Many voices against sexual assault

October 10, 2011

The success of SlutWalk New York City demonstrated the potential for a battle for women's rights that connects to other struggles. Natalia Tylim explains.

A MULTIRACIAL, multi-gender, multi-ethnic crowd of 3,000 people converged at Union Square in Manhattan on October 1 for SlutWalk NYC--to show the world that when it comes to sexual violence, they've had enough.

The mood of the day was militant and loud. "Hijabs, hoodies, hotpants: No means NO!" "My rapist didn't know he raped me," "Rape is caused by misogyny, rapists and institutionalized violence, not what we wear" and "I was 17 in my childhood home, wearing a sweatshirt: What part of this was I asking for it?" are only some examples from the sea of powerful, handmade signs that highlighted the issues that brought people to protest.

SlutWalk NYC was proof that there's a new generation of people who are ready to take the fight against sexual violence into the streets. The outpouring of support for the march showed the opportunity that exists to build a new fighting movement for women's rights, for gender equality and against sexual violence that makes the connections between all forms of oppression.

New Yorkers march against sexual violence and victim-blaming at NYC SlutWalk
New Yorkers march against sexual violence and victim-blaming at NYC SlutWalk (Charlotte Cooper)

Both the lead-up to the protest and the demonstration itself provided a forum for discussions about the emerging movement, including a debate about whether the SlutWalk protests were speaking to the concerns of women of color.

The SlutWalk phenomenon was sparked by the words of a Toronto police constable, who said, "Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized." This sentence spoke to the daily lives and experiences of millions of people worldwide who know what it's like to be blamed for being raped or to experience sexism.

SlutWalk protests, which have been organized in cities across the world, address sexual assault, but also being catcalled on the street, being up for grabs physically and verbally at work, not being able to express sexuality freely, and much more.

Even though this protest was sparked by words and intentionally claimed the title of "SlutWalk" to draw attention to those words, most people present at the New York protest will tell you that this struggle is not about language. This is a fight that is in response to very real violence and oppression that almost every woman faces.

SLUTWALK NYC organizers have been holding open organizing meetings, which some 40 to 50 people have regularly attended, as well as tablings and speak-outs since July in preparation for this protest, which was built from the grassroots, reaching out to broad coalitions and communities.

As Sammy Lifson, one of dozens of organizers of the New York event, said, "Everyone here is really angry and fed up at the right people." This anger was directed at the New York Police Department (NYPD), at a broken court system and at systemic sexual violence. The NYPD, is not only incapable of protecting women but is also getting away with rape--as the case of Franklin Mata and Kenneth Moreno, two cops acquitted of rape this summer, showed.

The chants against the NYPD during the march, like "NYPD, we know you--you're racist, sexist and rapists, too!" were some of the most angry and spirited. Other loud and angry chants were directed at a court system that allowed Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund to get off without so much as a trial after a hotel worker, Nafissatou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, accused him of sexual assault. One protester sign simply said, "I am Diallo."

The organizers of SlutWalk NYC built and participated in protests around both of these cases in the lead-up to the SlutWalk itself. These individual cases exposed to many the relationship between sexism, racism and power that is built into the fabric of society. These cases became targets of struggle and discussion that certainly contributed to the militancy and direction of the protest.

Beyond chants about the cops and the courts was a sense of unity from the people in the streets about the need to fight back in a united way against sexual violence. One woman in attendance who has been active since the women's movement of the 1960s was amazed at how many men were at the protest. The demonstration also incorporated a message in defense of abortion rights.

Speakers, chants, signs and conversations made connections between racism, transphobia, homophobia, sexism and rape in an inspiring way that is only a small glimpse into what a movement with the common demand of fighting against sexual violence could look like.

It's worth looking at some of the staggering numbers behind the SlutWalk protests. While SlutWalks are happening internationally, from New Dehli to Mexico City to Jakarta, these numbers specifically reflect those in the U.S. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center:

-- one in four women is sexually assaulted in her lifetime;

in eight of 10 cases, the survivor knew the perpetrator;

78 women in the U.S. are raped every hour;

51 percent of rapes are committed against young women between 16 and 21 years of age;

13.3 percent of college women indicated that they had been forced to have sex in a dating situation.

What these numbers reflect is the widespread nature of sexual assault. The frequency of sexual violence cuts across the myth of who is and isn't assaulted, and for what reasons.

Think of it this way: every person in this country is either a survivor, or knows someone who is a survivor. It has nothing to do with clothing or being out too late; this is part and parcel to a systemic oppression of women, which is also the basis for the systemic oppression of LGBT people.

