“Women should avoid dressing like sluts.”
Call it the phrase that broke the camel’s back. On January 24, 2011, Constable Michael Sanguinett was speaking out on a recent incident in Toronto, and ill-advisedly took the victim blaming route.
What started as an off-hand comment that explained everything about rape culture in six words, became an international and national movement, a large middle finger to the idea that “those who had it coming” really didn’t have it coming at all. But SlutWalk has not gone without its fair share of controversy, ranging from expressed concerns from erasure and privilege, to pieces that were downright ugly. Whatever your politics, SlutWalk is a thing and it is happening.
Nonetheless, I was not only able to sit in on a planning meeting with most of the organizers, but to also speak with several of the organizers right before the planned NYC March on October 1st. This includes Media Organizer Holly Meyer, Web Presence and Speakers Bureau Organizer Melissa K. Marturano, Education Organizer Rebecca Katherine Hirsch, and Sexual Assault Advocate Nicole C. Kubon, to get their inside view on what SlutWalk means to them, why they are marching, and where they are planning to go in the future. So Persephone Magazine, please give a warm welcome to Holly, Melissa, Rebecca, and Nicole, from SlutWalk NYC!
Persephone Magazine: Most of us reading this interview are aware of how SlutWalk started as a movement, but I’m curious to know what everyone’s reasons were for getting involved in SlutWalk. What drew you to SlutWalk and how does it personally and politically affect you?
Nicole C. Kubon: I started following SlutWalk when it started in Toronto. I shared the news with my blog audience and continued to follow it as it spread throughout the country and the world. While I had some initial misgivings about the name and the idea of reclaiming the word “slut,” as a feminist and sexual assault advocate, I was inspired by the movement’s higher purpose, to end sexual violence. It was exciting to see young feminists organizing together and speaking out against victim blaming in our society. When I moved to New York from Detroit, MI, I found out that I had just missed the Detroit SlutWalk, so I started researching SlutWalk NYC and discovered that I had arrived in the city just in time to become a co-organizer.
Holly Meyer: I was drawn to SlutWalk NYC to make peace with the fact that I never reported my sexual assaults – any of them. I was too ashamed or scared at the time, I guess. I also lack a support system where I needed encouragement from others to report the incidents to the authorities. I’d been reading about the SlutWalk movement since it first began in April and then in June, I happened to meet a former employee of my firm one night at a performance at The Living Room who knew when and where the first SlutWalk NYC meeting was going to be held. I was thrilled at the chance to put my fundraising and media background to good use and get involved with a fantastic movement to end sexual violence.
PM: What are the targeted goals of SlutWalk? As organizers, what are you all hoping will be accomplished by having people from all walks of life participate in this?
NK: Our goals at SlutWalk NYC are many but can be summed up in our mission statement which says,
No matter who you are. No matter where you work. No matter how you identify. No matter how you flirt. No matter what you wear. No matter who you choose to love. No matter what you said before:
NO ONE has the right to touch you without your consent. SlutWalk NYC is part of a worldwide grassroots movement challenging rape culture, victim-blaming and slut-shaming*, and working to end sexual and domestic violence.
What we hope to accomplish by focusing SlutWalk NYC on sexual violence in all communities is to provide a safe space for everyone affected, and in particular marginalized populations who have felt disconnected from this particular movement, to speak out against victim blaming. We hope that this is just the beginning of a re-invigorated feminist movement inclusive of the many intersecting issues and identities present in feminism.
Rebecca Katherine Hirsch: The goal of SlutWalk, in my mind, is to work for a world where no one is scapegoated and no one group or person’s pains, joys, favorite animals, etc. are proffered as being more worthy than someone else’s. “Rape culture” exists because women are culturally instructed to be viewed as objects, not agents with exciting, beneficial sexual things to physically say and share with YOU! Or maybe not you personally! But the point is extending basic sexual liberty to women benefits the health of the nation! Happier partners, healthier children, more wholly free and competent selves! Whew. The chronic insecurity that is systematically bred in men makes it so that men who buy into the system are so scared of being inadequate that they are intolerant of other opinions, voices, bodies, and ideas about sex that are creative, honest, variegated, and human. A SlutWalk goal of mine is to normalize and broaden our conceptions of female sexuality, male sexuality, trans sexuality, etc. in all their diversity and potentiality, and to not reflexively vilify sex as “evil” or reduce it to the most petrified, uptight, TAUGHT (as opposed to natural) “male” standard of attack-penetrate-flee. Male sexuality is not more legitimate than female sexuality. Straight sex is not more special than queer sex. Would that I could plant a seed of empathy in every bigot’s heart and encourage people to consider that their views are wonderful, valid, and unique, but so are mine and so is somebody elses and to each his or her own (unless, of course, you’re infringing on another person’s liberty), live and let live, etc!
