Walking to say we’ve had enough

May 5, 2011

Madeline Burrows and Natalia Tylim look at why protests against sexual violence and victim-blaming are spreading across Canada, the U.S. and beyond.

TORONTO POLICE constable Michael Sanguinetti didn't intend to unleash an international movement when he told a group of Osgoode Hall Law School students on January 24 that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized."

But Sanguinetti's words struck a nerve, first with thousands of Canadians who organized and participated in the first of many demonstrations against sexual violence, under the name "SlutWalk." The idea spread like wildfire in Canada and beyond--SlutWalks have since been organized in over 30 U.S. cities, including Boston, San Diego, St. Louis, Ottawa, Washington D.C., Denver and Seattle, and internationally in Amsterdam, Britain, New Zealand and Australia.

They have gained such immense popularity because, as the Toronto Facebook page for SlutWalk says, when it comes to sexual violence and victim-blaming: "WE'VE HAD ENOUGH!"

The Toronto police attempted to isolate the anger at Sanguinetti's comment. Sanguinetti apologized, and Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair said he was "inexperienced" and "said something stupid." But Sanguinetti isn't one bad apple--his comments reflect a systemic problem in police forces in Canada, the U.S., and elsewhere.

Marching against sexist victim-blaming in Toronto
Marching against sexist victim-blaming in Toronto (Anton Bielousov)

This isn't the first time Toronto police have come under fire on the issue of sexual assault. In 1998, Jane Doe won a case against the police force when a judge ruled she was used as bait to capture a serial rapist. According to Doe, now an activist who spoke at the Toronto Slut Walk, "In 2007, I was paid by the Toronto Police Services Board to monitor their sexual assault training for two weeks, and the course is riddled with sexist and racist myths and attitudes about rape. I produced an assessment for them, and it quickly disappeared."

So this was no fluke--Sanguinetti's comment is just the most public display of the unacceptable behavior and ideas that permeate police culture and practice.

His words also outraged activists, who planned the Toronto SlutWalk--it drew 3,000 people, far exceeding their expectations. As organizer Heather Jarvis explains, the demonstrations are not "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." She adds, "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."

The mainstream media, on the other hand, have focused much of their coverage on sensationalizing the name of these protests--Boston Metro, a free daily newspaper, featured an article on a planned Boston protest with the headline "Calling all sluts," decontextualizing the name from its political purpose.

But these demonstrations aren't about using a sexist word, but are a refreshing and much-needed response to the sexual violence women that experience daily.

As the mission statement on the SlutWalk Toronto Facebook page explains:

We are tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result. 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...

WE ARE COMING TOGETHER. Not only as women, but as people from all gender expressions and orientations, all walks of life, levels of employment and education, all races, ages, abilities and backgrounds.

THE U.S. backdrop to the rise of the SlutWalk movement is a slew of anti-woman legislation and actions in the past several years. Earlier this year, Republicans introduced the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act" that actually included a clause that redefined rape as "forcible rape," suggesting that some kinds of rape are consensual.

This disgusting climate is also pushing more and more young women to fight back against the vile sexism and violence faced in daily life. Last October, for example, a group of Yale frat boys from Delta Kappa Epsilon (the former fraternity of both George Bush Sr. and Jr.) chanted, "No means yes, yes means anal," outside freshmen women's dorms. In 2008, the same fraternity held signs outside the Yale Women's Center reading "We Love Yale Sluts."

This March, students and faculty who had had enough with DKE filed a lawsuit against Yale for violating Title IX--which bans sex discrimination in schools--due in part to the university's lack of action in response to the violent sexism of Yale frats. As Yale student Hannah Zeavin wrote in the Yale feminist magazine Broad Recognition, "If '[n]o means yes,' there is no such thing as rape. Women lose their agency in sexual acts and encounters, and moreover in personhood."

Rape is unbelievably commonplace on college campuses. The statistics concerning sexual violence speak for themselves. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four college-aged women report having faced a rape or attempted rape since their 14th birthday.

Colleges and universities in the U.S. have a long history of dealing with on-campus assaults by placing the responsibility on female students, in the same way that police forces do. Until the 1970s, many U.S. colleges had mandatory nightly curfews for female students--justified on the basis that women needed to be protected from men. This not only punished women by depriving them of the same rights as male students, but also made insulting assumptions about men--that all men are sex-crazed and incapable of engaging in consensual sex or platonic relationships.

Another side of the idea that women need to by controlled and watched so that they are not raped is the myth that the rapist is always some predator hiding behind a bush and waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting woman. In fact, just the opposite is the case--85 percent of rapes are committed by someone the woman knows. Fewer than 5 percent of these assaults are reported to the police--but it's no wonder that a survivor of sexual assault or rape might not feel safe to come forward to police when the officers' response is so often in keeping with Sanguinetti's.

