I worry about Slut Walk. You’ve heard about it, of course. Back in April (which in our age of social networking is like saying back in 1903), a group of Toronto protesters spearheaded by Heather Jarvis and Sonya Barnett, began rallying to protest a Toronto policeman’s thoughtless words. Speaking at a York University safety forum in January, Michael Sanguinetti advised women to “avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” While he later apologized, the victim-blaming tenor of his statement may be a mixed blessing; it has spurred women across the country to action.
I’m more than familiar with taking back epithets. Just this week I took back neurotic and hirsute. I’m also aware of the peculiar wallop the word “slut” packs, having had it used against me in seventh grade by a girl I’d hoped would become my best friend. This was in the good old days, before sexting and vlogs when you could ruin a girl’s reputation without getting carpel tunnel syndrome. At the time, my sex life consisted of picturing Scott Bakula’s chest, so perhaps what set the girl off was my proclivity for wearing fishnet stockings while my classmates stuck with identical aqua Gap T’s and rolled cuffed jeans. Whatever her motive, the word kept me in modest attire for the next decade.
Letting the air out of the word “Slut” is one minor aspect of Slut Walk’s purpose. Chicago co-organizer Jessica Skolnik hopes the event, set for Saturday June 4th, will contribute to “a revised cultural attitude toward rape, [and change] the culture around victim-blaming, [allowing women to] exist in the world without fear of harassment and to engage in consensual sexual behavior without judgment.”
Writer Randi Black, who plans to attend, agrees. “Some people still don’t realize that rape is about power, and not sex,” she says. “Rape happens because people have a sense of entitlement. I hope spectators will realize those who commit sexual assault are ultimately responsible. Just because we might be dressed provocatively and calling ourselves sluts doesn’t give anyone an excuse to do whatever they want to us.”
Others, like Division|Collective curator Cortney Philip take a lighter tone. “Slut Walk,” she says, “is about having choices. When I stand in front of my closet in the morning, the last thing I want to hear is someone else's voice in my head telling me that I should dress to look attractive, but not so attractive as to invite assault. Or I could just be going because it looks like a good party.”
While organizer Jamie Lauren Keiles has no problem with any of these viewpoints, she believes “awareness-raising is important, but one event isn’t going to solve everything.” Known for “The Seventeen Magazine Project,” a blog she created in 2010 to document the month she spent living according to the gospel of Seventeen Magazine, Keiles credits the internet for “shaping [her] understanding of feminism. I was raised in a house with two working parents and a mom that kicked major ass, [but] I don’t think I started identifying as a feminist until I started reading blogs. I realized feminism was more than 70s-style bra-burning, [rather] feminists were a diverse group.”
And uniting that group is one of Skolnik’s chief goals for Slut Walk. Excited to gather “the broad coalition of people doing work for survivors' rights, sex workers' rights, and other progressive/feminist causes,” she believes “in order for culture to change, it's important that activist groups join forces. Right now, many groups are focused on direct provision of services (which is really important!) and don't often get the chance to join together like this.”
Clearly those organizing and drawn to Slut Walk offer a myriad of compelling reasons and objectives for their involvement, however, there’s something uncomfortably ‘Girls Gone Wild’ about the event. I support the idea that women should wear what moves them without fear of sexual assault. I celebrate the neutralization of ‘slut,’ a sex-negative word both men and women employ to govern women’s bodies and lives, but I worry that part of the attraction to Slut Walk is its relationship to the male gaze. Not to say that women, straight or queer can’t dress sexy for other women, but isn’t there a way in which what we view as slutty/sexy/racy is defined by the mainstream? Doesn’t then our participation in something like Slut Walk objectify us, even if by our choosing? What’s the difference between dressing like a slut to protest victim blaming and dressing like a slut to sell beer?
Keiles has a different take. “It has to do with agency for me. A half-naked lady as a form of protest feels a lot different to me than a half-naked lady as pandering to the male-gaze. I think there is something somewhat terrifying, somewhat jarring, about a person, especially a woman putting herself out there as a “f*ck you” as opposed to a “f*ck me.” That said, this event isn’t about getting naked. Some people might identify with that type of protest. Others might not. This isn’t about making a spectacle of your body, it is about giving people control over their own identity, whatever that entails. This is an event about ideas, not about clothes.”
Phillip agrees. “Each woman is an individual and entitled to make these individual choices about sex, clothing, safety, and even the power of words. Feminism fails when it becomes so militant that it tries to make us all the same. There's more than enough room for conflicting viewpoints on the word slut, and having these arguments is a great way to keep the dialogue open and to keep ourselves constantly reevaluating our own choices.”
So what will each unique participant wear?
Jamie Lauren Keiles
Keiles: Probably a muscle shirt. I don’t get many opportunities to show off my bubby arms. Maybe some kind of 90s-style Empire-Records-esque crop top.
Skolnik: All I can say is that I'm screen-printing a shirt for the event that's a riff on one of my favorite classic '80s Texas punk 7"s.
Phillip: I'm not terribly interested in the idea of putting on a special slut outfit (or dressing up in general), so probably whatever I'd be wearing on a normal Saturday. Also, sunscreen.
Black: Something that makes me look like I’m asking for it, along with comfortable shoes.
Slut Walk Chicago begins at 11 a.m. Saturday June 4. To view the itinerary go here.
A freelance writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum, when not writing, supports herself as a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago's Story Studio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually. IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by followingOur Town on Facebook and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez