SlutWalk NYC: Real Empowerment, Corsets and All

The SlutWalk movement is not the future of feminism. That doesn’t mean it’s not important.

Sady Doyle October 3, 2011

Protesters in New York City on Saturday October 1. (Image by Lindsay Beyerstein, all rights reserved.)

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. 

No matter how hyped SlutWalk had been, no matter how global their reach was, no one ever imagined we could book Radiohead.

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. 

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. She is 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 her on Twit­ter at @sadydoyle.
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