The overrepresentation of young women being assaulted points the finger at a systemic problem of a lack of education around what consensual sex is, as the sign "My rapist didn't know he raped me" points out. SlutWalk, like the women's movement that came before it, has broken the silence about the issues that affect millions of people. The protests have opened a space where there this issue no longer has to be an individualized pain that people must carry with them in silence.

ACCORDING TO statistics, 91 percent of survivors are female, and women's lives should be front and center to the demands of this struggle. But this is not just a women's struggle, as should be evidenced from the attendance at the march. Trans people are disproportionately survivors of sexual assault, with 74 percent reporting some sort of sexual harassment and 10 percent of hate crimes against trans people also involving sexual assault.

Racism plays an especially significant role when it comes to who is and isn't tried for rape. The case of Nafissatou Diallo is a view into what immigrant workers face on the job daily, often living in fear of reporting any abuse for fear of deportation or repercussions. Individuals with disabilities are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted.

What these connections illuminate, and what SlutWalk showed in practice, is that there is an opportunity today to build a new fighting movement for women's rights, for gender equality and against sexual violence that makes the connections between all forms of oppression and fights a battle to improve everyone's lives together.

Anyone present at SlutWalk NYC would likely attest to the political militancy, solidarity and antiracism of the event. But there are criticisms of the emerging movement. One came before the demonstration in the form of an open letter from Black Women's BluePrint, which expressed concern that there is no place for Black women in the SlutWalk movement.

There is no question that the effects of racism have a lasting and devastating impact on the experiences of all Black women in this country. These are issues that must be front and center to any organizing if it is to really take on the institutions and the system that is the root of injustice. The letter focuses on the name of the protest as being the reason why it cannot involve Black women, reading in part:

As Black women, we do not have the privilege or the space to call ourselves "slut" without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the Black woman is. We don't have the privilege to play on destructive representations burned in our collective minds, on our bodies and souls for generations.

It's worth pointing out that for no woman, white or Black, is it a privilege to organize a protest that was sparked by the use of the word "slut." The demands of the protest in New York City made it very clear that this was not inherently about reclaiming words, but about pushing back against sexual violence--and making connections within that struggle about how racism, xenophobia, transphobia, homophobia and all forms of oppression need to be fought side by side.

As Dina Bernadel, a participant in the march, said:

When you decontextualize the reason why this event is called SlutWalk, it takes away from the point of it. As a Black woman, I feel disconnected from the experience of "exclusion" that is talked about in the open letter. The fight against sexual violence includes everyone.

Indeed, every other person at the march on October 1 broke the silence to say, "I'm here because I'm a survivor" or "I'm here because my sister was raped" or "I'm here because I am a product of rape." To insinuate that survivors of rape who are white are "privileged" undermines the gravity of what all women in a sexist society must endure.

Those critical of SlutWalk in the aftermath of the protest have focused on a sign at the protest that read, "Women are the N-words of the world." That sign was offensive, no question. But what those who were critical don't say is that a member of the International Socialist Organization went up to the woman carrying it and explained that the sign was not in the spirit of the struggle and was racist. The young woman immediately put it away and has since written a public apology.

It is through organizing together, marching together and explaining to individuals what it means to actively fight racism that backward and misguided ideas break down. In order to build struggle, we need to organize and figure out collectively how to be antiracist within the movement against sexual violence.

THE MARCH brought thousands of people together and raised the confidence of those who participated. It also brought the voices of trans women of color, African American men and Latina women to the front of the rally, when historically those speaking at the front of feminist marches in the U.S. have been white women.

Black Women's BluePrint says, "[W]e struggle with the decision to answer this call by joining with or supporting something that even in name exemplifies the ways in which mainstream women's movements have repeatedly excluded Black women even in spaces where our participation is most critical."

I believe it is important to say that this is not the mainstream women's movement of the past. This is a brand new movement, and it has flaws, as all new organizations do, but it has already been shown to hold enormous potential. Everyone who wants to win a world without daily violence and oppression should participate and help shape it to be a movement that actively challenges all forms of oppression.

We can win funding for rape crisis centers. We can win actual consequences for police who commit rape while in uniform. We can change people's minds about what it means to be a rape survivor and what consensual sex really is. But we can only win demands if we organize the broadest, most militant movement possible, and fight together for the better world we all deserve.

There is a reason why SlutWalk is erupting across the globe--it's because a new generation is tired of the excuses, is sick of waiting for Democrats or liberal organizations to deliver on promises of change, and is ready and willing to take this struggle into its own hands.

Edna Bonhomme contributed to this article.

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