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Gender + Sexuality

So What, I'm a Slut

Slutwalk Vancouver, the next step in a controversial women's empowerment movement.

Katie Hyslop 13 May

Katie Hyslop is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

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Marchers show off freshly-painted Slutwalk signs at Vancouver's PACE Society. Photo: Robyn Smith.

When a Toronto police officer controversially advised women to "stop dressing like sluts" earlier this year, suggesting preventing sexual assault was a woman's responsibility, he probably didn't dream his careless remarks would spark Slutwalk marches worldwide -- including in Vancouver, which is holding it's own demonstration against victim-blaming on May 15.

But while most women's, anti-violence, and civil liberties groups agree victim blaming is wrong, there is division over the use of the term slut -- whether it can be re-appropriated to empower women, and whether participants dressing in a manner some regard as provocative will actually change society's view on who is responsible for sexual assault.

While the Slutwalk movement was spawned by comments from a Toronto Police Service officer, Slutwalk Vancouver co-organizer Katie Raso says victim blaming is a problem in B.C., too, citing a recent Saanich Police Department release that warned women to not walk at night or alone to avoid sex assault.

"A young woman was abducted and assaulted repeatedly in a van at 10:30 at night in Saanich, and the Saanich police reportedly made some comments about how young women need to protect themselves. They've since retracted those comments," says Raso, citing this as one of the reasons for a Slutwalk in Vancouver.

But there's more going on than just errant police statements. Vancouver's sex assault rates are rising despite a drop in all other violent crime, and according to Raso, it's indicative of a culture of blame.

"We need to start breaking down who's affected by this and what we are doing to facilitate these acts of violence, and I really believe that victim blaming and excusing away violence creates the conditions for future violence," she says, adding that women are just as guilty as men for blaming victims.

"Whenever we talk about other women and we degrade them based on what we perceive to be their sexual behaviour, and we make judgments on a woman's worth based on how she's dressed or how she's acting, we're immediately feeding into a victim blaming culture.

"If I was assaulted, I wouldn't want the immediate response from the women in my community to be an inquisition into how I had it coming. I would like to know that we would stand together and say this is unacceptable. But that's not where we are right now."

What's 'slut' got to do with it?

Controversy over the use of slut may be overpowering Raso's message, however. Newspaper editorial pages, online forums, and morning radio shows are debating the use of the term in an effort to empower women.

Karen Mirsky, a lawyer and media representative for the board of directors of PACE Society, a non-profit organization that offers sex-worker-led and focused programming and services for survival sex workers in the Downtown Eastside, is marching on Sunday, but says she's conflicted over the use of slut.

"I get the language around owning words and labels and appropriating it or re-appropriating it to your own use, but I'm not sure that I'm there yet. I don't see slut as a term of sexual equality or of sexual choice or sexual freedom," she told The Tyee.

Instead of painting slut on her banner, Mirsky, who coordinated a PACE Slutwalk sign-making workshop earlier this week, opted for a more personal word on her placard.

"(It says) 'Mine,' with an arrow that goes down," she says. "The sign will refer to my physical person, and my physical person is mine. It's my choice to dress how I want, it's my choice to have whichever partner or partners I feel I would like to engage with, and how I would like to engage with them, and my personal reasons for it."

Despite starting the Vancouver event, Raso found she also felt conflicted over the "slut" label. But after careful consideration, she decided it wasn't just about what the Toronto police officer said -- it's the best word to represent the idea behind the march.

"This isn't about just acts of violence, it's about the culture that allows those acts of violence to happen, and that says 'Hey, these acts of violence are okay because certain women are worth less.' And to me, all of that victim blaming, that sex shaming, that excusing way, that's all summed up in the word slut," she says.

Most vulnerable unlikely to march

PACE Society debated joining the march, because they feel those most victimized by sexual assault -- survival sex workers, Aboriginal women, and immigrant women -- won't be represented during the march, which is avoiding the Downtown Eastside and walking the Granville strip instead. Given the blessing of their members, PACE decided to carry their banner in the march with only staff and volunteers taking part.

Raso says Slutwalk Vancouver, a largely grassroots effort of concerned citizens and partner groups including Pivot Legal Society, Women Against Violence Against Women, and Youth Co., tried to include members of the Aboriginal community and survival sex workers from the Downtown Eastside. While they secured the support of an Aboriginal drum circle, who will open the event in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Raso admits representatives from the sex worker community were harder to reach.

"I am sad that we weren't able to do more outreach, but that's also part of the reason that the march isn't going into the Downtown Eastside directly -- that's not the story of the women who are organizing, and we are trying to be respectful. We will speak to the fact that we need to recognize that there are groups that are more affected, who will not be as strongly represented at this march as they should be," she told The Tyee, adding a sex worker will be speaking to the crowd on Sunday, but she does not operate out of the Downtown Eastside.

Fighting with fishnets

While Vancouver's march may take place under umbrellas, the Slutwalks in Toronto and other cities featured marchers wearing fishnets, high heels, and miniskirts, asserting a woman should be able to dress how she pleases without worrying about sexual assault.

But donning the stereotypical uniform of a "slut" has also created controversy, with some in the feminist movement arguing it's no path to equality. Earlier this week, the CBC's Q radio show held a heated on-air debate between Toronto Slutwalk co-founder Heather Jarvis and Gail Dines, an anti-pornography activist and lecturer, over the use of the term slut, where Dines outlined her position against women marching in such a manner.

"Wearing fishnets and walking around looking like what men think of women as sluts is not going to change the major structure of society that leads to violence against women," Dines told Q host Jian Ghomeshi.

But Mirsky disagrees, saying provocation is in the eye of the beholder.

"Other people have very different ideas of what provocative is; it's social, cultural, religious, but the bottom line is it's a personal decision, and just because you're making a personal decision, it doesn't mean that you're telling people that you want to be violated or sexually assaulted -- there's such a thing as look, but don't touch," she told The Tyee.

Scott A. Anderson, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia who specializes in ethics and political philosophy concerning coercion, power, sex, and gender, says Slutwalk isn't going to change anyone's mind overnight about what it means to be a slut or how a woman should or should not dress, but it's a start.

"I think that changing social norms requires many, many sources of resistance and protest, so no particular event or protest is likely to have a significant impact in and of itself," he says.

"(But) insofar as Slutwalk is making the case that women can take the sting out of a term that has been used to deprecate and confine women to certain norms, doing something to disassociate the harms done to them from their use of sexuality is, I think, a good thing in general."  [Tyee]

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