“What does one wear to a SlutWalk?” I asked myself as I combed through my closet. A strapless romper? Too dated. A white pleated sundress? Too summer wedding. “What do you think I should wear?” I asked Solomon, my partner of thirteen years, who was becoming as exasperated by my private catwalk as I was. “Whatever you want,” he answered. “Isn’t that the point?”
It was indeed the point. SlutWalk, an anti-rape march and street protest that has gone viral, is as much about freedom of expression as it is a political protest. The first SlutWalk, organized last April by Heather Jarvis and Sonya Barnett in Toronto, was a response to a Toronto police officer telling a group of students in a public safety class that women "should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized." Since then, more than seventy SlutWalks have popped up in places as diverse as Chicago, Berlin, Cape Town, New Delhi and Mexico City. New York City’s highly anticipated SlutWalk is scheduled to take place on October 1.
In the United States, SlutWalks have been greeted with a mixed response. Feminist icon Alice Walker recently told the online magazine Guernica that she “always understood the word ‘slut’ to mean a woman who freely enjoys her own sexuality,” and observes that “the spontaneous movement that has grown around reclaiming this word speaks to women’s resistance of having names turned into weapons against them.” I agree. In her op-ed in the Washington Post, Jessica Valenti, founder of Feministing.com and author of the Purity Myth, wrote, “SlutWalks have become the most successful feminist action of the past twenty years.”
But SlutWalk’s critics abound, and their ranks are as diverse as the movement’s supporters. “I think when a woman is dressing in an immodest way, in a provocative way, she has got think about what is she saying by her dress,” said conservative singer/songwriter Rebecca St. James on the Fox News show Hannity, confirming that women also participate in victim-blaming. Meanwhile, writer Rebecca Traister penned the most visible feminist criticism of the marches in The New York Times Magazine; in “Ladies, We Have a Problem.” Traister described the SlutWalkers as “dressed in what look like sexy stewardess Halloween costumes” which “seems less like victory than capitulation (linguistic and sartorial) to what society already expects of its young women.”
Sexy stewardess, however, wasn’t quite what I had in mind that morning—and Traister, like many of SlutWalk’s critics, seems to have missed a critical aspect of the march’s pageantry. While many participants at the DC march I participated in wore in jeans and sneakers, the women who stood out the most were rape survivors wearing the clothes they had been assaulted in—from pajamas to thigh-high boots—carrying signs that said, “This Is What I Was Wearing When I Was Raped.”