June 12, 2011
Slutwalk London June 2011: an eyewitness account
The world’s newest and most rapidly expanding feminist movement filled the capital’s streets with style on Saturday 11 June 2011. As over three thousand people from a myriad of backgrounds came together to voice their opposition to rape, sexual violence and victim-blaming, my thoughts turned to the wider women’s movement, writes Ruth Pearce. Does Slutwalk herald an important change in how we think about feminism?
‘When sluts walk free from rape, all women can walk free’
It was a beautiful day for a protest; a fact that must have pleased those wearing relatively little. As I emerged from the Underground at Hyde Park Corner I came across number of slutwalkers enjoying the sun ahead of the march. They were mostly dressed in everyday clothing, but home-made placards and the odd corset made their purpose explicit.
The very term “Slutwalk” has attracted a great deal of controversy. The movement gets its name from a talk given by a Canadian policeman at a Toronto university earlier this year; the copper in question told students that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”. Organisers of the original Slutwalk decided to appropriate the slur as a provocative retort, but some feminist detractors have argued that the word “slut” remains inherently sexist. They say that a word that is used to control and condemn women cannot be usefully reclaimed, and are likely to oppose Slutwalk events on these grounds.
I approached two of the early arrivals to ask them how they felt about this issue. Lilly insisted that she was keen to “reclaim” slut. “I believe in taking negative words and putting positive meanings on them,” she explained. “I defend the idea that anyone could and should be called a slut”.
“I asked six different people to define ‘slut’ and got ten different answers,” said Katie. She agreed with Lilly that the word was worth reclaiming because it is so often used to put down women who are “sexually at ease”. However, she was also keen to emphasise the importance of opposing rape. “It doesn’t matter whether someone thinks you’re a slut or not,” she insisted, “no-one deserves to be raped.”
This emphasis on placing the blame for rape and sexual assault on the perpetrator rather than the victim regardless of circumstance was definitely the central message of Slutwalk London. Placards and banners insisted that women should be able to wear whatever they want without fearing the consequences. One woman dressed in very little indeed had the word “no” painted onto each cheek of her bottom. As the good-natured march finally began after a long hour’s wait, an old but deeply appropriate feminist chant went up: “Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no”.
The expected lacy underwear, corsets, thongs and miniskirts were certainly in evidence, worn by people of all genders. However, Slutwalk was also impressive for the remarkable diversity of clothing on display. Various participants also wore jeans, t-shirts, long skirts, dresses, headscarves, leather coats, colourful tights and top hats as part of outfits both ordinary and extraordinary. The message of free expression was clearly taken to heart by all.
An estimated three thousand people meandered cheerfully through the London streets from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square before gathering for an open rally. Curious onlookers swelled the crowd’s numbers as 17-year-old organiser Anastasia Richardson addressed the crowd. She summarised the agenda for the many short but effective speeches that followed: against rape, against victim-blaming, for sexual expression and for the recognition of particular challenges faced by marginalised groups including women of colour, disabled women, sex workers and trans women.
The rally confirmed Slutwalk’s place within the so-called “third wave” of feminism: a movement that emphasises the importance of sexual freedom and differing experiences of marginalisation alongside traditional feminist concerns such as rape, sexist violence and inequality. It’s a movement that welcomes lesbians, bisexual women, Muslims, trans women, sex workers and others who were often sidelined or even actively rejected by feminists of the “second wave” that emerged in the 1960s and 70s.
A number of commentators have argued in recent years that feminism is seeing a comeback, heralded by an increase in second-wave style activism from groups such as Object and in events such as Reclaim The Night marches. Slutwalk shares an emphasis on rape and sexual violence with Reclaim The Night, but a number of attendees claimed that the new movement is more inclusive because of its third-wave roots.
“It’s brilliant: for one thing it’s in the daytime so the message of women should be allowed to wear as much as they want or as little as they want is a lot more comfortable when the sun is out,” said Queer Resistance member Jo, fresh from a speech to the crowd about the alleged sexual assault of two trans people during last month’s Royal Wedding.
“Also it’s a bigger crowd – we’ve had a conservative estimate of three thousand people here,” she added. “It’s diverse: there’s men here who are opposed to rape, there’s people of all colours, backgrounds, genders. We’ve had black women talking about racism, we’ve had sex workers talking about issues with the legal system, attacks on themselves. We’ve had transgender and genderqueer speakers talking about transphobia and sexual assault and it’s the kind of diversity that staunch second-wave events such as Reclaim The Night [London] just won’t permit.”
Strong words, but Jo was backed up by Amx, another member of Queer Resistance. “Rape crisis and the leading women’s organisations generally sideline queer people,” they claimed. Amx says that they were “heavily involved in the feminist movement in London” until they realised that they were spending longer campaigning on queer issues within the feminist movement than on feminist movements within wider society.
However, Amx hasn’t lost faith in feminism. “I’m dedicated to having a queer voice within feminist spaces because of bodily autonomy, access to healthcare and rape crisis services,” they explained. Slutwalk was definitely a positive experience. “We had a lot of people not just marching with the Queer Resistance banner, but a lot of other queer people marching with us: a lot of support, a lot of allies marching with us. It just goes to show the feminist movement contains many queer allies.”
The mass appeal of Slutwalk is undeniable, with future events already planned throughout the UK and across the world in countries as diverse as Canada, Brazil and India. The movement combines a distinctly second-wave feminist concern with rape and sexual assault with third-wave values such as radical inclusivity and riot grrl atttitude. However, once the marches are over, a question arises: what next?
The organisers of the London march listed three demands as a focal point for future Slutwalk campaigning: better support for rape survivors, an end to the prosecution of sex workers, and an end to the prosecution of survivors. They encouraged rally attendees to organise and participate in future protests. If these are to be successful, it would perhaps be wise to follow Slutwalk in deliberately generating controversy whilst remaining fun, accessible and inclusive.
Photography by Alan Denney, Mrs Mornington and Cemre Mor.
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