SlutWalk NYC: Real Empowerment, Corsets and All
The SlutWalk movement is not the future of feminism. That doesn’t mean it’s not important.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle
NEW YORK CITY — The girl on the mobile stripper pole executes a flying spin; body held horizontal to the bicycle-drawn cart she’s dancing on, legs spread wide in a flying V, her clenched hands the only thing keeping her in the air. She lands; poses; blows a kiss to the cameraman crouched behind her. And several dozen feminists erupt in spontaneous cheers.
Yes, that’s right: This is your piece from SlutWalk, the most widely covered, most controversial feminist movement of the year, which reached New York City’s streets on Saturday, October 1. The future of feminism! The end of feminism! A rebellion against sexual standards! A concession to the sexual demands of patriarchy! Etcetera. That dancer, and the women cheering, could be any of those things; it’s my job to tell you which ones. Preferably with pictures of corset-clad girls attached. Because, no matter how often we debate SlutWalk’s politics, what people really want to hear about are the outfits.
I did see a few women wearing corsets at SlutWalk. They were easy to find — you just had to look for the camera crews — but there weren’t many. More women went topless. This, I soon realized, was brilliant; the press cameras had to stay away from them. The men on the sidewalk were less inhibited; they gathered on stoops, at intersections, or in their fire escapes, holding out phone cameras, rapt with predatory fascination. When the mobile pole rolled down Astor Place, men walked out into traffic to get a clear shot.
This, some women say, is SlutWalk’s problem. The name, the outfits; it’s all an implicit demand for attention. Lots of people wonder whether that attention is productive. Those iPhones were not whipped out to record the chants of “blame the system, not the victim.” And I didn’t see any film crew surrounding the girl in denim shorts and a t-shirt, holding a sign that read “this is what I wore when I was raped.”
“When SlutWalk started it was very reactionary,” SlutWalk NYC organizer Rachel Steele tells me. “I can’t speak for the organizers that started the Toronto SlutWalk. My sense is that this is a movement that has just taken off.”
When SlutWalk started, probably no one imagined that there would be a New York City march. (Full disclosure: I attended one New York organizing meeting at the organizers’ request. I dropped out, however, to focus on other projects.) That first march was organized in response to something specific: Toronto police constable Michael Sanguinetti told a group of students that women should avoid dressing “like sluts” in order not to get raped. This was classic victim-blaming: Implying that the behavior of sexual assault victims is the primary cause of rape, rather than placing blame squarely on rapists. A march was organized to protest his statement.
This is what gets lost in the provocative photos: That dancer on the cart, the girls in the spangled bras, the people who spent the entirety of a leisurely early October walk wearing nothing but shoes and panties, were all issuing an implicit challenge. This is not yours, they were saying; I can do all this, and you’re not allowed to hurt me. “My body is not an invitation,” went one popular slogan.
SlutWalk’s premise was catchy and relevant; it summed up decades of arduous anti-rape education and protesting with a simple, highly visual message. So the marches spread. There have been SlutWalks everywhere from Chicago and Indianapolis to Buenos Aires and Johannesburg. The sheer number of women protesting rape culture is, of course, inspiring to feminists, who have long been dismissed and unheard.
But with growth came controversy. Steele singled out as especially distressing a New York Times magazine piece by Rebecca Traister, in which she confessed “irritation that stripping down to skivvies and calling ourselves sluts is passing for keen retort.” Traister hadn’t bothered to speak with any SlutWalk organizers before writing it, Steele said.
Speaking to Steele, however, raised uncomfortable questions. At one point, she referred to SlutWalk as the “next global feminist movement,” and said that there hadn’t been anything like it “in the last 20 years.” She also said that “I don’t think the media would be paying attention to us if we were called, you know, ‘March To End Sexual Violence.’”
It’s precisely this – the implication that SlutWalk is not only a feminist protest but the feminist protest; the uncomfortable feeling that despite the long-term work of many feminist anti-rape activists, and a New York feminist community which organized a huge rally against the acquittal of the NYPD “rape cops” and multiple protests against the handling of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape case this summer alone, feminism itself is now being effectively rebranded and subsumed into the media-friendly presence of SlutWalk – that many people find problematic. There is concern that SlutWalk promotes itself to the exclusion of other feminist protests and communities; that it has pitched itself so eagerly as the “next” feminist movement, and maybe the first real feminist movement in decades, that it has inadvertently devalued the movements that exist.
To steer away from the idea that SlutWalk represented the only sizable feminist protest since 1991, I asked Steele whether SlutWalk wasn’t comparable to Take Back the Night, an international feminist protest against rape that began in 1975, and has been a presence on American college campuses for the past three and a half decades.
“I’m only twenty-six,” she said. “I can’t speak about stuff that I can’t remember. But since ‘Take Back the Night,’ I can’t remember something like this.”
On the day I marched with SlutWalk, 700 protesters were arrested in New York City. They weren’t at SlutWalk, of course; that protest attracted between 1,000 and 4,000 people (reports have varied wildly), and there were no reported arrests. The 700 were part of the main event: the protest downtown.
