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It was January 2011, when Toronto Police Const. Michael Sanguinetti told a group of students at York University that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized," shocking survivors and allies. In Toronto, their outrage was harnessed by the SlutWalk, a response organized by local feminists Heather Jarvis and Sonya Barnett.
Though they expected around 200 people to attend the event, thousands joined them on their march to Queen's Park. Since its inception, the SlutWalk has gone global, with marches happening in 200 cities, on every continent save Antarctica. Co-founder of Feministing.com, Jessica Valenti has called the SlutWalks "the future of feminism."
But a lot has changed since 2011. Natalee Brouse attended the first SlutWalk and has been official organizer since 2012. I spoke with her about how the SlutWalk has changed.
The first walk was very well-attended and well-covered by mainstream media -- nowadays terms like rape culture are emerging as commonly used terms. How have you found this progress affects the SlutWalk movement?
It's really hard to say because everything sort of happened at once.
We can't really tell if it's because of us or if it happened organically. We do know that when the Toronto SlutWalk started, it went global. Not of our own doing even, none of the organizers ever petitioned other cities to get involved. Just, since the news picked up on it, people in their own communities decided "hey, we're fed up too!" I have no idea if that affected "rape culture" and terms like that coming into mainstream usage, but I'm certain it hasn't hurt. I'm certain it has opened up a lot of conversations for a lot of people that they otherwise wouldn't have the language to speak to what they're really experiencing. I think that's why terms like SlutWalk and slut shaming spoke to a lot of people. It's like "yes, that's what I've been experiencing. Now I have some language I can start describing what is going on with me."
I'd say that we're helping, but it's been a long battle to this point, even long before the SlutWalk came about and it will be a long battle to go. Things are getting better in some circles, but I can't say we can even see the finish line.
How has the movement changed as it's grown?
With issues of intersectionality, we're becoming more and more aware of things that we hadn't necessarily thought of at first -- because the first march was just a reaction to that officer's comments. It was specifically related to issues going on in Toronto. And so when things started getting picked up globally and we were getting these very valid criticisms. We're imperfect. We're just a group of volunteers trying to get together and get a message out there. When these things come up, we take a step back, we talk together and try to figure out how can we be more sensitive to this -- what are we doing right and what are we doing wrong? What can we start doing that isn't happening at the moment?
For example, we've been working on our wording and messaging for this year. We're highlighting things other than reclaiming the word [slut], which was an aspect of our first march. But then we got a lot of valid criticism that the white organizers were starting out much further ahead than some other marginalized groups that reclamation might be possible for us, but we're so far ahead that it could be harmful to start at that point while leaving our sisters behind.
So since our first march, reclamation has not been a part of our goals. If individuals want to reclaim the words that others have used against them, that's their prerogative, but as a movement, that's not what we're about. We're about focusing on the victim-blaming, the ways in which we diminish survivors and the ways we allow perpetrators to go basically unpunished if they hit the right word insulting the person they've abused.
This year's march, instead of having SlutWalk Toronto as the main part, our messaging is a little bit different. We're using our initials, SWTO. That's purposeful, to make it a little more accessible.
How can the SlutWalk remain relevant?
I think we just need to continue listening, talking to people, hearing criticisms and concerns. We need to just keep being honest about when something comes up. If we screw up we need to acknowledge it. We need to continue to put our egos on the backburner because what we're trying to do here is more important than coming across as being right. We have to make sure what is happening is not actively harming anyone.
We didn't have a march last year, but we did have a feminist comedy night and a screening of The Invisible War. I'd like to have more things like that. Having a march is great once a year, but it's also really great to have these events where you can talk about serious issues but you can also relax! This is feminist comedy, it's not going out to a comedy show and hearing rape jokes the entire night that trigger you and ruin your evening. If we can offer more positive alternatives for people to get together and just relax that would be a great thing we'd like to do more of.
We really worked on expanding and building our local team. This is really hard work, it's really exhausting. Having a small core group of about four or five people isn't sustainable. That's why we didn't have a march last year. So bringing in new blood is what we need to do so we can continue our work.
The SWTO is happening July 12 in Toronto. Follow @SlutwalkTO and find out more about the walk.
It's the final week of our supporter drive and we need your help to sign up 30 more supporters! Please help rabble.ca support democratic movements by Become a monthly supporter, or sharing this link with your friends and family: www.rabble.ca/donate.
Steff Pinch is the outreach and activist toolkit coordinator at rabble.ca.