At a crime prevention forum in February of last year, an offhand remark from Toronto Police Constable Michael Sanguinetti set off a movement. “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this,” Sanguinetti told a group of York University students. “However, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”
Perhaps he should have kept his mouth shut. His words of “wisdom” spawned the Slutwalk movement, founded by Toronto feminists tired of women being blamed for being sexually assaulted.
The movement quickly spread to other cities. Vancouver activists organized a walk for April 2011. The Slutwalk movement has one goal: to break the cycle of victim blaming.
But the movement has not escaped criticism. One objection remains unresolved since the first rally, and that’s the use of the word “slut.”
Critics have pointed out that attaching the movement to the controversial term singles out marginalized groups. While some supporters may find the term empowering, “slut” is not a word women of colour would associate with due to their history of oppression and slavery.
According to their website, the organizers of Slutwalk NYC made the decision to withdraw from the movement because of the implications of the name. Just last month, Slutwalk Vancouver held a gathering at Wise Hall to openly discuss these concerns. Organizers (myself included) welcomed both critics and supporters for their input on the re-labeling of the movement against victim blaming.
Four names were suggested: “Slutwalk,” “End the Shame,” “Yes Means Yes,” and “Shame Stop.” An open poll was put up after the meeting on Slutwalk Vancouver’s Facebook page, and a week later, voters decided to keep the original name. Still, half of the attendees at Wise Hall spoke out against reusing the old name.
So, now what?
The implication of the term should never be taken lightly, but does it warrant boycotting a movement that is about fighting gendered and sexual violence? The word has done enough harm, and if it succeeds in dividing feminists, it would clinch itself another victory. Nothing should distract us from standing in solidarity against the real antagonists of the story: rapists and victim-blamers.
Since the beginning, the movement has generated discussion. It has normalized the debate of victims’ and perpetrators’ accountability, and the use of the s-word is now up for public discussion. It is the provocative nature of the term that has helped issues of gendered violence jump from the pages of Ms. Magazine into the mainstream media.
Barbara Peterson, vice president of the Minnesota National Organization for Women, put it bluntly. “If they called it a women’s empowerment march, would the media have paid any attention?”
Finding an all-inclusive, perfect name for the movement would be ideal, but sitting on the sidelines is not a wise move in addressing the trivialization of sexual violence. So while the future of Slutwalk’s identity continues to be examined, exposing the problems of rape culture on the streets and in city centres must continue.
Kayi Wong is a volunteer with Slutwalk Vancouver. The Slutwalk Vancouver 2012 March is scheduled to take place on June 30.