From Legal Defense to Rallying Cry: How ‘SlutWalks’ Became a Global Movement

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REUTERS/Mark Blinch

To be called a “slut” is no rare occurrence. Women are so labeled for sleeping with a man or for refusing to, for flirting or for simply attracting flirtation. Men call women sluts, women call women sluts, sometimes women even call themselves sluts.

That type of language does damage — the potential for which became apparent at a student safety lecture at York University’s law school in Toronto in January. At the session, members of York security and the Toronto Police Service doled out community safety tips, including Constable Michael Sanguinetti’s suggestion that female students could avoid sexual assault by not dressing like sluts.

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Immediately afterward, the law school’s students and staff demanded an apology from the Toronto Police. Though the officer who made the remarks apologized and was reprimanded (but stayed on duty), his comment sparked a protest movement that has since gone global. In April, thousands of women took part in the first “SlutWalk” in Toronto, demonstrating against the notion that rape victims should somehow be held responsible for their assault, and rallying to re-appropriate the term “slut.”

“Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless of if we participate in sex for pleasure or work,” wrote the organizers of the movement on the SlutWalk Toronto website. “No one should equate enjoying sex with attracting sexual assault.”

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Since the first walk in Toronto in April, 20 additional marches have taken place in cities throughout Canada and the U.S. — with others planned in additional U.S. cities and in the U.K. and Australia — the movement having gathered steam largely online through Facebook and Twitter.

It seems obvious that women who are raped should not be blamed for being victimized. But the idea that sometimes sluts get what they “deserve” is deep-seated in our culture — even in the judicial system, and even among journalists who are supposed to behave as impartial witnesses.

For example, in March, an 11-year-old girl was brutally gang-raped by 18 men in an abandoned trailer in East Texas; in reporting the story for the New York Times, James C. McKinley Jr. felt it necessary to include in descriptions of the child — who was taken to an abandoned trailer by a 19-year-old man and sexually assaulted under threat of beating — that local residents said “she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground.”

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In February, in a case in Canada, in which the defendant was convicted of rape by a Manitoba court, Justice Robert Dewar decided not to give the rapist any jail time, saying that his victim’s attire and flirtatious conduct on the night of the attack sent signals that “sex was in the air.” Reported the Winnipeg Free Press:

Dewar called [rapist Kenneth] Rhodes a “clumsy Don Juan” who may have misunderstood what the victim wanted when he forced intercourse along a darkened highway outside Thompson in 2006.

Rhodes and a friend met the 26-year-old woman and her girlfriend earlier that night outside a bar under what the judge called “inviting circumstances.” Dewar specifically noted the women were wearing tube tops with no bra, high heels and plenty of makeup.

“They made their intentions publicly known that they wanted to party,” said Dewar.

The decision triggered public uproar and an investigation by the Canadian Judicial Council. Dewar has since agreed not to preside over any future criminal cases of a sexual nature. That outcome suggests that publicly calling out instances of victim-blaming, or “slut-shaming” as the SlutWalk organizers call it, can have a lasting positive impact and help change the culture — whether in courtrooms or in the sleek corridors of the Grey Lady’s offices.

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SlutWalk’s goal is to “take back” the word and reduce its power. “The word ‘slut’ is an act of violence. Not just metaphorically. It gives permission for people to rape us, and the person who wields it doesn’t have to lift a finger,” said Jaclyn Friedman, a feminist activist who led the most recent SlutWalk event in Boston on May 7. “It sends a signal: this one is fair game. Have at her. No one will blame you.

The organization’s website has a list of cities with participating SlutWalks, which are programmed throughout the summer.