More cities take up SlutWalk

June 22, 2011

SLUTWALK PROTESTS initiated by Canadian activists to protest a police officer's comment that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized" continue to spread across the U.S., as activists in Seattle and San Diego joined those around the country protesting sexual assault and women-blaming.

In Seattle, more than 1,000 people gathered in the Capitol Hill neighborhood to march downtown on June 19.

The march and rally were at once militant and celebratory--militant because participants gathered to express their outrage at the daily sexism and violence women face and a society that fosters these things; and celebratory because a multi-gendered movement to challenge this status quo is finding new expression.

Speakers shared their own personal stories of harassment and sexual violence and electrified the crowd with their unwavering declarations that they, nor any other victim, aren't to blame for the attacks they experienced.

Alyssa Royse, who was raped the summer after her high school graduation, brought the point home, saying, "You want to know why I was raped? It wasn't because of who I was, what I was wearing or what I was doing. I was raped because a rapist raped me."

Unfortunately, for too many, the trauma of rape is frequently followed by further harassment and ostracism for supposedly "asking for it." Royse described an episode of Oprah in which the talk-show host told a rape survivor she'd "rather be dead" than go through what that woman experienced. "How deeply ingrained is the shame of rape," Royse asked, "that you'd rather be dead than be a survivor of rape?"

Just as distressing is the fact that the legal system often does not take cases of sexual assault seriously. Christy Forrester described her experience being raped, and her attempts to get the state to prosecute her rapist. "Too many people in the justice system believe rape myths," she said. "The state hesitates to prosecute such cases because many jurors believe these rape myths as well."

Demonstrators recognized the need to combat such rape myths. They held signs stating "Put rapists on trial, not my skirt," and led chants of "No means no, yes means yes, wherever I go, however I dress!"

Others highlighted the systemic nature of sexism and sexual violence, displaying signs that read, "It's a community problem. It's a community solution."

Participants also drew connections between sexual assault and the ever-sharpening political attacks on women's rights. Signs in the march included "Free abortion, on demand, no apologies," and some of the most popular chants included "Our bodies, our choice!" and "When women's rights are under attack. What do we do? Stand up, fight back!"

Liz Fawthrop, a speaker at the rally and a member of the newly formed Seattle Clinic Defense, spoke to the need for a reinvigorated, militant women's rights movement that rejects both attacks on women, and the tepid responses of mainstream women's rights organizations:

In the face of an onslaught of anti-choice legislation around the country, the old strategy of phone-banking, letter-writing, and click-to-donate is proving to be not enough. Seattle Clinic Defense believes that direct action is needed to challenge the sexism and the anti-women sentiment that allows victim-blaming, slut-shaming and limitations on abortion access.

Conversations about reclaiming the word "slut" were also plentiful. Many protesters readily embraced the word, and some of the march organizers argued the women's rights movement needed to re-appropriate it.

Others were less enthused about reclaiming a word they associated so closely with negative stereotypes and hateful language.

Regardless, all marchers found common ground in their steadfast rejection of victim-blaming and slut-shaming. Ian Morgan said he joined the demonstration because he was "excited to hear about the momentum behind the events, and to hear the different analyses on where sexual violence comes from."

"No matter your view on reclaiming the word 'slut,' I don't think it's productive to abstain from this sort of thing," Morgan said.

In San Diego, the SlutWalk protest turned out some 500 people on June 11, helping to send the message that excusing rape and blaming the victim is unacceptable with the popular chant, "No means no, yes means yes! Wherever we go, however we dress!"

This protest brought out a large number of new youth activists in San Diego, and was a powerful sign that a new movement for women's rights is in the making. The crowd was also very diverse, including a large number of men and members of the LGBT community.

A number of speakers at the event recounted their own experiences with sexual assault. A former Marine, whose rapist walked away with a slap on the wrist and "administrative leave," pointed to the fact that there are over 31,500 cases of rape in the U.S. military every year and that a woman who serves is significantly more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than to be killed in battle.

One of the most powerful speakers of the day was Liz, a transgender woman speaking on behalf of the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality. She spoke about one of her own horrifying experiences being sexually assaulted and pointed to the extremely high rate of assault and harassment experienced by the transgender community.

Some speakers used the opportunity to connect the specific demands of SlutWalk to other attacks on women's rights. Echo Zen, from University of California San Diego Voices for Planned Parenthood, argued that the attitude that is part of "rape culture" is also prevalent among elected officials, noting the recent attempt in Congress to redefine rape as "forcible rape."

He also pointed to the fact that attacks on abortion rights have the same goal as victim-blaming, that is, punishing women for making choices about their sexuality and preventing women from having sexual freedom.

Cecile Veillard of the International Socialist Organization pointed to the problematic role of police, who not only fail to seek justice for the vast majority of rape victims, but also are frequently found to be the perpetrators of rape themselves.

She also pointed to the need for a renewed women's movement that can begin to push back against the various attacks on women's rights.

Participants left the event with a sense of excitement, and also with an understanding that this was only the beginning of a much-needed struggle against sexism.

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