I was already planning on joining in when SlutWalk, the anti–sexual violence march that’s sweeping the globe, came to New York City. Regardless of what you think of the medium, the message—that the way survivors dress, talk, flirt, laugh, is never to blame for rape and assault—is one that the world needs to hear. And I was beyond inspired that a plucky group of University of Toronto undergraduates had hit the streets instead of quietly seething in response to a police officer’s advice not to dress like “sluts” to avoid being victimized. But I became even more intrigued as I worked with Salamishah Tillet on her piece for The Nation on whether there is a place for women of color in the SlutWalk movement.
Debate over the movement had roiled the feminist community all summer. SlutWalks often featured women in, well, not the kinds of clothes you wear to get respect from a city council member or police chief. Some feminists were wondering whether this really was the right way to get people in power to take sexual assault seriously. Meanwhile, a number of women of color questioned the choice to organize under the mantle of “slut.” As Salamishah put it:
…the word and iconography of “slut” can be more difficult for African-American women to reclaim because of the longstanding stereotypes about black women as innately hypersexual. Dating back to the eighteenth century, European and white American slaveholders routinely applied the myth of the jezebel, the sexually promiscuous and morally loose woman, to justify their widespread rape of enslaved black women.
This myth, however, grew to encompass not only slave women and the jezebel fast became the catchall for all black women’s sexuality, regardless of their social standing or legal status. A white woman, with the exception of prostitutes and some manual laborers, could be a “lady,” the model of respectability, modesty, and even sexual purity. A white woman can be labeled a slut on the basis of specific behavior, such as perceived promiscuity. But black women, stereotypically, can be considered sluts at any time, no matter what they do or wear.
Still, much of the conversation among feminists had struck me as productive, rather than divisive. So on Saturday morning, I put on my “No one likes to fight patriarchy alone—make friends” polo, stuffed my rain jacket into a backpack, wrapped up an egg-and-cheese bagel and headed to Union Square. The place was packed. I’d arrived too late to make a sign, but I picked up a rather long-winded one someone else had discarded: “Dear NYPD, If rapists were targeting modestly dressed women, would you be telling women to dress like sluts to avoid being victimized?” (It’s a hypothetical the NYPD should be asking of themselves, considering recent reports that, in the wake of a spate of sexual assaults in South Brooklyn, police officers are telling women not to wear skirts or shorts.)
I take it that the point of protests and marches is to make a lot of noise outside and impress people who happen to be nearby with the seriousness of your cause. I say “I take it” because many of the protests and marches I’ve attended—from antiwar marches in deserted downtown DC to the huge rally to fight the defunding of Planned Parenthood at Foley Square last February—have taken place on streets totally devoid of foot traffic. SlutWalk had no such problem. People looked up from brunch, down from balconies, out from behind the windows of cabs. We must have encountered thousands.
But for that reason, I really really hoped the onlookers were reading our signs, not just looking at us. Were the men grinning at us really psyched about dismantling rape culture—or were they perfectly pleased to eye the (few) women (and a few men) in bras or thongs? Some feminists have chided SlutWalkers for “stripping down to skivvies,” as Rebecca Traister put it; my response had been, well, not being shamed or discredited for what you’re wearing is the whole point. But after participating in an actual SlutWalk, I better understand the concern. Sure, men pay attention to half-naked women. What else is new? And all the under-clothed women I saw were white, illustrating the racialized nature of the struggle for respectability and power.
But I saw a great deal of racial diversity overall, among marchers, speakers, and to a slightly lesser degree, organizers. The speakers were spot-on. The signs were brilliant. The chanting was exuberant (if fragmented); the most thrilling moment of the event for me came when the crowd—police estimates put the crowd at over 2,000—surged down Second Ave and the whole march seemed to be chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, rape culture has got to go” in unison. SlutWalk NYC will be meeting on October 13 to talk about how to end rape culture in New York City now that the march is over. I think I’ll join them.
Editor’s Note: The crowd estimate has been updated to reflect a more accurate number.