October 8, 2011
Last weekend, I went to SlutWalk NYC. I went as a student, a journalist, an activist and – of course – a feminist; in solidarity with those who have been victims of sexual assault; a member of a university community; and, in the end, because I was curious.
And – because it seems to matter – I wore jeans, a t-shirt, and dirty Converse sneakers. Some marchers wore less, baring their legs, stomachs, or breasts. Some, like me, came by themselves. Some were dragged along by their friends. Some brought their partners, their children, or their dogs. We walked through the streets of New York with bullhorns and signs, sharing granola bars and losing our voices. I learned that the area where the march was held, the Ninth Precinct, was the area in which two on-duty police officers had assaulted a woman in December 2008. They were acquitted of rape in May 2011, and charged with official misconduct in August. This case, as well as a Brooklyn police officer who, only days before, had suggested that Park Slope women’s short skirts were responsible for a series of rapes in the neighborhood, was fresh in many marchers’ minds.
Plenty has already been said about the SlutWalk movement since April, when the original Toronto event was held. A movement as audacious and controversial as SlutWalk is not without its critics. Blogger Meghan Murphy writes, “Getting attention is easy. Being a feminist is hard.” The movement’s title got plenty of attention, but explaining its wider implications was, of course, hard.
“Slut” isn’t a word I personally feel the need to reclaim. Much of the controversy around SlutWalk has come from people like me – opposed to and disgusted by the culture of victim-blaming and rape-apologism, but uneasy about our relationship to the word “slut” itself. But I do not believe that the march’s use of the word “slut” was meant simply to promote reckless exhibitionism, and I do not believe that my own relationship to the word means that I cannot be part of the movement. Activists have always believed in – in the words of Bitch magazine’s founder Andi Zeisler – “the positive power of language reclamation.” A word that is unequivocally derogatory need not remain so. It’s happened with “bitch” and “queer,” – so why not “slut?”
There are many possible answers to that question, but debate has been particularly contentious among communities of women of color. A September “Open Letter from Black Women to the SlutWalk” objected to the SlutWalk movement on the basis of the word’s history in the context of racist conceptions of these women’s sexuality. As a white woman, I can’t speak to that. The reclamation of the word “slut” is, after all, a privilege, and for many, it recalls a painful past.
Whatever one’s objections are to the movement, it is undeniable that the SlutWalk NYC organizers did truly amazing work making the event happen. Never mind their tireless publicizing or their meticulous attention to logistics. The march was planned with its participants in mind. Knowing that many would have histories of abuse, the organizers trained counselors to talk to any participant who felt triggered or unsafe. No one was photographed or videotaped without his or her consent. Particular care was taken to make sure that no group – queer, black, disabled, Spanish-speaking – felt uncomfortable or excluded.
They also realized that, in the words of Andrea, a volunteer I met, “if it ends here, it’s useless.” SlutWalk has gathered the energy of an incredible feminist, activist community in the New York area, and their work has not ended. SlutWalk was not a stunt. The diversity of its participants speaks to the range of concerns that feminism needs to continue to confront. The Toronto incident, while it may have been the last straw, will not be the last word. Work – hard, necessary, brave work – remains to be done in almost every community.
A week after SlutWalk, I’m still unsure about my desire to reclaim the word “slut.” Like blogger Harsha Waila, “Even though I did not march under the banner of ‘sluthood’, I marched to mark the unceded territory of women’s bodies.” But what does slut mean? At its core, it means: a woman who wants more than she should, says things she shouldn’t and refuses to apologize. If the SlutWalk can mobilize thousands in dozens of cities, I support it. As long as men catcall my friends on the streets of New Haven, as long as someone in a dining hall says they were “raped” by a test, as long as Yale student groups deny the existence of a hostile sexual climate – I’ll walk.
Julia Calagiovanni is a freshman in Yale College. She is a staff writer for Broad Recognition.