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Shameless thoughts on SlutWalk

June 21st, 2011     by Team Shameless     Comments

On Sunday, April 3, 2011, women gathered en masse at Queen’s Park before marching to Toronto Police Headquarters on College Street in a protest that’s been called everything from inspired and exceptional to ignorant and exclusive: SlutWalk.

If you still haven’t heard about it, please visit the official website for the Toronto walk and/or check out some of the news media’s coverage here (G&M), here (The Star), or here (CBC).

Essentially, in response to a police officer’s comment that if women don’t want to be raped, they shouldn’t dress like sluts, SlutWalk was born. Since the first walk happened in Toronto, SlutWalks have sprung up and taken place internationally (for a SlutWalk near you, look here).

SlutWalk is positioned as a protest to take back the word “slut” from its traditional use as a degrading, misogynist slur and reclaim it as an empowering self-imposed label denoting pride and power over one’s sexuality. Simultaneously the Walk calls attention to the police and media’s consistent victim blaming and ignorance of the culture of violence we live in, winning it well deserved attention and inspiring numerous, also well deserved critiques:

That it is a movement predominantly by and for white women, excluding women of colour

That it focuses too narrowly on one aspect of sexual assault

That it positions “slut” as separate and distinct from the multiple and intersecting ways language is leveled against women

There have also been fairly brainless critiques that only serve to attack feminism and call attention away from the very valid critiques linked to above. (Wente anyone?)

Here at Shameless, we have had our own ongoing conversation about/critique of SlutWalk, which includes and is appreciative of the above critiques (Wente excepted). Some on the editorial team attended the walk (and later regretted it); others decided to actively not attend (and later regretted it); and others remained on the fence. All of us, however, had a lot to say and as we talked and emailed about it, we got sandy.

Some of us, like those involved in the Community Solidarity Network, wished that the SlutWalk organizers had reached out to connect with (and benefit from) this immense collective of folks and resources (who are not, incidentally, a fringe group of anarchists).

Some of us felt that a more nuanced understanding of the effect the police presence might have on event attendees (and prospective attendees) could have increased the number of participants, and also decreased the anxiety felt by many as a result of this presence. Many people in Toronto (especially in the wake of the G20) have been assaulted by police, so taking a cooperative stance with them reinforces this system of oppression and silences their lived experience as assault victims. Additionally, there are factors intrinsic to the police system that are oppressive and cannot be addressed simply through training. The input of the CSN could have highlighted these issues affecting participants’ physical and emotional safety.

With regards to creating a more inclusive space, while no event can be responsible for every person in attendance, putting things like “this march is sex-worker positive” or “if you want to be a spectator, please do so from the sidelines” will mean that fewer people who stigmatize sex work, or who just want to gawk, will be likely to show up. There are many approaches to ensuring safe inclusion, such as making the space women and trans only, providing ASL interpretation and guaranteeing wheelchair accessibility. These are just a few of the thoughts that came up in our editorial discussions in the wake of the Walk.

Another was how SlutWalk seemed divorced from the larger issues of violence against women, maintaining a narrow focus on addressing slut-shaming while avoiding pointing fingers at the roots of this problem: fighting systemic oppression, protecting funding for public programs, resisting patriarchy and insisting that movements that challenge violence against women remain anti-racist and queer and trans positive. This kind of intersecting framework helps ensure that the political change extends beyond a one-issue march, motivating change within individuals and giving them concrete avenues to pursue that change.

We know that this is asking a lot, but feminist activism is hard work. Luckily, this work does not have to be completed in isolation. As we mulled over the above critiques and wondered about the resources that could have helped SlutWalk address some of these shortcomings, one exemplary event kept coming up in our conversations: Take Back The Night.

This past September, Toronto’s TBTN celebrated its 30-year anniversary (the movement internationally is approximately 35 years old), with thousands of women and trans people gathering to march through the streets, calling attention to the fact that women and trans people united can resist and end violence.

When it comes to violence against women and trans people, the more we can get together and draw energy from one another on what can be a very meaningful and emotional issue, the better. It’s important though, that when we do get together, we draw the connections between all of these struggles and try to not diminish the experiences of one another. TBTN is a fantastic example of an event that has undergone critiques, assimilated suggestions, and come back each year bigger, stronger, more inclusive, and more political. While provocative clothing and explicit language (in addition to an admirable political message) garnered SlutWalk immense media attention, TBTN is equally if not more in need of attention and celebration as one of the loudest ongoing protests for violence against women and trans people.

At Shameless, we are very happy about SlutWalk’s emergence as a blossoming event and can’t wait to watch and support it as it develops politically and becomes a more representative space for combating police and public dismissal of assault victims. Part of building movements for change is learning from one another and it is in this spirit that we write this post.

Since TBTN is only a few months away, what better focal point to continue the conversation and, just as importantly, keep up the momentum that SlutWalk so excellently inspired, than by reviewing and revelling in the history of those that came before and those that stand alongside.

As a start, check out this video by Las Perlas del Mar films reflecting on the 30-year history of Toronto’s TBTN march.

Tags: activist report, sexuality

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