It was hard to ignore Occupy Wall Street that day. Protesters discussed it amongst themselves while marching; on the fringes of the protest, people handed out the Occupied Wall Street Journal. That protest – describing itself as a “resistance movement” against “greed and corruption,” and comparing itself explicitly to the Arab Spring, which if nothing else shows that overblown self-promotional language is not just a SlutWalk problem – was in its third week, and had survived bad weather, reported police brutality, and a false rumor that Radiohead would be playing a free show there.
I had been staying away from Occupy Wall Street. I wasn’t sure why; I, like every other progressive in the city, had been exhorted to attend, reminded that it was both my right and my duty. As a recession casualty, and a woman from a working-class family, I often thought that my lack of money controlled my life, and brought violence and suffering into it, just as much as my gender had. But the exhortations made me resentful, for reasons I couldn’t name. It was something to do with the big, sexy, non-specific targets; something to do with the language of duty; something to do with the fact that men who had routinely given me gentle or not-so-gentle crap for my own activism were now Tweeting constantly about the power of the people and the obligation of the masses to protest.
It wasn’t until I marched in SlutWalk that I finally got it. It was simply this: No matter how hyped SlutWalk had been, no matter how long the marches had been going on or how global their reach was, no one ever imagined we could book Radiohead. We had all known that wasn’t our place; it wasn’t a degree of recognition we felt entitled to, even in our fantasies. Even on the day we marched, we weren’t the biggest show in town. We had accepted that. We didn’t tell the Wall Streeters it was their duty to join forces with us; we didn’t express resentment that more of them hadn’t come uptown. We were just feminists, after all. We might well be the next wave, but to the progressive community we looked a lot like the feminist waves before us: A sort of women’s auxiliary to the real movement. Maybe admirable, mostly irrelevant.
This invisibility and erasure, as much as anything else, is responsible for women in their twenties not knowing about Take Back the Night. It was also what had fueled much of my own pre-SlutWalk protest. But here I was, in 2011. The men I knew who had been Occupying Wall Street were still not there with me at the year’s most heavily promoted anti-rape protest. I still couldn’t rationally expect them to be. The “next global feminist movement” still wasn’t moving strongly enough to occupy the city for three weeks. Or even one whole day.
It was precisely this resentment – this feeling of being a second-class citizen within a movement that nominally spoke for me – that made me interested in speaking to the women who had dropped out of SlutWalk. The feminist movement, of course, is not immune to privilege. And SlutWalk, in particular, has been criticized on these grounds.
Before the New York SlutWalk, an “Open Letter from Black Women to SlutWalk Organizers” was published in numerous outlets. “For us,” it read in part, “the problem of trivialized rape and the absence of justice are intertwined with race, gender, sexuality, poverty, immigration and community. As Black women in America, we are careful not to forget this or we may compromise more than we are able to recover.” It pushed for SlutWalk to re-brand, and to incorporate some substantial engagement with these problems.
When I contacted Mandy van Deven, a writer and activist who had signed the letter, I found that she had been scheduled to speak at SlutWalk, but had dropped out after reading the Open Letter. She wrote in an e-mail: “Time and time again, the criticisms spoken by women of color, queers, trans folks, and others were dismissed or tactical planning was given priority. I saw this response echoed when the Open Letter was released, and as a queer, working-class identified white woman, I felt obliged to resign.”
“I planned to participate to share my personal perspectives as a woman of color living in a victim-blaming and shaming world,” Jamia Wilson, another speaker who dropped out, wrote me. She, too, stepped down after hearing that some SlutWalk organizers had responded to the Open Letter with a desire to do “damage control,” rather than engaging. “There were some strong voices within the SlutWalk organizing body who believed strongly in keeping SlutWalk’s original branding and maintaining the status quo until after the march,” she said.
This is another danger of the media-friendly, heavily “branded” feminism represented by SlutWalk. Brands erase diversity within the field to ensure their own survival; it’s just how they work. And investment in the brand, the image, the name that gets more attention than “March to End Sexual Violence,” can hinder willingness to change when necessary. Steele, I should point out, stressed her obligation “as a feminist, an activist, and as a human” to listen to criticisms like these. But the SlutWalk brand, powerful as it is, may simply prove too much to give up.
But it works. By the end of SlutWalk, I did feel safer. I did feel more powerful. I was taking phone-camera shots of the leering men on sidewalks and in windows, giggling when they ran away. This had as much to do with my own privilege as my discomfort with Occupy Wall Street had to do with my lack of it, and my ambivalence never fully left me. But as we rounded the corner and headed back to Union Square, I noticed the protesters in front of me looking up at a nearby window. And this time, they were cheering. Three older women were standing there, beaming and waving at us. And they were fully topless.
I cheered for them too. I didn’t believe SlutWalk was the future of feminism. I didn’t believe it represented all of feminism. And I certainly hoped it wasn’t feminism’s end point. But in the moment, it was impossible to believe getting those ladies’ attention and support was not a good thing.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.