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June 12, 2011

IconSlutwalk 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’

women-against-rapeIt 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”.

placard-and-legs“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.

slutwalk-rallyAn 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.

two-slutwalk-participantsA 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.”

queer-resistanceStrong 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.”

vulva-trotThe 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.

11 Responses to Slutwalk London June 2011: an eyewitness account

  1. J McK says:

    Good article :)

  2. passerby says:

    please stop repeating the fiction that 2nd wave feminism excluded women from diverse backgrounds. This may be what is taught in universities but if you actually engaged with real life feminists/isms you would know that isn’t true. Has it ever occured to you that 3rd wavers are in fact victims of this mis-information and that by acting on this supposed opposition / denigration of 2nd wavers that in the end you are aiding and abetting the ruling class of men by dividing women. I personally dont care about slut walk one way or the other as it is just a part of the virtual feminism that is the main charactaristics of 3rd wavers. It has no analysis, and worst of all it has no substance or long term base of real work that will go towards building a more women friendly future. Posing for media friendly photos doesn’t help fund rape crisis centres or support women unfairly imprisoned. Why do you think the media have invested so much time in bigging up these events. Because they know they are just whims of fashions and will pass. More importantly why do they never report the ongoing, never ending work of women supporting each other to end male supremacy. This banal, makes me feel good individualistic shows that this generation is just as much a victim of the ruling class (the media) as wannabe wags. When and if young women stop whining about what older women did then maybe they are entitled to some respect. So long as they prioritise ingratiating themselves with men and the media they are just collaborators of the existing power structures.

  3. Julie Bindel says:

    This piece is full of lies about second wave feminism. passerby, can you contact me please at juliebindel@yahoo.co.uk

  4. passerby says:

    No.

  5. Ruth Pearce Ruth.Pearce says:

    Hi passerby,

    I’m sorry if you feel I misrepresented second-wave feminism. I feel strongly that the second wave is pretty much responsible for everything that is positive about feminism today. The second-wave analysis of (and resulting resistance to) sexist institutions, practices and language was vital.

    I also understand that a great many women who abhor discrimination and and the sidelining of particular groups continue to describe themselves as second-wave feminists. As an enthusiastic participant in the so-called “third wave”, I feel this is entirely fair: after all, third-wave feminism is far from perfect!

    However, I didn’t set out to turn this article into a second-wave/third-wave comparison: the angle emerged from my discussion with a number of LGBT activists present at Slutwalk. I feel they have good reasons to feel disillusioned with a number of aspects of second-wave feminism.

    Every marginalised group I mentioned within the article has historically been sidelined or actively attacked within feminism. Examples of this can be found within the work of high-profile individuals such as Germaine Greer and Sheila Jeffreys, but also occurred within groups both large and small…and it’s still happening. This isn’t to say that all second-wave feminists were tarnished by such bigoted attitudes, but there was definitely an issue with representation and inclusion within the movement.

    Third-wave feminism is hardly without its problems (e.g. white-centricism remains endemic in the UK and USA) but I feel the tendency benefits from an analysis of power that tends to focus upon individual power relations rather than absolute statements about womanhood. This enables us to more easily recognise problems such as racism and transphobia within feminism (appropriately enough, since the third wave has been shaped greatly by critiques written by black and queer feminists) but doesn’t have to prevent us from talking about patriarchy – which is, after all, a power relation!

    I’d like to respectfully disagree with you on the issue of grassroots activism. Myself and many of the feminists I marched with at Slutwalk have fought hard for women’s rights on the ground, at schools, in colleges and universities, and in the workplace. We have raised money for rape crisis centres and fought for the right of women in the prison and detention systems.

    All of this work would be nothing without the work of those who have come before us, and I respect that. However, I think it is also important for feminism to be reflexive, and always open to critique.

    Finally, a point about Reclaim The Night, which I feel came off a little badly in the article. I have marched a number of times at Reclaim The Night and personally feel that women-only marches at night (when we are told that we are unsafe and should not venture out) are really important. However, it was notable that a number of groups who have good reason to feel uncomfortable at Reclaim The Night (e.g. the English Collective of Prostitutes, trans women) were given the opportunity to speak at Slutwalk.