When a survivor does report a rape to police, they often wait months or even years before any action is taken on their case. Only 6 percent of rapists spend time in jail--all in all, in 15 cases out of 16, perpetrators of sexual violence never face accountability through the criminal justice system.

There is ample evidence that police don't take sexual violence seriously. For example, a 2009 Human Rights Watch study found that the Los Angeles Police Department had 12,669 untested sexual assault kits in their facilities. As the study concludes, "The untested rape kits in Los Angeles County represent lost justice for the victims who reported their rape to the police, and consented to the four-to-six hour rape kit collection process."

There are many other ways that rape isn't treated with the seriousness it deserves, but the most egregious involves blaming the woman for the way she dresses or carries herself.

When an 11-year-old girl survived a gang-rape by 18 men and boys earlier this year, a New York Times article emphasized the voices of community members who blamed the young girl for her rape, citing how she "dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s." In February, a Manitoba judge said that a female rape survivor was sending signals to her attacker--who he referred to as "a clumsy Don Juan"-- that "sex was in the air" by wearing a tube top without a bra, high heels and make-up.

This is exactly the culture that the SlutWalks are attempting to combat.

THESE PROTESTS also raise important questions about language--specifically the use of the word "slut," a term of sexist abuse, in the name of the demonstrations. Some historical background is useful in understanding this discussion.

The word "slut" dates back to the early 1400s, with variations in many Germanic languages. From the beginning, it was used to demean women for being sloppy, slovenly and dirty, soon acquiring a sexualized connotation. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines the word "slut" as "1) a slovenly woman; 2) a promiscuous woman; especially a prostitute." While the term has undergone many transformations in its use, it has always been a gendered slur.

Derogatory words for women don't exist in a vacuum, but rather are emblematic of the sexist ideas that underpin women's oppression.

In this case, the word is a vilification of women who have, or are perceived to have, sexual desires outside the "norm" of the monogamous relationships of the nuclear families.

Monogamy hasn't always been the "norm," of course. Expectations of female sexuality changed drastically with the rise of class society. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Frederick Engels describes sexuality in pre-class societies where "unrestricted sexual relations prevailed within the tribe, every woman belonging equally to every man and every man to every woman." Even where men and women began living in pairs, this did not immediately translate into the subjugation of women--according to anthropological research, both partners had the right to terminate the relationship and were relative equals within it.

These sexual relations were challenged by historical developments that required control over the sexual freedom of women in particular--with the rise of private property and the necessity of being able to confirm the paternity of a child in order to pass on wealth to heirs. This created the necessity for women's sexuality to be contained and controlled.

The strict monogamy of the nuclear family was always subject to a double standard depending on the gender of the partner--he's a stud, she's a slut. Both men and women have always been known to pursue sexual relationships outside of the monogamy of the nuclear family, but it is far more socially acceptable for men to do so. Words like "slut" that demean and shame women for being sexual reflect this historical dynamic in sexual relationships.

Jump forward to the 21st century: Words like "slut" have the same connotation, and women continue to be the victims of violence, discrimination and restrictions on their reproductive rights. The fact that derogatory slurs for women are part of everyday vocabulary is a clear indication of how deep-seated the prejudices are about women's sexuality and the need to confine it. So, for example, the Federal Communications Commission finds words like "bitch" and "slut" to be completely acceptable on prime-time television--while Florida legislators have tried to ban the word "uterus" in state House debates on the grounds that it is too "provocative."

Many women are announcing themselves proud to reclaim the word "slut," saying that it is empowering to take a violent word and turn its meaning around. We can be in solidarity with their spirit, but it does have to be said that using a word in another context doesn't change the oppressive dynamics and relationships in society that it refers to and connotes. Words like "bitch," "slut" and "whore" will still be terms of sexist abusive and reflections of aspects of the oppression of women, even if a minority of people tries to use them with a different meaning.

The most important thing to remember is that demeaning and abuse language will come to an end when we put up the kind of struggle that can pose a serious challenge to sexism and women's oppression.

And this is exactly why everyone should attend the Slut Walk when it comes to a city near you. These protests are exciting opportunities to push back against some of the ideological underpinnings of women's oppression. They draw attention to the reactionary idea that women are abused, raped or treated badly because they are "asking for it"--and are a proud display of the real variations in sexuality that exist.

Challenging the idea that there are certain behaviors women should or shouldn't engage in with their bodies must be central in the fight against sexual violence. These protests are positive, much-needed developments that can play a key role in rebuilding struggles that can reclaim our lives, our bodies and our choices.

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