now develop our knowledge. We encourage people to participate in slutwalks and in the development of stronger, more empowering feminist politics with slutwalk participants. There are slutwalks scheduled for Philadelphia on June 18, San Francisco on June 19, New York City on Aug. 20, Washington, D.C., on Aug. 13, and for many other cities. Please visit http://www.slutwalktoronto.com/satellite for more information.
> This article was originally published in the June 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.