Photo by Celia Edell
Last Friday, the streets of Toronto were filled with pissed-off chants decrying sexual assault and violence. The occasion? SlutWalk. Hundreds of women, trans folk – and a good number of men too — converged upon Nathan Phillips Square in support of the second annual SlutWalk, to demonstrate ownership of their bodies, and the right to freedom from sexual violence.
While the choice of the name SlutWalk has confused many, the demonstration is hardly about women fighting for the right to “dress slutty”– it’s about our right to be defined by who we are, not what we wear. It isn’t revealing clothes that transform women into sexual objects; the dirty work has already been done by media and advertising, which continue to use women’s bodies as objects of both desire and aspiration. Plenty of women showed up to the march in revealing clothing: short skirts, bras-as-shirts, and some even exercised their legal right to appear topless in public. But just as many showed up in casual summer wear. One mom even brought her stroller and donned a t-shirt that read “Moms heart Sluts.”
There was no shortage of sign-bearing placards, but some women took the concept of a ‘fashion statement’ literally, proclaiming messages like “I heart consent” directly on their bodies with paint. One woman wrote “Set your wild woman free” in body paint on her chest, with black electrical tape doubling as nipple pasties, her back a call to “end patriarchy.”
The best outfit of the day was a woman wearing a dress made out of pink balloons, with matching heels and elbow gloves. One of the more confusing style statements involved slutty nuns aka dudes dressed up in nun habits and white make-up, carrying signs that read “Hands off our Habits.”
To discuss the fashion of SlutWalk is not to trivialize the message behind the mobilization, because where would we be without the acknowledgement that clothing plays a powerful role in our interactions with the world?
For many women, wearing good clothing provides confidence, which translates into power. But according to some, certain articles of clothing can also give others the right to harass women and strip their power and dignity away. Street harassment is not a compliment. It is a gross invasion of privacy that takes for granted that a woman’s body is not public property, to which we all have the right of freedom of speech. Street harassment can make a woman feel like a shell of a person, defined only by their physical characteristics with nothing of value left inside.
The origins of SlutWalk have been well documented. On January 24th, 2011 a talk on crime prevention devolved into an attack on women’s freedom of dress when Constable Michael Sanguinetti addressed students with; “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this — however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” Toronto women spread the word, organized and the first ever SlutWalk was held in Queen’s Park on April 3rd, 2011. Since then, SlutWalk has become the most exciting (and fashionable) example of feminist action in the age of the internet. Like the Arab Spring, news of the revolution travelled through social media and soon after there were SlutWalks happening in Vancouver, New York City, Atlanta– all over the world.
Since its inception, SlutWalk has been mired in extreme backlash from both sides: from the old guard who ‘just don’t get it’ to the critical race feminists commenting on SlutWalk’s limited appeal to women of colour, who have a different history and relationship with the word ‘slut.’ SlutWalk co-founder Heather Jarvis has admitted that the word ‘slut’ can be problematic, but “the name was chosen for us” thanks to a douche-y cop that probably regrets not doing what he was told.
Even a year after the dialogue about SlutWalk began, some people are still getting it dead wrong. Reporter Mike Strobel wrote a self-congratulatory article called “Flaw in the Slutwalk Argument,” for the Toronto Sun, patting himself on the patriarchal back for outsmarting those silly feminists. He wrote that a person should not wear deer-coloured clothing in prime hunting territory in order to avoid getting shot.
The flaw in Strobel’s argument is that his thinly-veiled metaphor echoes Constable Sanguinetti’s sentiments exactly, and he doesn’t even seem to realize it. His condescending conclusion that “safety trumps feminism” is the exact reason why we need feminism and demonstrations like SlutWalk to remind us to place blame where it belongs: on the perpetrator of violence, not the victim.
For as long as it exists, SlutWalk will continue to facilitate discussions on sexual violence, the objectification of women and the importance of clothing to personal identity. As feminists, we will continue to smash the gender stereotypes that have been unwantingly assigned to us… and have a damned good time doing it.
Isabel Slone is a Toronto-based fashion blogger and writer. Follow her on Twitter at @isabelslone.