'A dress is not a yes'

By Hazel Schaeffer, RIchard Raya and Lily Alexander

I was 12.” That is all the small, neon pink sign said, grasped tightly in the hands of a middle-age man. Among the swarms of people gathered in Minneapolis last Saturday for SlutWalk, the message of his sign became quickly, and painfully, apparent. Others boasted signs with more playful slogans, like, “Think our granny panties keep us safe?” or “The right to bear arms, legs, tummy and breasts without fear of rape,” but the resounding message of all these signs, playful or not, was clear: no-one deserves to be raped. Plain clothed to topless, dressed in outfits ranging from corsets to robot suits, over 600 people marched in SlutWalk Minneapolis, according to event organizers. Minneapolis is the latest city to host this international phenomenon, which has also made its way to Berlin, Cape Town, Delhi, and Mexico City, as well as across the United States. SlutWalk originated in Toronto as a reaction to a police officer’s suggestion to a group of students that they should “avoid dressing like sluts” to prevent rape. Beth Johnson, communications coordinator for SlutWalk Minneapolis, said that moving this blame from the victim to the rapist was one of the principle objectives of SlutWalk. “The main [goal] is to end victim blaming and place the blame on the only person who can truly prevent the rape, and that is the rapist,” Johnson said. With its controversial flare and lively atmosphere, SlutWalk provided a stark contrast to other sexual assault protests, such as the candle-light vigils of Take Back the Night rallies. While organizers say they don’t want to alienate the many opposed to reclaiming the word slut, the controversy and sex appeal have increased both media attention and participation. Twenty-five Mac students were among the throng at Hennepin Bluffs Park, located along the riverfront in downtown Minneapolis. The group included all manner of people, with many men, children and older people mixed in with the young women. Johnson said that SlutWalk Minneapolis organizers tried to reach out to groups of people who have historically been excluded by other movements. “We looked at the criticism given to previous walks, and made a decision to really connect with disenfranchised individuals in our community and make sure they knew they were welcomed and valued,” Johnson said. While the setting was beautiful and the crowd diverse, the group encountered little more than joggers and passing cars due to the isolated route. Jon Cole ’12 expressed skepticism about its effectiveness as a tool for social change. “I do find it a little frustrating that we’re not really walking into the city, and delivering the message to people. I can see how the event is good for actual survivors, but it just feels that with this route we’re not really being seen,” Cole said. Reclaiming ‘slut’ The movement’s use of the word “slut” has been a point of criticism. The Huffington Post recently posted “An Open Letter from Black Women to SlutWalk Organizers,” in which hundreds articulated their problems with the use of the word “slut.” They urge organizers to re-label SlutWalk to make the movement more inclusive to a diversity of peoples. “We don’t have the privilege to walk through the streets of New York City, Detroit, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, L.A. etc., either half-naked or fully clothed self-identifying as ‘sluts’ and think that this will make women safer in our communities an hour later, a month later, or a year later,” the letter stated. In spite of these criticisms, Wright insists that sexual assault requires language that reflects its gravity. “The language around sexual assault isn’t sugar-coated. It’s real and it’s gross and horrible,” Wright said. “I believe that when we as a society say, ‘Oh that’s a horrible word; I don’t want to be called that,’ we’re letting abusers know which button they can push to hurt us. I refuse to give them that power,” Johnson added. Mollie Beebe ’13, co-chair of FIA-STARSA, Mac’s feminist organization, said she personally struggled with whether or not to support the movement. But Beebe emphasized that while she struggles with the issue of reclaiming the word, she said she believes strongly in SlutWalk’s overall goal: “that sexual violence is never acceptable. ” Publicity through controversy International SlutWalks have been surrounded by media hype since their onset in April 2011. Although Wright and Johnson — organizers of the D.C. and Minneapolis SlutWalks respectively — both agree that the language of the movement has regrettably deterred some people from participating, they argue that “slut” has been an effective way to propel the movement into the spotlight. “It was a great marketing tool,” Wright said. “It’s the reason SlutWalk has become such a huge phenomenon.” Wright and Johnson said that while the media has been integral to its popularity, its spread of generalizations have been a barrier to the movement. They say they are especially concerned over the media coverage of events which emphasize provocative outfits over the anti-sexual assault message. In fact, Heather Jarvis, co-founder of the original SlutWalk Toronto event, said she now asks that journalists agree to express the diversity of people and clothing before she agrees to an interview. “There have been countless media articles that refer to SlutWalks as a woman-only rally, which they are not, and one at which women only dress provocatively, which they do not,” Jarvis said. Yet many women do wear revealing clothes to SlutWalks, providing a new angle to the anti-rape movement: sex appeal. “One of the reasons they are getting all this attention is because they are scantily clad,” said Corie Hammers, Macalester Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. “Would a rally full of butch dikes or trans individuals get the same response? Of course it’s not. It hasn’t.” However, Hammers said she is supportive of their use of clothes. “One thing I appreciate about movements today is that it’s exaggerating and putting it in peoples faces that women should be able to wear whatever the heck they want. It’s reinforcing that we see women just as sex and it’s really putting that in our faces.” Keith Edwards, Director of Campus Life and advocate of men’s potential in preventing sexual assault, said that he is not concerned that the media has put women in the spotlight in its SlutWalk coverage, effectively neglecting the male role. “We also know that when men get involved in anti-sexism or sexual assault prevention work we get a disproportionate amount of attention and praise for doing the work that women have been doing for decades — and often have been ignored or even demonized,” Edwards said. A new movement SlutWalk is also noteworthy in that it is inspiring young people previously uninvolved with social activism. Charles Kilian ’13, co-chair of Macalester feminist group FIA-STARSA, said that feminism has previously been accompanied by negative connotations for young adults, “especially … of the bra-burning, man-hating, lesbian stereotype.” Killian draws the contrast that today’s movement is largely organized and attended by youth, providing an experience for emerging feminists independent of previous movements. The movement has also been unique in its ability to provide a space where survivors can openly discuss their experiences without having to fit in a standard mold, Wright said. One woman that Wright talked to said she had never been able to fit in with other survivors in the group counseling sessions she attended because she was constantly bombarded with messages of victimization and the need to rebuild. “Honestly, I’m just pissed off and wanted to bitch about it,” the survivor said. “Many survivors found this spunky nature in the SlutWalk environment where they could really speak their opinion without feeling like they had to fit into a mold,” Wright said. Slut Walk provided not only a place for survivors and supporters to convene but also a place where those interested in raising awareness of social justice issues surrounding sexual assault could find li
ke-minded people. Amanda Ruiz works for a non-profit law firm called Gender Justice, and was at SlutWalk to promote an upcoming screening of a movie, called Miss Representation, which discusses gender discrimination. “I mean, I’m also just kind of using the film as an excuse to attend SlutWalk,” said Ruiz. “I really like it so far. It’s fun. But it was weird– I asked my friends to come with me, but they were just too uncomfortable with the whole “slut” thing, I think, so I came alone.”