This piece originally appeared on The Georgia Straight.
What did I wear to SlutWalk Vancouver? Well, like many Vancouverites do most mornings of the year, I rolled out of bed, saw that it was wet and grey outside, and pulled on my rain boots and raincoat. My mother was wearing jeans and a black track coat. On our way out the door, my dad tried to foist these hideous neon pink hats on us, saying that we didn’t look flamboyant enough for SlutWalk.
When we arrived at the Vancouver Art Gallery just before 1:00 pm, we were relieved to see that we were not the only ones who decided to dress warmly (and blandly) for the weather. Except for the brave few who dared to bare skin to demonstrate that no manner of dress is an invitation for rape, the majority of us were bundled up.
However, an earlier estimate of 1,500 participants swelled to more than 2,000 as the march took off—showing that a little rain did not keep Vancouver participants from taking a stand against sexual violence and victim-blaming. “Since 2008, rates of sexual assault in Vancouver have skyrocketed,” said SlutWalk organizer, 28-year-old student Katie Raso, as she rallied the crowd. “We are here to say that no matter where we go, and no matter what we wear, yes means yes and no always means no.”
The participants seemed to have gotten the message. They carried signs such as “Let’s Change a Don’t Get Raped Culture Into a Don’t Rape Culture” and chanted slogans like: “My little black dress does not mean yes!”
As we marched toward the Vancouver Convention Centre to the beats of a Balkan brass band and a Native drum group, I spotted a young man striding along in a short skirt and four-inch leopard-print stilettos. "It's my first time in heels," said Billy Taylor, "but I brought my sneakers in case I can’t make it the whole way."
Taylor's slightly more conservatively dressed friend, Casper LeBlanc, added: "We're here today because we want to support the end of rape culture and spread the message that there is no excuse for sexual assault." As I moved through the crowd to interview other walk participants, I felt a surge of pride for my hometown. I was inspired by the diversity of people around me. There were parents pushing strollers, groups of guys strutting around in Canucks hockey jerseys, a roller derby crew, people in suits with name tags coming straight out of a conference, kids running around, and maybe most inspiring of all, almost half of the walk participants were men.
Males of all ages carried signs saying things like “Bought Her Dinner? She Doesn’t Owe You Anything” and “Real Men Take No for An Answer”. The energy peaked when we marched through the Granville Street club district: a place where SlutWalk organizer Katie Nordgren says it’s hard to find a woman “who has ever been to a club along the Granville Strip who hasn’t been harassed or assaulted to some degree.”
While SlutWalk Vancouver seeks to raise awareness about high rates of sexual assault and victim-blaming in Canada, it is also part of a worldwide movement. More than 60 other walks have been held already or will take place during the next few months in cities as varied as London, New York, Johannesburg, and Dublin.
It all started in Toronto at York University. On January 24, Toronto police officer Const. Michael Sanguinetti said to a group of students at a safety seminar: “Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” That was the last straw for many Toronto citizens. On April 3, more than 3,000 people took a stand against victim-blaming and participated in what organizers billed as SlutWalk Toronto.
On March 31, Vancouver Simon Fraser University student Josh Tabish emailed fellow communications undergrad Katie Raso a link to a newspaper article in which another police officer was quoted as saying that victims of sexual assault are “people who have placed themselves in vulnerable situations and are unfortunately victimized as a result.”
Raso posted the link to the SlutWalk Toronto Facebook page; within minutes, she said, she received a text message from a SlutWalk Toronto participant encouraging her to organize a SlutWalk in Vancouver. Raso emailed several local organizations to gauge support for the idea, and by the end of the day, SlutWalk Vancouver’s organizing committee had come together.
In the huge outburst of impassioned debates that have accompanied the proliferation of SlutWalks around the world, one of the recurring criticisms that has emerged is that “slut” is too sexist and offensive a word for feminists to reclaim.
The Vancouver organizing team carefully deliberated over whether or not to use the name SlutWalk. Nordgren explained their decision to me: “We realized that the problematic nature of the name of SlutWalk itself has been able to start so many important discussions about what the word ‘slut’ means and about how ‘slut’ is used to devalue and shut down women as unworthy of consideration, protection, and justice." "We’re hearing from a lot of people that the name put them off at first, but that they’ve come around to the idea that there’s no better word that sums up the culture we’re trying very hard to deconstruct,” Nordgren added.
Since sex workers often suffer the most extreme consequences of slut shaming, I thought it was incredible that a sex worker, Lilliana D’Amour, had the courage to give a speech during the last stop of the route, where she called herself a slut (which she defines as anyone who has ever pissed anyone off). “When a serial killer [Robert Pickton] can get away with killing more than 60 women [in Vancouver] and people turn a blind eye because those women were sex workers, that’s whorephobia,” said D’Amour, as the crowd hushed in somber reflection.
Joyce Arthur, a representative of FIRST (a coalition of feminists who advocate for the decriminalization of adult sex work), commended SlutWalk Vancouver for supporting the rights of sex workers and other marginalized groups. But she said, “We have to remember that there are people who are not at the march today because they oppose SlutWalk.”
Last week, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente wrote a scathing critique of SlutWalk, in which she claimed that participants were engaging in “narcissistic self-indulgence.” She dismissed SlutWalks as “what you get when graduate students in feminist studies run out of things to do.”
I wonder what Wente would think if she had attended SlutWalk Vancouver and witnessed participation from people of all ages, ethnicities, and walks of life—and the range and depth in which the speakers and organizers addressed topics such as the intersectionality of different kinds of oppression and the various meanings of the word slut.
When I asked Medina, a 14-year-old ninth grade student, about what she wanted people who had not attended SlutWalk to know about the event, she said: “People are being raped and being blamed for it. SlutWalk is trying to correct that. I think that people should learn more about SlutWalk in order to understand it better.”