How short does a woman’s skirt need to be to justify rape? It sounds like an idiotic question, but victims of sexual assault are regularly asked what they were wearing, what time of night they were walking home, and if they had been drinking. Now protest marches called SlutWalks are bringing attention to an epidemic of victim blaming.
The first SlutWalk took place in Toronto in April, in response to a police officer who told the audience at a safety talk, “I’ve been told I shouldn’t say this, [but] women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” The Toronto march drew 3,000 women and men, outraged at the culture of blame perpetuated by their local precinct. Since April, there have been more than 120 SlutWalks around the world—in Singapore, Mexico, India, Australia, Germany, Hong Kong, Brazil, South Africa, and more—with tens of thousands of participants.
Much of the media surrounding SlutWalk focuses on the fishnets and deliberately saucy outfits some participants wear and the divisiveness that using the term “slut” has caused within the feminist movement. But Heather Jarvis—cofounder, with Sonya JF Barnett, of the first SlutWalk—believes using the term highlights the importance of language in the fight against sexual violence. In an interview, she said:
One thing that I think has been missing from conversations about rape culture and victim blaming for a long time has been language. People wouldn’t be blamed and shamed as much as they are without the language people use against each other. We really need to look at that. Whether it’s “she asked for it,” or name calling, or degrading ideas about who deserves what and what you’re worth. So, we wanted to put language front and center and talk about it.
SlutWalk came to our hometown of Minneapolis on October 1, with the battle cry “No means no, yes means yes!” following marchers across the Mississippi River. To me, it wasn’t the provocative clothes that stood out, and the word “slut” wasn’t distracting. Most powerful were the signs carried by the survivors of sexual violence—some just kids when they were assaulted—and the fierce, unified support of their fellow walkers.