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Protesters unite against damaging stereotypes of sexual assault survivors

Sierra "Chevy" Harris is a proud slut. But that doesn't mean she's dirty. On the contrary, she's proud of her sexuality and believes she should be able to wear whatever she wants without fear of being sexually assaulted.

"Sexual assault is not about what you wear and what you look like," says Harris, wearing a black skirt with high heeled black boots that come up to her knee. "It's about power and control." So she carries a "Proud Slut" sign while standing on the south lawn at Queen's Park and says she's no longer offended by the term.

In the past, the term slut has been used as an insult to describe women who are sexually promiscuous and considered to have low moral character. But Harris and close to 3,000 others have come to the first ever SlutWalk to take back the word and make it their own. 

Her friend, Magdalena "Maggie" Ivasecko, is wearing a thong with see through tights and holds a sign that says "Sluts Say Yes" because she wants people know that men need to ask for a woman's consent. "So if I'm dressed like this and I'm not saying 'yes' then it's a no-go," says Ivasecko. "Sex is okay. It's a natural thing. But it has to consensual."

Otherwise, it's an assault/rape.

Anna Willats, a member of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, says police aren't taking crimes of violence against women seriously and is deeply concerned about the attitudes of the average officer about why the violence occurs.

On January 24 during a campus information session at Osgoode Hall, students and faculty were taken aback when an officer suggested that women can avoid sexual assault by not dressing like a "slut."

"I think that we have to presume that that does represent a significant attitude on the part of members of the Toronto Police Service," says Willats.

"We haven't heard anything from the Service since in terms of a public statement about their view towards sexual violence. And they've stopped talking with advocates from the anti-violence about how they can implement a more progressive agenda."

Twenty five years ago, Willats was participating in task forces and trying to get the Police Service to establish a sexual violence training program so officers could be better prepared to respond to victims of sexual assault.

"To blame victims for what happens to them just shows that there is really not an understanding," says Willats, who worked for 17 years in a rape crisis centre. "That causes a lot of women to clam up."

But when it happens in a public venue like the one held at Osgoode Hall in January, she says, "They will judge themselves by this officer's standard and they will say 'I am not deserving of help' and that is a tragedy."

A survey of sexual assault training in the United States showed that additional training led to greater collaboration with outside resources, more likelihood of victim participation in the investigation and more cases brought to trial.

"It's not just the police that we need to educate," says Wendy Babcock, a student at Osgoode Hall Law School. "We need to educate judges and lawyers too. It starts with police and ends with the criminal justice system and right now it's failing women."

In a 2007 article, The Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC) wrote, "Some people, including judges and lawyers, continue to believe myths and stereotypes about sexual assault."

"These myths include things like: women lie about sexual assault; women "ask for it" by dressing or behaving in a certain way; it is not sexual assault if you know the perpetrator; it is not sexual assault if you have been drinking or doing drugs; sex trade workers can't be sexually assaulted; and unless there are physical injuries, sexual assault is not a serious crime."

After the January incident at Osgoode Hall, SlutWalk co-founder Sonya JF Barnett could no longer sit by and allow the attack on sexual assault survivors to continue without a fight.

"Slut shaming needs to be addressed," says Barnett. "So today we are taking our message to the front door of the institution that indirectly launched this movement."

Sisters, mothers, brothers, fathers, lovers, friends and even children head south on University Avenue and east along College Street to police headquarters.

"We should not have to be here today," says Michael Kaufman of the White Ribbon Campaign, the largest effort in the world of men working to end violence against women. "But we're here not only to condemn, not only to educate, but to celebrate."

They celebrate the women who provide services to women who have been assaulted by a man; the women across Canada and around the world who have said "no" to all forms of sexual violence; the women who pushed for new laws that clearly state that sex has to be consensual; and the women who have refused to be silent and told the world about the crime they experienced.

Even though most men have never committed sexual assault, Kaufman says, "the majority of us have been silent and through that silence we allowed violence to continue."

It's time then, he said, "for men to step up to the plate, to look at our attitudes, our language, our behaviour and our jokes."

Click here to see more photos from the SlutWalk.

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