One year ago, a Toronto police officer made a comment that would become a definitive point of debate among feminists: "Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order to not be victimized," he said.
A few women sprang to action, responding by having what they called a 'SlutWalk.' That first event, on April 3, 2011, was followed by many others across North America, Europe, and Australia.
Vancouver held their own SlutWalk on May 15, 2011 and is now planning for their second, scheduled to take place on June 30, 2012.
As popular as the movement has been, drawing in many young women in particular, who may not have considered themselves to be feminist per se, but felt they could easily get on board with a more novel-sounding 'SlutWalk', it was not without its problems.
SlutWalk has been widely criticized over the past year for a number of reasons, including the idea that 'slut' was a word that could only be taken on by those who already held a certain level of privilege in society.
Back in September 2011, Black Women's Blueprint published an open letter to SlutWalk requesting that organizers "consider engaging in a re-branding and re-labeling process."
The letter stated: "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."
Another group, AF3IRM, an anti-imperialist, transnational feminist women's organization echoed this call for a reassessment of language on the parts of SlutWalk organizers, stating: "As women and descendants of women from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, we cannot truly 'reclaim' the word 'Slut'. It was never ours to begin with. This label is one forced upon us by colonizers, who transformed our women into commodities and for the entertainment of US soldiers occupying our countries for corporate America."
Both letters were widely read and referenced by feminists everywhere, yet it appears that
Vancouver organizers may be the only ones who are attempting to respond with real action and an honest effort to consider losing the "slut" aspect of SlutWalk.
Other critiques point to a lack of any deeper analysis. Leah Hippogriff, who attended the very first SlutWalk in Toronto, felt the event was too superficial and avoided addressing the "difficult issues" that contribute to a world where violence against women is acceptable.
The assertion by some SlutWalk satellites that participants and organizers were 'reclaiming' the word slut struck some feminists as problematic.
Jess West, a collective member at Vancouver Rape Relief & Women's Shelter, said that this
attempt to 'take back' slut, gave men, in particular, permission to use the word rather than
discouraging people from continuing to use the term in a sexist way.
West attended what SlutWalk Vancouver called an "unconference" this past weekend, the goal of which was to address some of these critiques and engage the community in the possibility of considering alternative language. "I think it's a great step to change the name," she said.
Over the past year, Natasha Sanders-Kay says that SlutWalk Vancouver heard the critiques and wants to address them. "There have been critiques from feminists, such as yourself, that it's buying in to the hypersexualization of girls and women," said Sanders-Kay.
"I think it's ok to be authentically sexual but I don't think it's empowering for women as a group to have our bodies to be constantly sexualized and I don't want to be part of a movement that plays a part in that mandatory hypersexualization."
The "unconference", which took place on May 26, 2012 at The Wise Hall, is something that is unique to Vancouver. Organizers wanted to, rather than simply ignore what the community was saying, give people the opportunity to provide feedback, engage in discussions, and even be part of a decision as to whether or not Slutwalk Vancouver should change their name.
Natasha Sanders-Kay, who helped to organize last year's Slutwalk in Vancouver and worked to put together the unconference this year, said: "We wanted to be receptive to criticisms and use the opportunity of a smaller scale format than a march to talk more critically about the issues that the march was supposed to be about - victim blaming, sex-shaming and rape."
"I've reflected a lot on criticisms from the past year. I've learned to be more careful and more inclusive in the decision making process for important things such as this. Language can mean different things to different people," she said. As such, SlutWalk Vancouver, who up until recently was not planning on holding a march this year, has put up a poll on their Facebook page, asking people to vote on a possible name-change.
The movement has clearly inspired and moved many people. All critiques aside, the sad truth is that an inordinate amount of women in this world have experienced sexual assault. Not only that but we know that, as women, it is likely that we will be blamed for that assault in one way or another. Either we were wearing the wrong outfit, we were in the wrong part of town, we acted too flirtatiously, we didn't say "no" clearly enough, etc., etc. There is no end to the ways in which women are held responsible for their own abuse.
As such, many people support the movement while simultaneously having serious concerns. "I was swept up in the groundswell of interest in taking on victim-blaming as it relates to sexual violence against girls and women. Along with that I also felt conflicted," said Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director of Battered Women's Support Services (BWSS).
MacDougall attended SlutWalk in Vancouver last spring with 30 other women from BWSS, including women who access their services, volunteers and staff. "We had a significant representation of indigenous women, immigrant women and women of colour. We wanted to bring some level of analysis around the name and a perspective of intersectionality," she added.
Chantelle Krish, manager of advocacy and public relations at YWCA Metro Vancouver, also
attended the unconference and was impressed by Slutwalk Vancouver's interest in addressing these issues. "It shows that [organizers] are really listening and that's a good sign of a movement growing and developing and moving forward."
While other Slutwalks across the continent continue as always, Vancouver is taking a more
challenging approach, but hopefully the one that will bring more reward in terms of building a solid and inclusive movement.
Perhaps other organizers might consider following Vancouver's lead, actively address criticisms and respond to demands to move forward with SlutWalk without the "slut."
Meghan Murphy has a Masters degree in Women's Studies and is a regular contributor to rabble.ca.
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