The Oxford English Dictionary describes the word “Slut” as: “a slovenly or promiscuous woman,” it’s derived from Middle English and has no known origin. The OED may be the most definitive record of the English language – but that definition is being hotly contested by a group of feminist activists based in Toronto. On April 3rd their voices were heard, thanks to the first annual SlutWalk. A protest that promised to tackle the destructive practice of victim blaming in instances of sexual assault, redefine the word “slut” and act as a counter argument to the disparaging remarks made by Toronto Constable Michael Sanguinetti. Who, at a York University event in late January, said: “if girls stopped dressing like sluts,” they could prevent being raped. His much-quoted slip of the tongue sparked a flurry of debate about sexism in the police force and the myth of the “slut” in our society.
SlutWalk was the brainchild of two Toronto based activists; Sonya JF Barnett and Heather Jarvis are both self-professed body positive feminists. Despite their collective experience neither had attempted to organize a protest on the scale of SlutWalk. With knowledge that upwards of 80% of women who are sexually assaulted do not report due to humiliation, and 51% of all Canadian women have experience at least one instance of sexual or physical assault – they knew they had to do “something”
“You don’t have to be a seasoned organizer to make change,” says organizer Sonya JF Barnett, “We felt that we’d had enough of attacks on human rights and on marginalized communities across North America this past year and we felt that enough people would feel this way too and want to join us on the streets.” As Jarvis, a York University student and sexual assault survivor, notes: “The reaction alone from students across University campuses and the dialogue generated among the general public is a good indicator that many folks felt the same way as us.”
After only six-weeks spent organizing the event – three thousand odd bodies filled the lawn at Queen’s Park. Banners with homemade slogans – scrawled in poster paint or etched in permanent markers: “Sluts R US” read some, while others were unnerving confessions – “Christmas 1984, 14 Years Old, Bundled up … did I deserve it?” The Network News trucks idled on the sidelines, reporters roved and quiet yellow-coated bike police officers stood on to the perimeter. Despite organizers asking participants to come dressed in their “slutty” finest, only a few protestors dared to don sheer tights that exposed their g-strings or traipse about in smutty rompers and roller-skates. The scene was a considerably tame, “un-slutty” one; yoga pants, jeans, spandex and steam-punk trench coats were all on display.
As people filled the grounds of the Provincial Parliament Sonya JF Barnett took to the mega-phone to give the first rousing speech of the day. Barnett whose physical slightness belies a fierce activist spirit, proudly waved a sign made by her five-year-old son (“We Love Sluts”) articulating the raison d’etre of SlutWalk: “Sexual Assault is a crime of power – it has nothing to do with the way you dress or who you are!” As the crowd roared with allegiance to this clear-headed philosophy, she asked the very simple question: “Why take back the word?” referring of course to “slut”, “because we have the power!” she cried. With a final word of encouragement and a reminder to remain peaceful … the crowd turned south prepared to make their descent to Police Headquarters on College Street. Flooding down University Avenue, the poker-faced policemen escorted the impassioned group through the streets as a Samba Squad pounded their drums as a lone trumpeter performed William Tell.
Spilling eastward along College, the crowd pooled at the foot of Metropolitan Police Headquarters. One young mother, with her infant daughter strapped to her back (bouncing with joy at the sound of the cheering crowd) and her five year old asleep in a stroller, had a smile that was contagious. “I’m here for my daughters,” she admitted, “The reasons are endless but as a victim of assault, I want to teach my kids they’re the owners of their bodies and not to be ashamed of who they are.”
Her humble sentiments were supported by a group of inspirational speakers that worked the crowd into a “shame”-shouting tizzy, at the mere mention of the insensitivity of the Metropolitan establishments. Michael Kaufman, an educator, rallied for men to take a stand and work alongside their female activists saying that, “The majority of men have not committed assault…but they have remained silent for too long.” Organizer, Heather Jarvis, discussed our “culture of rape” and the fact that dozens of women who go to the police are not initially believed. While the notable ‘Jane Doe’ called for sensitivity training for officers dealing with the assault cases. All of the speakers emphasized the simple fact that our society teaches young women how not to get raped as opposed to teaching young men not to rape.
In recent months there have been a rash of rape/assault cases across North America that have seen victim blaming at the centre of their debate. One example was the lenient ruling of a conditional sentence – two years less a day with no jail time – given to Kenneth Rhodes of Thompson, Manitoba by Judge Robert Dewar on February 24th. The evidence was indisputable but Dewar saw fit to ask the assailant to simply write a letter of apology to the victim who had feared for her life. The judge defended his ruling saying it was a case of “misunderstood signals”.
After the success of April 3rd, the movement is crossing continents. Satellite SlutWalk’s are being set up around the world! From Adelaide, to Dallas-Fort Worth, to Birmingham, England – people who are tired of the victim blaming and archaic stereotypes are stepping up and reappraising the landscape of sexual politics.
With the help of the girls of SlutWalk, we can say goodbye to “slovenly promiscuity” and hello to an age where women aren’t ashamed of their sexuality or victimized because of their sartorial choices. We’re changing the world … one slut at a time.