Since late May, various people have been asking me to weigh in on the growing SlutWalk movement. (A typical text: “Hey girl! Have you heard about this sluts walk [sic]? Wld love to hear your take!” Less typical, but still worth citing: “People are confused about why you’re not writing about SlutWalk. It’s big news and you seem to be ignoring it.”)
I’ll tell you (part of) what I told them: I haven’t publicly shared my thoughts and feelings about SlutWalk because they’re not coherent—yet.
Still, my ambivalence is no excuse for a lack of coverage. It started in April as a Toronto-based activist response to a male public safety officer who told a group of college women they could avoid rape by not dressing like sluts. It is now truly global. Local organizers have raised funds, secured space, and gathered crowds throughout Canada and the U.S. Folks have hit the streets of Brisbane, Sao Paulo, Copenhagen and Praha, Czechoslovakia. There are March de las Putas in the works in Mexico City and Buenos Aires. Hong Kong is on board. At the rate this movement is growing, I wouldn’t be surprised if they pulled off SlutWalk Mars.
Tomorrow, Philadelphia (my hometown) will host its first SlutWalk. Speakers include Qui Alexander, a black and Latino trans community health educator; Deepa Kumar, an Indian media studies professor and author; and the city’s own Aishah Shahidah Simmons, a black lesbian feminist filmmaker and sexual violence survivor.
I chatted with Simmons about how and why she got down with the SlutWalk movement. Excerpts of that conversation below:
One of the common critiques of SlutWalk is that it isn’t racially inclusive. How did you get involved with the Philly march?
The organizers reached out to me and asked if I was willing to be one of the speakers. [At first] I was indifferent to the SlutWalk movement. I kind of cringed at the title. But the more I read about it, the more I was like, ‘Yeah!’
What bothered you about it?
Well, black women have been called sluts, whores and skank whores from the beginning. So I wondered why we would embrace the term ‘slut’ [without] any kind of analysis about what it means for all women, but especially women of color. Also, I just wasn’t sure if this was a multiracial movement. But it’s grown a lot; there’s a SlutWalk in the works in Malaysia, a Muslim country where a lot of the women are covered!
I think it’s interesting how SlutWalk has galvanized so many people given that ‘slut’ is such a specific slur. I mean, I’ve never been called a “slut” to my face. “Ho” and “bitch,” certainly, but not “slut.” Why do you think it resonates?
Whether you’re wearing a [Muslim] chador or a thong, there’s so much out there controlling women’s lives. I think women everywhere want to control their own lives and not be penalized with rape for what they wear.
What do you make of the criticism SlutWalk has gotten from the feminist community?
Well, I define myself as Third Wave feminist and I’ve noticed how many Second Wavers are having tremendous difficulty with this march because they think women marching in hot pants or thongs are taking us back. But I don’t want to lose sight of the fact, regardless of what I think about the term “slut” or how we might be conforming to patriarchal notions of what is attractive, the penalty should never be rape. I think about Take Back the Night, which was founded in the ’70s. I’m sure some people were like, ‘What do you mean take back the night? You shouldn’t be out at night!’ The conflict reminds me of how Ella Baker insisted on letting the young folk lead in SNCC. When young people create something, it’s scary. That’s why it’s important to have dialogue where learning is on both sides.
In your travels, what have you been hearing about SlutWalk?
I happened to be in Vancouver screening my documentary the day before their SlutWalk, and I talked to South Asian, North Asian and indigenous women who we’re going despite their concerns. They were adamant about not walking under the slut banner, especially without any analysis of their history. The indigenous women talked about how their [ancestors] had been systematically raped by white men in an effort to exterminate their race. Japanese women talked about how their families had been parceled throughout Canada during World War II. Despite the differences in their histories, I appreciated the solidarity amongst women of color there. They had their reservations, but they went and made it based on their realities.
OK, so Saturday when you speak in Philly, if you’re talking to a crowd that is 99 percent young white women in fishnets, will it be a victory for you?
If those women feel empowered, especially if they’re rape surviors in fishnets, yes it will be a victory for them. But in terms of a broader movement I would feel sad. The goal is for it be multiracial and for us to be in chadors, as well as fishnets and suits. We want fully garbed Muslim women and sex workers. We definitely need transpeople of color there—they’re the most vulnerable to sexual violence. I come into this as a rape and incest survivor, a lesbian, a feminst, and a woman of African descent. That’s what I’m going to talk about and I hope people of color are there to hear me.