SlutWalk: They Walked the Walk, Now They’re Talking the Talk

By Ljudmila Petrovic

Photo: Bai Yin

“Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”

This quote by the Toronto Police Service’s Const. Michael Sanguinetti sparked public outrage in February of last year. In response, SlutWalk Toronto emerged, and with the rising attention that this movement received, similar chapters emerged across Canada. The widely covered SlutWalk Vancouver was considered a great success by organizers, bringing nearly 2000 participants to the streets, and drawing support from local organizations such as Pivot Legal Society.

The main concept addressed by SlutWalk is that of sex-shaming and victim-blaming in not only rape, but across all forms of sexual assault. The argument is that people (mainly, but not exclusively, women) should be able to dress or act however they want, without violent victimization occurring under the pretense that they were at fault. SlutWalk fights the common misconception that victims somehow ask to be assaulted through their appearance (i.e. “dressing like a slut”) or their behavior (e.g. consuming alcohol or drugs).

The controversy caused by Sanguinetti’s quote was all but overshadowed by the use of the word “slut” in the movement’s title: organizers meant it as a re-appropriation of a stigmatizing and offensive word, but many opposed its use. What was intended to be a rally and march to address issues surrounding sexual assault became a discussion of stigmatization. Just how strong can a single word be? Is it possible to redefine that word? And, most importantly, how should the sexual stigma that comes with that word be approached? A year has passed since the SlutWalk and, this time around, Vancouver’s organizers decided to take a different approach with SlutTALK. The event consisted of two parts: a film screening and an “unconference.” The former took place on May 15th and was an evening of various clips regarding sex-shaming and victimization, with audience discussion about each clip. The “unconference” deviates from the conventional conference format of participant facilitation and focus; the audience decides the direction of the discussion.

One of the topics of discussion is a name change, with the potential of dropping the word “slut” from the title. Natasha Sanders-Kay, one of the original organizers of SlutWalk Vancouver, acknowledges that there has been a lot of controversy about the title and that many believe that the word “slut” carries a lot of sexual stigma. Sanders-Kay also notes that changing the name could neutralize the message and make it less powerful.

Hilla Kerner, a member of the collective of Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, praises the movement for bringing attention to the issue of victim-blaming, but believes that there was not enough gender specification; she sees this as an issue of male violence against women and doesn’t think that this is given due address by SlutWalk and SlutTALK. “Sexual assault is not something solely done by men to women”, reads SlutWalk’s mission statement. “Women are most often targets and men are most often perpetrators, but all genders are affected.”

As for the use of “slut” in the title, Kerner sees it as a reinforcement of women’s inequality rather than an empowerment. She stresses that the word was never used by women, or in order to empower women; rather, men have always used it as a form of oppression. “There is no reclaiming that word”, she says of SlutWalk’s reasoning. “It was never ours”. SlutTALK’s facilation of conversation on this, however, is useful and a good political move, according to Kerner.

Another purpose of SlutTALK is to reflect on the successes and faults of last year’s SlutWalk. The bulk of the movement is made up of current or recent students, and Sanders-Kay believes there should be outreach to more marginalized groups — such as sex workers — and not only those that have had the opportunity for education. She believes that some of these groups would benefit the most from this movement, but not all of them have been able to get involved. Furthermore, the size of last year’s march made conversation difficult to facilitate.

The expression “There is no such thing as bad publicity” seems to ring true in the case of SlutWalk. The decision on the use of the word “slut” is a question of varying approaches to feminism, but the controversy has brought to attention not only the movement, but also its cause.