Toronto police constable Michael Sanguinetti thought he was offering the key to rape prevention. "I'm not supposed to say this," he told a group of students at an Osgoode Hall Law School safety forum on January 24, but to prevent being sexually assaulted, “Avoid dressing like sluts.”
Despite Sanguinetti’s subsequent written apology and promises of further professional training, the victim-blaming gaffe heard round the world sparked a movement that began in Canada but is now sweeping the United States and abroad: SlutWalks.
“We had just had enough,” said Heather Jarvis, who founded SlutWalk Toronto with friend Sonya Barnett. “It isn’t about just one idea or one police officer who practices victim blaming, it’s about changing the system and doing something constructive with anger and frustration.”
While Jarvis, 25, and Barnett, 38, initially expected only 200–300 people to show their support, upwards of 3,000 massed on the streets of Toronto on April 3 -- some wearing jeans and a T-shirt; others in outfits more appropriate for a Victoria's Secret fashion show: thigh-highs, lingerie, stilettos -- and marched to police headquarters. Their goal: to shift the paradigm of mainstream rape culture, which they believe focuses on analyzing the behavior of the victim rather than that of the perpetrator.
“The idea that there is some aesthetic that attracts sexual assault or even keeps you safe from sexual assault is inaccurate, ineffective and even dangerous,” said Jarvis. She recalled a sign at the march that read: "It was Christmas day. I was 14 and raped in a stairwell wearing snowshoes and layers. Did I deserve it too?"
Since the movement’s inception, the SlutWalk campaign has gone viral. Facebook groups have been emerging to promote satellite SlutWalks in Europe, Asia, Australia and most major US cities. Asheville, Dallas, Hartford, Boston and Rochester will host SlutWalks between now and May 7.
The ubiquity of a rape culture that attributes sexual assault to a woman’s dress or expression of sexuality (both in the court of law as well as in the court of public opinion) helps explain the movement’s widespread resonance and popularity.
In late February, a Manitoba judge condemned a rape survivor in court for wearing a tube top, no bra, high heels and makeup, which he implied had led to her sexual assault. Justice Robert Dewar called the assailant a “clumsy Don Juan” who had succumbed to “inviting circumstances.”
In 1999, Italy’s highest court ruled that a woman wearing jeans could not be raped because it is impossible to remove a pair of pants “without the collaboration of the person wearing them.”
When an 11-year-old was gang raped in Cleveland, Texas this March, a controversial New York Times article noted that the victim “dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s,” as if this were a relevant factor in the crime perpetrated against her (the Times later responded to criticism).
“If someone breaks into a house, do you blame the owner for having a house that looks appetizing?” asked Elizabeth Webb, the 24-year-old organizer of SlutWalk Dallas. “I don’t think so!”
Given Dallas’ close proximity to Cleveland, Texas and the fact that April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Webb felt it appropriate to organize SlutWalk Dallas, which will take place on April 23. A survivor herself, she feels very close to the issue.
At 18, Elizabeth Webb became a statistic. Along with one in four college women, Webb joined the rank and file of rape survivors. Like 80 percent of victims, she was sexually assaulted by someone she knew -- a close friend who drugged her at a party. Like 15 out of 16 rapists, Webb’s attacker never spent a night in jail.
Although she reported the rape the next day (which her Texas hospital required before administering a free rape examination), Webb stopped pursuing the case after succumbing emotionally in the face of the onslaught of questions acquaintances asked with raised eyebrows, questions aimed at challenging the integrity of the victim: What were you wearing? Why did you go to his party? Why did you drink?
“Sexual assault is traumatic, and to add victim blaming on top of that is damaging to the psyche,” said Webb, now 24, who only recently relinquished her sense of self-blame. “I can’t remember what I was wearing, but why weren’t they asking why he slipped something in my drink?”
Those organizing the SlutWalks are personally connected to the cause in varying degrees. Monday’s SlutWalk Orlando was put together by a feminist theory class at the University of Central Florida. Other organizers are survivors themselves.
Nicole Sullivan, 21, one of three organizers of the May 7th Boston SlutWalk, is a survivor. “But you hear people whispering and asking if you’re the right kind of survivor,” said Sullivan, referring to the Whoopi Goldberg school of thought that there is rape, and then there’s “rape-rape.”
Sullivan felt scrutinized for having embraced her own sexuality. “I was told that if I hadn’t owned a vibrator I wouldn’t have gotten raped. It was crazy what people would come up with.”
SlutWalk Toronto’s website states, “Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless if we participate in sex for pleasure or work. No one should equate enjoying sex with attracting sexual assault.”
An aim of the SlutWalk movement is to reappropriate the word "slut." “I come from a frame of mind that language is powerful, and you can also change language,” said SlutWalk founder Jarvis, using the word “queer” as an example of a word that was once strictly pejorative but is now a common sexual identifier used by the LGBT community.
The embrace of sluttiness has attracted most of the controversy surrounding the event. Posts to SlutWalk Facebook groups question whether the fishnets and chants “We’re here. We’re sluts. Get used to it!” present at SlutWalk Toronto help SlutWalk’s goals, or set the movement back. Fox News commented that there is “nothing brave” about marching for sluttiness, and a conservative blogger accused participants of being “high off attention.”
According to SlutWalk Boston co-organizer Siobhan Conners, 20, although Boston SlutWalk is expecting approximately 1,000 participants, a counter event called “Pimp Walk” has been planned to take place on the same day at the same time. Conners also finds herself removing pornographic and hateful posts from the SlutWalk Facebook page.
“Not everyone has to chant ‘I’m a slut and I’m proud,’” said Conners. “No matter how you identify, even if you don’t consider yourself a sexual person, we’d like to have anyone who is supportive of creating a more positive environment for women and believes that rape shouldn’t be permitted.”
SlutWalk organizers, both domestically and internationally, hope that the movement creates a global dialogue in which women feel comfortable discussing sexual assault without fear of blame.
“By starting this walk and talking to my friends about whether they want to help me, I’ve learned stories from my friends where I didn’t know that they had been sexually assaulted before,” said Lena Ellis, the organizer of SlutWalk Detroit. “This serves as an outlet and lets them have a voice. Having my friends open up is a big deal, and if this happens in my little circle, it can happen for a lot of other people as well.”