Sparks of a new women’s movement

May 17, 2011

Elizabeth Schulte reports on the recent wave of SlutWalk demonstrations--and what they might mean for a revived struggle for women's rights.

LEGISLATION TO bar federal funding for Planned Parenthood. More and more restrictions on abortion. Republican proposals to narrow the definition of rape. Laws criminalizing women for having a miscarriage.

There's no end in sight to the assault on women's rights. And there's been little or no opposition in sight, either.

Until now. Especially in the months since the Republican victory in the 2010 congressional elections, there has been a burst of protest and activism to challenge the war on women's rights. Though still modest in size, it is giving expression to the brewing anger and frustration that many felt about the right-wing offensive, but which had no outlet before.

For example, when the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives moved to ban federal funding to Planned Parenthood, local activists organized Walk for Choice marches in cities across the country.

And there's the recent wave of SlutWalk marches, which began in January after a Toronto police officer told students attending a campus safety information session at York University, "Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized." The message: Women bring sexual assault on themselves by the way they act or dress.

Marching against victim-blaming, rape and sexism
Marching against victim-blaming, rape and sexism (Xtra Canada)

These demonstrations are the welcome signs of a new women's movement in the making, led by young women--one that can confront the right-wing assault and proudly stand up for our rights without apology or compromise.

WHEN THE Toronto cop put into words the message that women hear so constantly, the response was as angry and defiant as the cops' Neanderthal comment was victim-blaming and sexist.

Posters appeared around campus that included a long list of York University "don'ts"--the fake list included entries like "Don't go to pub night," and ended with "Don't worry your pretty little head. Don't think too much. Don't get mad and definitely...Don't organize!"

Activists didn't follow this advice. On April 3, some 1,500 people showed up for SlutWalk Toronto--organizers had anticipated a few hundred--and a march from a park to police headquarters.

Similar demonstrations are being repeated in some 60 cities around the world, from London, Ontario, to London, England--demonstrating the fact that if given the opportunity to show their opposition to sexism, people are ready to participate.

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This new wave of activism is showing that, despite the prevalent idea that we live in a "post-feminist" age, where women can sit back and enjoy their equality, many women and men know the truth--that sexism is alive and well in U.S. society.

SlutWalk makes the important point that women, just like everyone else, have a right to enjoy sex--and to say no to sex. They have a right to dress any way they choose, and even get drunk, and not be the target of assault.

One comment by a Toronto police officer sparked the first protest, but his view is hardly an isolated one. Ms. blogger Stephanie Hallett reported on a rare FBI investigation of the Philadelphia Police Department in the 1980s--because of its high rate of determining that rape cases were "unfounded." In 1984, 52 percent of rape reports were classified as "unfounded."

One of the circumstances that led police to label an allegation as "unfounded" was if the victim reporting the rape was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Studies have shown that alcohol or drugs are involved in 55 percent of rape cases--in acquaintance rape cases, the number is sometimes as high as 80 to 90 percent.

According to the investigation, the Philadelphia Police Department also claimed that women "report rape in order to obtain medical serviced free of charge; 'morning-after' birth control pills, test for venereal diseases, etc."

Writes Hallett, "Shockingly, the Philly police department's list of reasons that rape cases would be classified as false also includes instances in which the victim has a history of mental illness and reports a rape by a celebrity."

By challenging the idea that women are to blame for sexual assault, SlutWalk organizers are taking back important political ground that has been lost as the gains of the 1960s women's movement have been rolled back over the decades.

Protesters' signs at the 2,000-strong Boston march brought back demands from the first women's movement that were once considered common sense, such as: "What happened to no means no?" Other slogans included "My dress is not a yes" and "I ask for it...BY ASKING."

This new opposition isn't coming from traditional sources--from well-funded and well-connected groups like the National Organization for Women, NARAL or Planned Parenthood, which prefer to limit activism to making a donation or sending an e-mail to a senator.

Mostly young women, many of them new to organizing, are initiating these activist events, and there are common threads running through them--a commitment to change and a refusal to compromise. As the slogan from the SlutWalk Toronto website explains, "Because we have had enough!"

The demonstrations are also explicit about calling for unity and solidarity. As the SlutWalk Toronto website outlines:

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, from all points of this city and elsewhere.

We are asking you to join us for SlutWalk, to make a unified statement about sexual assault and victims' rights and to demand respect for all. You needn't claim the word slut for yourself; whether a fellow slut or simply an ally, you don't have to wear your sexual proclivities on your sleeve, we just ask that you come.

Any gender-identification, any age. Singles, couples, parents, sisters, brothers, children, friends. Come walk or roll or strut or holler or stomp with us.

Join us in our mission to spread the word that those who experience sexual assault are not the ones at fault, without exception.

THE SLUTWALKS also have their critics. But in many cases, the criticisms focus narrowly on the use of the word "slut" and don't discuss the actual message of the protests and the wide popularity of their demand to stop blaming women for sexual assault.