In terms of people from all walks of life participating in SlutWalk, a big third-wave feminist thing is inclusivity and benevolent interest in all stripes of justice-seekers be they gay, straight, trans, female, male, many races, ethnicities, ages, and abilities. That’s cool. Second-wave feminists, in my experience, have tended to take a less sex-positive, more male-resistant stance, which I get and I dig and I accept. Because when you’ve been oppressed by a male sexist society that milks you for your “sexiness,” before throwing you to the wind, I understand the protective resentment to sexuality, as you’ve perceived it and men as a caste or an idea. But I think, like a person, feminism has grown (and will continue to do so) and most third-wavers I encounter see the patriarchal SYSTEM as the oppressor, not men who are arbitrarily privileged. And certainly not the awesome, thoughtful feminist men who are courageous enough to oppose an unjust society.
PM: The movement seems to have been talked about from many view points in the media, without speaking with actual organizers involved. Much like Caitlin Flanagan’s shameless insinuation that SlutWalks trivialized rape and that “the bitter, inescapable truth of the female experience, is that rape happens and we might as well all accept it and move on with our lives,” there seems to be a tendency to talk about this in a way that downplays the seriousness of the walks by emphasizing the participants as wearing “silly outfits and shouting about how horny they are.” Overall, how do you feel about how SlutWalk has been treated?
Melissa K. Marturano: I can’t even comment on Caitlin Flanagan’s nihilistic and oppressively lazy mindset. The first problem is that the mainstream media never actually wants to promulgate voices that are not famous and respected (can feminists even be respected?) and known. And hence, as you say, they rarely actually speak to the organizers themselves. They speciously and third-handedly represent us when feminist activists like ourselves are already very disenfranchised and voiceless. There are also other reasons for disenfranchising us: we’re young, we’re feminists, and we dare to ironically, though seriously, call out bullshit on rape culture and repressive standards of sexuality. We deserve to be validated as voices, particularly as feminist voices. The media’s representation of us as not serious probably has a lot to do with them trying to diminish something they find threatening to the world order and something that has already proven its power in its ability to spread and resonate globally. “Don’t worry about those nearly naked and angry young people. They’ll wise up soon, put on some clothes, drink some tea, and give up before you can bat an eye.” The media has realized that they can easily distract people from the real issues by sensationalizing sex and sexuality, as usual.
RKH: There is a long and ill-famed history of not taking women seriously. Long have women been made scapegoats and whipping girls who’ve been put in impossible labyrinthine double binds. Long have fatally uptight people defended against unpleasant feelings by casting the blame on a separate person or group in order to tell themselves that they are not at fault, other people are! So! It doesn’t surprise me that SlutWalks are being derided. It’s a time-worn tactic to deride “women’s issues” (i.e. human issues) or black issues or gay issues or in-any-way-minority issues instead of confronting one’s own humanity and not displacing one’s self-hatred onto another party. But all movements get flack! We’re good people. We will reign victorious! I hope.
NK: It is disappointing, at best, to hear and read these criticisms that minimize the hard work we have all been doing to raise awareness of sexual violence in our community. If we try to look at this from a different perspective however, we can take these media reports and even the commentary readily available on the internet (on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr and many other social networking sites) as a clear indicator of the importance of our movement. SlutWalk has provided a space not only for survivors and anti-sexual violence activists to speak out but has also served as a showcase for how much work is left to do when it comes to victim-blaming and slut shaming. For example, the other day I read a comment on our YouTube video that said “Would you wear a meat dress into the jungle?” I think this is a perfect illustration of the prevalence of victim blaming in our society and should be a reminder to all of us that, yes, we do live in a rape culture and the only way that will change is if we organize together and speak out against it.
PM: One of the criticisms that SlutWalk has faced is that the term “slut” isolates women who face race-based stereotypes about their sexuality or their gender. How are you responding to the fact that some people may have race-based privilege, i.e. white privilege, to identify as a “slut”?
NK: As an organizer who does not care to identify as a “slut” or reclaim the name, I have had my own struggles with this aspect of SlutWalk. I think the idea that no matter who you are or how you identify, you don’t deserve sexual violence; that is the larger and more important message here. I do understand the critiques of SlutWalk based on racial privilege and agree that, as a white organizer, I need to continue to investigate my own unearned privilege. It has been extremely important to us at SlutWalk NYC that people of color who have issues with SlutWalk feel comfortable approaching us and engaging in these important dialogues.
MM: I feel that no people who are “the other” in the kyriarchy have ultimate control over their sexuality, but white people definitely have more of a privilege than black people in America, especially considering the legal commodification of black people’s bodies historically. The open letter to SlutWalk from Black Women’s Blueprint was a wake-up call to us as organizers and made us question how we have been interacting with person-of-color communities. It really made us consider the connotations of a word that many of the organizers of SlutWalk NYC were not enamored of from the get-go. However, from the beginning, our organizers wanted to tap into something that was powerful and transnational, something that obviously resonated with a lot of people, and that is why we didn’t change the name, even though we discussed it often. I didn’t come to SlutWalk NYC committed to the name–I came committed to the cause. We are most definitely open to a name change and distancing ourselves from the SlutWalk moniker. BWBP’s letter really made us think about what we are doing and what we can do to move forward. I think there is some salvageable value in the word “slut” because it focuses sharply on victim-blaming and slut-shaming and it’s a conversation starter, but I understand why it should be thrown out, too. I justified using the name because I wanted to ridicule it, I wanted to suck the venom out of it, I wanted to be confrontational and unapologetic for owning my sexuality, I wanted to turn the word on its head, and expose why it exists in the first place.
