In Philadelphia, the anti-victim-blaming protest
SlutWalk has been officially renamed “SlutWalk Philly and Pussy Division present: A March to End Rape Culture” in time for the 2013 event this Saturday, September 28.
The organizers explained their reasoning behind the name change in an open letter recently posted online. The letter reads, in part:
In 2011, at SlutWalk NYC, a white woman in attendance brought a sign on which was written a John Lennon and Yoko Ono song lyric: “Woman is the n**ger of the world.” As you might imagine, this deeply offended many people. The woman who held the sign was asked to take it down, and the national and international SlutWalk communities began a serious discussion on the role that race plays in SlutWalks. Black Women’s Blueprint published an open letter declaring that they, as black women, cannot identify with the word “slut” and many came forward in the African American community and in other communities to express the same or similar sentiments.
For some communities, the word “slut” is a term they have not been called and cannot relate to in order to reclaim it in any capacity. Systems of oppression have colonized, commodified, or otherwise rewritten their sexualities for centuries, making acts of sexual violence against them a permissible and far too often, expected, occurrence. These are the people who are perhaps the most affected by the victim blaming SlutWalk stands against, regardless of any “slutty” dress or behavior, they are considered by some to be “asking for it” simply by being who they are.
We have decided to put the word “slut” in the background of the title of the march this year out of a desire to include all those who experience rape culture and want to fight it with us and to bring together as many communities and organizations in Philly and the surrounding areas as possible. We are calling this year’s march simply “A March to End Rape Culture,” as the concept of “rape culture” has been one that has been identified in many forums and communities to describe the cultural forces which conspire to make it so that sexual violence occurs so often, and with so few of the perpetrators being held accountable for their actions.
While the poster incident in New York in October 2011 indeed galvanized a wave of backlash against SlutWalk, critics had been pointing out problems since the beginning.
The word “slut” is an inherent part of the movement’s genesis and identity; the first SlutWalk was organized after a Canadian police officer advised that to help avoid assault, women “should avoid dressing like sluts.” The idea, from the beginning, was to reclaim the word “slut” from oppressors who use it to police—literally and figuratively—which women can be assaulted without legal and social consequence.
But the word “slut” doesn’t resonate with all women. “I felt the word ‘slut’ didn’t speak to me; I found the word ‘ho’ more damaging,” wrote Andrea Plaid at AlterNet in the summer of 2011. ”Of course, I also thought this word broke down in the black/white binary.” She added that SlutWalk “came off as another word-reclamation project that seemed to recenter white cisgender women’s sexual agency and bodies.”
That September, a large group of organizations and individuals signed off on “An Open Letter from Black Women to the SlutWalk
,” which said:
In the United States, where slavery constructed Black female sexualities, Jim Crow kidnappings, rape and lynchings, gender misrepresentations, and more recently, where the Black female immigrant struggle combine, “slut” has different associations for Black women. We do not recognize ourselves nor do we see our lived experiences reflected within SlutWalk and especially not in its brand and its label. As Black women, we do not have the privilege or the space to call ourselves “slut” without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the Black woman is.
At Philadelphia’s first SlutWalk, invited speaker and documentary filmmaker Aishah Shahidah Simmons used the platform of the event to criticize its exclusionary framing, while also expressing solidarity in the fight against a culture that condones sexual violence.
“I am a Black feminist lesbian who is a survivor of incest and rape,” Simmons told the crowd of mostly (but not all) young white women. “No, victim-blaming is not going to stop because we are all here participating in SlutWalk Philadelphia. If only it were that easy. However, I believe it is important that the faces, voices, and perspectives of women of color (inclusive of all sexualities) and trans people of color are seen and heard.”
The organizers heard the critiques loud and clear.
“Almost all of our speakers at our first walk said that they were not interested in reclaiming it,” Katie Bellis told RH Reality Check, sitting across a table from Nicole, her fellow organizer (who asked not to share her last name). The table is littered with materials to make handmade buttons for this weekend’s march. “The message about that has always been, ‘You’re welcome to reclaim [the word slut], if you want or you can abstain.’”
Last year, the two women called a meeting to discuss changing the name in time for the 2012 event. The problem, they say, is that they couldn’t decide on a new name.
“My question was always, OK, so we are in agreement that the word ‘slut’ is not inclusive to everyone, and we need a new name,” said Bellis. “So what should we change it to? What should we do instead? And no one ever had an answer, so that was part of the reason we held onto it, and also in solidarity for walks everywhere.”
Then this year, in collaboration with feminist activist group Pussy Division, they decided to keep SlutWalk “in the background” by referring to the organizers as SlutWalk Philly, while calling the event “A March to End Rape Culture.”
Meanwhile, half of the buttons they’re cranking out say “End Rape Culture,” while the other half feature the word “slut” in a red-letter design that echoes Philadelphia’s famous Robert Indiana “LOVE” statue. They say at last year’s march, they sold out of “slut” buttons in the first hour. They assume they will be popular this year too.
“A lot of people are still calling it SlutWalk, even though we’re not calling it that anymore,” said Bellis. “People on the [Facebook] event page are saying, I’m so excited for Slutwalk. We’re calling it ‘A March to End Rape Culture,’ but SlutWalk Philly still exists, that’s just not what this event is called. And there are people still interested in reclaiming the word.”
Nicole gets frustrated when people ask her why she bothers working on SlutWalk. “If it wasn’t helping,” she says, “why at every walk do people come up to us and say how therapeutic it was for them, and that it helped them get over their experience with sexual violence?”
While celebrating the inclusivity of dropping the word “slut” out of the event’s title, organizers have concerns for the new name as well.
“It’s an educational privilege,” said Bellis. “Not everyone knows what rape culture is, so it’s still not entirely inclusive.”