“SlutWalks” Sparking an Important Conversation About Sexual Assaults

By Rachel Friedlander, Student Writer for The Journal of Gender, Race & Justice

When I did my daily news sweep a few days ago, I was pretty surprised to see the headline “SlutWalk Participants March Through Ann Arbor” in my local newspaper.  Now don’t get me wrong—I’m used to hearing my fellow townies advocate for some pretty…unusual…causes (did you know that buildings over four stories create wind tunnels?), but this one sounded a little out there, even for Ann Arbor.  Expecting the worst, I clicked on the article, and was pleasantly surprised by what I learned.

Phot courtesy of Huffington Post.

Despite its provocative name, SlutWalk is an international movement focused on “eradicat[ing] victim-blaming from conversations about sexual assault.”  Two students in Toronto, Canada organized the first SlutWalk in response to comments made by Toronto Police Constable Michael Sanguinetti.  At an Osgoode Hall Law School safety forum on January 24, 2011, Sanguinetti told students that to prevent sexual assaults, they should “avoid dressing like sluts.”  Despite a formal written apology by the constable, the first SlutWalk was held in Toronto on April 3, 2011 with approximately 3,000 participants to “shift the paradigm of mainstream rape culture, which they believe focuses on analyzing the behavior of the victim rather than that of the perpetrator.”  Since then, more than seventy SlutWalks have taken place in cities across the globe, including Chicago, Berlin, Cape Town, New Delhi, Mexico City, New York City, and now Ann Arbor, MI.

SlutWalks, however, have not been free of controversy and criticism.  In my opinion, one of the most compelling criticisms comes from Rebecca Traister for The New York Times Magazine:

“I wanted to love SlutWalks. … To object to these ugly characterizations is right and righteous.  But to do so while dressed in what looks like sexy stewardess Halloween costumes seems less like victory than capitulation (linguistic and sartorial) to what society already expects of its young women. … So while the mission of SlutWalks is crucial, the package is confusing and leaves young feminists open to the very kind of attacks they are battling.”

Dozens of other commentators, while embracing the greater message of the movement, have criticized SlutWalks for sending mixed messages to young women and for failing to fully appreciate the complex relationship between race and sexual assault that makes it difficult for many women to embrace the word “slut.”

Despite the controversy surrounding SlutWalks, I think that they are an important response to damaging attitudes that suggest that a woman’s clothing choices (whether “provocative” or not) somehow means that she is “deserving” of unwanted sexual advances or assaults.  The comments following annarbor.com’s coverage of the SlutWalks alone suggests that, even in a community known for its diversity and Progressive nature, there are serious misconceptions about sexual assault that need to be addressed—first and foremost, that we need to be critical of the behavior of aggressors, not the victims.  Hopefully the courageous women who attend these rallies in the clothing they were assaulted in, share their stories, and fight against misconception supported by their allies will begin to break down societal misconceptions about sexual assault in communities worldwide.