PM: How does that then layer onto how SlutWalk is becoming an international movement with walks in places like Buenos Aires, New Dehli, Singapore, and Cape Town? How does “slut” translate across cultures?
MM: They changed the name in New Delhi and many other places around the world, which shows how the message resonates, but not the moniker. The movement taps into something all people face universally, but the word itself and the aims some SlutWalks have also bring up how the sexualization and oppression of different persons is not always universal and not part of a monolithic narrative. It’s time to go for the more universal and heterogeneous experience. We had a debate about the Spanish translation of our flyer on our listserv because of the use of the word “puta,” which they used in South America and thus, we thought it would be appropriate. But many New York Latina feminists in our coalition objected to “puta” because South America is a long way away from the Latino people in New York and there is a different feminist movement doing outreach here than in Buenos Aires. There is so much to take into consideration, which is frustrating, but it is also highly rewarding.
PM: What does victim-blaming mean to each of you? What have been incidents, in the media or in your own life, where you have been ultimately frustrated by it?
HM: Victim blaming is asking what the victim was wearing at the time of the attack. Clothing is irrelevant. What about the rape victims who were wearing their military uniforms at the time of their attack? Whatever a person is wearing at the time of their assault is not of any importance to the crime committed against them. The NYT promoted victim blaming by suggesting that the young girl from Texas who was raped by several teenage boys was “wearing make-up and dressed older.” This is a perfect example of blaming the victim. That young girl did not deserve what happened to her and it is insulting to imply that her preference for lip gloss had anything to do with it. After my own assault in January, I was repeatedly asked what I was wearing and if I’d had anything to drink. It is despicable to suggest that my attack was my own fault because I’d consumed alcoholic beverages the night of my attack. There are so many example of victim -blaming in the media! We have many more examples on our website for your reference at Slutwalknyc.com
MM: Victim-blaming is the institutionalized belief–in the media, in the justice system, in the police force, in society–that victims of rape are somehow responsible for the crime against them rather than the rapist. It makes coping with the ubiquity of rape and rape culture easier, that people can somehow act the right way and avoid it by not tempting “sick rapists.” Rapists are not by default “insane,” they’re everywhere and normalized. Rape happens because a person decided to rape and that’s it.
PM: How will SlutWalk move forward as a movement once the walks are “finished”? What can we look forward from each of you in the not too distant future?
MM: I don’t think the marches will ever be finished. I think the movement and its marches can be refined and the name can be dropped, but rape culture isn’t going anywhere and we need marches for awareness and solidarity. I hope SlutWalk NYC, or whatever we call our coalition in the future, will have walks every year to bring awareness to the issues at hand, which we will organize throughout the year through protests and events. As of now, we have only agreed to have another walk next year and to build it the same way we did this year: through constant organizing of rallies like the one we held for Nafi Diallo on August 23rd. Nafi Diallo still has her civil suit against DSK and we will be there in the Bronx to support her. There is yet another rape cop on trial. We will be at the courthouse to ensure the NYPD takes rape seriously and obliterates its bro culture with weapons. There are still crisis pregnancy centers harming everyone they can in New York despite legislative “victories.” The “slutwalks” are only one manifestation of a new and young feminist movement and that’s really important to keep in mind. I read an article on Persephone about why the author would not be attending SlutWalk NYC. She said they were too transitory and not meaningful enough because they were just marches. We instead should be volunteering at rape crisis counseling centers rather than pooling all our energy into organizing a march, which will not have much of an impact. She seemed to completely misunderstand that SlutWalk NYC is a coalition, which does do all the “meaningful activism.” The same goes for SlutWalks in other cities. I have not spoken to a single organizer of any SlutWalk who was not thinking about the future and who was not involved in activities that help build a coalition and feminist movement. Marches in general always receive the most attention and the nuts and bolts of any coalition and its achievements are ignored.
HM: The march is just the beginning for SlutWalk NYC! We have already scheduled a follow-up meeting which will take place on October 13. This is an excellent chance for everyone to gather and discuss what we can do to move forward in our quest to end sexual violence in NYC. We’re excited to get new people involved! We’re participating in a “Day of Dialogue” panel discussion at Hofstra on October 26. Everyone can find our SlutWalk NYC page on facebook, follow us on twitter @slutwalknyc or look to our website slutwalknyc.com for more updates in the future! Thank you!