By Elise Chretien
On April 3, 2011, Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis had no idea what they were creating when they hosted the first SlutWalk in Toronto.
Now, only three short months later, SlutWalks have spread to over 30 countries and 100 cities, half of which are major cities in the United States. When asked how it felt to watch SlutWalks become a worldwide movement, SlutWalk Researcher and Satellite Coordinator Jeanette Janzen replied with one word: “mind-blowing.”
The idea for a SlutWalk originated at a campus safety information session at the Osgoode Hall Law School of York University in Toronto, Canada on Jan. 24. A Toronto police officer was giving safety tips to the community when he said, “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order to not be victimized.”
This statement infuriated the members of the community, including Barnett and Jarvis. Rather than being angry for a bit and then moving on, the two young women decided to do something about it.
“Too many people let ‘little comments’ like this officer’s go by unchecked, and things snowball from there,” said Barnett.
Jarvis agreed that action needed to be taken.
“We connected pretty quickly about being really angry over it,” said Jarvis. “I said something along of the lines of ‘this makes me want to go down to the police headquarters doorstep and tell them that they need to do a better job,'” she said.
Later that day, Jarvis and Barnett did just that. They came up with the name “SlutWalk” as a way to directly address the word that the officer used in his statement. Six weeks of planning later, the first SlutWalk was in full effect.
SlutWalks have seen enormous turnouts, with over 3,000 marching the streets in Toronto and similar participation in other cities. Barnett credits digital platforms for the rapid growth of fans and participants.
“It was really social media that kicked SlutWalk into high gear. Without Facebook and Twitter, I don’t think we would have gotten as much attention as we did. It was a perfect way to spread the message that we were mobilizing,” said Barnett.
While protestors are encouraged to come wearing whatever clothing they feel comfortable in, many women have made bold statements by wearing lingerie, stilettos and fishnets or flashing colorful signs with messages such as “Slut Pride,” “My Short Skirt Has Nothing to Do With You,” and “Why Does Society Teach ‘Don’t Get Raped,’ Rather Than ‘Don’t Rape?'”
Their message is that no one deserves to be sexually assaulted, no matter what they are wearing or have been drinking. Their goal is to end victim blaming and re-appropriate the word slut; therefore taking away its negative connotation. Some, such as Washington Post writer Jessica Valenti, have called SlutWalks the future of feminism, comparing it to the bra burning of the 1960s.
One Maryland resident said she’s a rape survivor who was told she was to blame for the attack by her own father. She said attending the upcoming SlutWalk in Baltimore on Sept. 17 will offer a final form of closure. (As a reported rape survivor her identity is being held for this story.)
“To me, SlutWalk is a stand against victim blaming. The way a woman dresses or acts should not insinuate consent at any point,” she said.
She explained that attending the SlutWalk will be a way to tell the world that she didn’t choose to be raped.
While she personally chooses to wear a tank top and shorts to the event, she supports those who choose more provocative dress.
“I personally will not be wearing any scandalous clothing. I can see the appeal and see how empowering it could be, but I think the world isn’t quite ready to open up to the brilliant minds of beautifully, scantily clad women,” she said.
The provocative clothing combined with using the word “slut” in the name of the event has sparked controversy among those who believe “dressing like a slut” is no way to reclaim the word and gain respect for women. However, Samantha Wright, organizer of the DC SlutWalk planned for Aug. 13, says SlutWalks are much more than that.
“Our main tactic of reclaiming ‘slut’ is to show that the word is baseless. We do not want to create criteria for our fellow women to be called ‘sluts,’ we want to show that anyone, for any reason, can be called a ‘slut’ and how meaningless this word is,” said Wright.
According to Wright, media coverage of the events may be portraying SlutWalks to be more provocative than they actually are.
“Most media coverage of other SlutWalks has focused on the provocative nature of some participants’ clothing because it makes good news. It’s shocking, abnormal, and unexpected so we are seeing photos of women in their bras and fishnets, but there are crowds of thousands behind them wearing jeans, coats, and pushing strollers,” said Wright.
Despite the controversy over the name of the event and the scantily clad participants, SlutWalk founders stand by their name.
“We picked the name knowing it would probably ruffle people’s feathers and make a lot of people uncomfortable,” Jarvis said. “But sexual assault is uncomfortable to talk about, let alone go through. People just need to be uncomfortable and talk about these things, because they still need to be spoken about.”
Jeanette Janzen, a SlutWalk Toronto team member who helps set up new event locations, said the reason people still believe what a woman wears has an impact on whether or not she will be raped is because of the way the media covers stories of sexual assault.
“The media really loves to flog sensationalist stories of violent stranger rape and this leads people to believe that these cases are the majority when, in fact, it’s actually acquaintance rape that is most common,” said Janzen.
Janzen says that the majority of acquaintance rape victims are most likely wearing jeans and a t-shirt.
“Doesn’t really make for an exciting read,” she said.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), approximately 2/3 of rapes reported are acquaintance rapes. However, 60 percent of rapes are never reported, so this statistic is actually much lower than the real percentage.
Despite the large amount of rapes that are going unreported, the rape rate is actually on a sharp decline, according to crime data from the FBI.
Virginia is following the same pattern, with 2009 having the lowest reported rape rate since 1984. On both the national and state level, the rape rate has fallen more than 60 percent since 1993.
The Disaster Center has a record of crime reports in Virginia from 1960-2009. This data shows the steady drop in forcible rape rates in recent years, along with a significant drop of 60 percent since the early 1990s.
Download a free program to view the data here.
“Rape will always exist – this is a sad fact. What we can do is make life easier for those of us who are forced to experience it. We want to make it known that it is never the victim’s fault and making them feel as though it is is wrong and unacceptable behavior,” said Janzen.