Predictably, some of this comes from the right. The New York Post, for example, made fun of the protests, calling them "feminist folly."

In a sneering commentary in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente mocked the demonstrators, writing, "SlutWalks are what you get when graduate students in feminist studies run out of things to do. In fact, they're flogging a dead mare. The attitude that rape victims bring it on themselves has largely (though not entirely) disappeared from mainstream society."

Wente dismisses statistics on sexual harassment and assault on college campuses, and moves to the main point of her article--to attack SlutWalk organizers themselves, accusing them of "narcissistic self-indulgence." She concludes, "I guess they mean well. But really, they're so...privileged."

Wente's article shows that she is dismissive of the reality of violence against women--except, it turns out, in "South Asian communities" and "certain aboriginal communities," which allows Wente to throw around some racist stereotypes for good measure.

But a similar criticism--that the organizers of SlutWalk protests are just self-absorbed--has come from activists who are on the left. A few bloggers have gone so far as to portray SlutWalk organizers as white and privileged, and therefore completely at odds with the concerns of women of color. One blogger even accused organizers of being "white supremacists."

These accusations are absurd. First of all, SlutWalk did indeed get its start from an event on a college campus--which is not totally inappropriate since even the U.S. Department of Justice reports that almost 25 percent of college women have been victims of rape or attempted rape.

The demonstrations have already inspired thousands of men and women to take to the streets to speak out--and the people who organize and attend these protests appear committed to making them as broad as possible, as the statement from the Toronto website quoted above makes clear.

Most important of all is the welcome fact that there are finally protests to comment on--rather than the lack of response to the backlash against women's rights.

Writing in the Guardian, anti-pornography activist Gail Dines does recognize that SlutWalk has "struck a nerve," citing the wave of events inspired by the Toronto model. But Dines says she can't support them because of the word slut.

She writes, "The organizers claim that celebrating the word 'slut,' and promoting sluttishness in general, will help women achieve full autonomy over their sexuality." Dines suggests that young activists are better off working to oppose pornography or "find ways to create their own authentic sexuality, outside of male-defined terms like slut."

On her Stop Porn Culture website, by the way, Dines situates herself in the tradition of theorists Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, who argue in favor of censoring pornography and every man's culpability in violence against women.

In the end, Dines concludes that SlutWalk is actually doing a disservice to women: "While the organizers of the SlutWalk might think that proudly calling themselves 'sluts' is a way to empower women, they are in fact making life harder for girls who are trying to navigate their way through the tricky terrain of adolescence."

But this completely misses the point of SlutWalk, which is not "promoting sluttishness," but rather challenging the idea that women--and whether they are supposedly "slutty"--are to blame for sexual assault.

Some protesters involved in SlutWalks do hold the view that "reclaiming" the word slut can turn the meaning of an anti-women word around--and can therefore be empowering to women. It must be said that even if a group of people tries to use words like slut with a different meaning, this doesn't change its meaning in society at large--nor does it get at the heart of the oppression that women suffer on a daily basis.

However, reclaiming the word slut is not the main focus of these demonstrations, and it is by no means imposed on the people who participate. The problem is that insisting on focusing on this question misses the power and importance of the SlutWalk protests.

The main point that brings SlutWalkers together is their loud and uncompromising opposition to violence against women and victim-blaming. That is a very positive development.

Among participants, there will surely be many different ideas about how to further challenge sexism and what kind of change is necessary to bring about women's liberation. Those ideas should be debated out, just as there will surely be discussions about what strategies work and what don't. Such a discussion will be a welcome breath of fresh air from the non-discussions that haven't taken place in the past decade and more.

WHEN I was in my early 20s, I was riding the train home late at night when a man followed me into the train car and then out onto the platform, making some terrifying threats of physical violence. He isn't the point of this story--he was someone who had fallen through the cracks of the mental health system and who, I found out later, had threatened several other women on the train.

The point is what happened afterward, when my roommate insisted on calling the police. At the station, we were jeered at by cops, with the officer who took my statement yelling out the door, "Hey, get [name]--here are a couple that look like his type."

I'd be hard-pressed to call what either of us was wearing "sexy," but we probably attracted some attention with combat boots, thrift-store dresses and punk rock haircuts. It was evidently enough to draw the attention--and jeers--of Officer Friendly and his buddies, the people who in my roommate's imagination were supposed to protect us from harm. Of course, they made us feel totally vulnerable and completely alone, instead.

Nothing really dangerous had happened to me, but I couldn't help wondering what would have happened if it had? Would anyone have taken us seriously?

This is what I thought of when I heard about the cop at York University telling women what they should and should not wear.

SlutWalk is an antidote to this, because it says no, we aren't buying the lies, and we are standing up--all of us together. In marches and protests, women and men are attempting to rebuild the kind of uncompromising fightbacks that can create an atmosphere where sexism isn't tolerated.

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