Heather Jarvis and Sonya JF Barnett: Power Walkers

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Zina Saunders / www.zinasaunders.com

Heather Jarvis and Sonya JF Barnett were chosen as Utne Reader visionaries in 2011. Each year Utne Reader puts forward its selection of world visionaries–people who don’t just concoct great ideas but also act on them.

Heather Jarvis and Sonya JF Barnett Online Extras | 2011 Visionaries Home Page

Don’t want to get raped? Watch what you wear. This is the advice a police officer gave during a safety talk at York University in Toronto in January. “I’ve been told I shouldn’t say this,” he told the crowd of students and faculty members, “[but] women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”

Sonya JF Barnett and Heather Jarvis considered the officer’s comment to be shocking evidence of cultural attitudes surrounding sexual violence and our epidemic of blaming the victim. The officer issued a public apology, but Barnett and Jarvis were not appeased. In April they organized a march called SlutWalk in Toronto, with more than 3,000 people rallying to express their outrage.

Since then, SlutWalk Toronto has inspired similar human rights marches around the world. Organizers use social media like Facebook and Twitter to plan these satellite SlutWalks, which have been held in various cities in the United States and Canada, as well as in the UK, Singapore, Mexico, India, Australia, Germany, Finland, Hong Kong, Brazil, and dozens of other sites. The signs women and men carry at the events are powerful: My clothes are not my consent. Nobody asks to be raped. Survivors have been through enough. I was wearing pants and a sweater–was it my fault too?

Jarvis, humbled and surprised by what her local protest has sparked, estimates that there have been more than 120 walks internationally, mobilizing tens of thousands of participants. “From something very small we started in Toronto, Sonya and I were shocked for it to reach our ‘hometowns’ “–South Africa, where Jarvis was born, and Argentina, where Barnett’s parents are from. “Seeing Marcha de las Putas banners there is amazing to me,” Barnett says.

Even with global support, Barnett and Jarvis have received searing criticism for their decision to attach the descriptor slut to their grassroots movement. The four-letter word has incited anger from political and religious groups and from some feminists who feel that the language harms women. “We have had every kind of response you can imagine,” says Jarvis. “We’ve had death threats.”

Barnett is quick to remind critics where their inspiration to use the word slut came from. “We weren’t the ones to choose it; it was the Toronto police officer who chose it. We just decided to take it and sling it back,” she says. “Many people think our using the word was merely a clever marketing ploy to invite controversy and media attention, but that’s not true at all. We were just a few pissed-off women, tired of being treated like second-class citizens.”

Response to the movement has indeed been huge, with SlutWalk making it into the pages of the Washington Post, Ms. Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, the Hindustan Times, and other publications, invigorating feminism with new energy.

“I have never seen so much media coverage about victim blaming and sexual violence,” Jarvis says. “Good or bad, no matter what people are saying about SlutWalk, the greatest success for me is that people are talking about these things.”

Barnett hopes the marches are just the beginning of rape culture reform. “I want to see change in our protective and judicial services,” she says. “I hope they see the power of [SlutWalk] and take a good look at opportunities to learn and to teach.”

Heather Jarvis and Sonya JF Barnett Online Extras | 2011 Visionaries Home Page

Have something to say? Send a letter to editor@utne.com. This article first appeared in the November-December 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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