  6. Roz Kaveney says:

    Second Wave Feminism was a lot bigger than the exclusionary purity feminists that Julie Bindel represents and who like to claim that they were the real movement when in reality they were – especially in the latter years – a divisive and destructive sideshow. For example, Feminists Against Censorship was a group heavily peopled by Second Wave women like Sue O’Sullivan, Elizabeth Wilson and Mary McIntosh who had started off -in some cases – from an anti-trans position but had recanted it in their practice and would cheerfully work alongside trans women. If they tended not to be vocal in their critique of the likes of Sheila Jeffreys, even in the face of slanderous accusations that they had been bought by the porn industry or had otherwise ceased to be feminists, it was because they still thought that it was bad form to attack other feminists. This meant that the job of speaking out for trans people and other excluded groups – as opposed to working with us – tended to get left.

    And of course those women of a certain age in excluded groups – like me – are by definition Second Wave in some of our politics, however critical we are of the way we got screwed over.

  7. Ruth Pearce Ruth.Pearce says:

    I take your point Roz, and I hope my previous comment clarified my belief in the importance of “second wave” feminism. I was careful in the original piece to note that certain groups were “often” rather than necessarily sidelined.

    One of the things I found fascinating about Slutwalk London though is that it seemed to epitomise the “third wave” shift in values and attitudes. This isn’t to say that all such values and attitudes are necessarily better, but it was certainly interesting to hear young queer feminists actively disassociating themselves with the past.

    Is this entirely helpful? Probably not…I feel it’s beneficial to offer critique within a movement, but second-wave ideals still have a lot to offer. Moreover, I feel that there will inevitably be a “fourth wave” as future feminists interrogate past successes. Still, I saw what I saw on the day and that’s what informed this article (which is intentionally more of a “report” than an opinion piece exploring my own perspective).

  8. rory says:

    I hear you! I was castigated and rubbished as ’2nd wave’ for my pragmatic feminist & lesbian focus by my male friend & his girlfriend.

    They call themselves ‘genderqueer’ (they are just a regular straight couple) and spend their time endlessly discussing queer theory with their pals on tumblr. They dont care about women’s rights, gay rights and accomplish absolutely nothing.

  9. passerby says:

    I have no memory of posting a comment saying
    o which appears to be a reply to Julie Bindel although the time indicates it was written before. Just posting this as it looks a bit abrupt – not that I haven’t been called a stroppy feminist on many occasions!

  10. passerby says:

    Hi Ruth(?)

    No disrespect intended but I was rushing by so have only by accident arrived back here and seen your response to my comments.

    I think your own article indicates the problem.

    If you talked to people who are more interested in queer politics then you will inevitably get the same old deliberate misleading “information” about 2nd wave feminism.

    I have absolutely no problem with people who want to prioritise their political involvement based on their queer analysis of what is to be done.

    What is totally unacceptable is that queer activist demand the right to tell feminist how they should organise and what and who they should prioritise.

    All we have now is a lot of queen bees all wanting to be the “name” feminist and are busy being divisive and unproductive.

    2nd wave feminism was Women’s Liberation and you will not learn about that from media feminism or from women’s studies or gender studies.

    Personally I think that if younger women think adopting the clothes that their oppressors enforce on them through consumerism and male fantasy will challenge that oppression, I have about as much faith in their ability to change the power structures in this country as the black and white minstrel show challenged racial stereotypes. In what way does it express a woman’s self defined sexuality to conform to the uniform imposed on you by those in power.

    3rd wave feminists are just consumers of, and by aiding and abetting the ongoing onslaught against the achievements of 70s feminism, also underminers of autonomous women’s organising and self determination.

    Worst of all is the complacent wallowing in media induced ignorance.

    Germaine Greer was never of any importance to activist, but merely a journalist who cobbled together a best seller based on her willingness to exploit her sexual encounters.

    Sheila Jeffries is and was of no importance as she was part of a tiny group of revolutionary feminists who hated other women nearly as much as they did men. Her name gets mentioned so much because of the power of the hidden friendship networks that use each other to promote their careers and the proselytising of their official LFN fan club. (To redeem themselves they now label themselves radical feminists trying to escape the negativity of the rev fem label.)

    I hate to say this but you and your interviewees are just the victims of media manipulation if you genuinely think that they are or were crucial.

    How utterly depressing that in the days of easier interaction through the internet, that rather than being empowered and growing through the breadth of feminist activism and real radical feminism, ie the feminist that led to the creation of rape crisis centres and women’s refuges, that it is instead used by those too willing to hear and believe the negativity about feminism.

    This isn’t meant to be personally rude, but I am sick to death of these trite repetitious fictions.

    Have your slut walks or your conferences that ban women from participating, but please at least don’t try and label it feminism. It is no more feminism than Red Rag was or Outwrite was, ie just an aspect of what should be a network or interacting and sometimes overlapping groups.

    Stop showing the powers that be that you appear to want to ingratiate yourself with them by endlessly taking every opportunity to repeat lies.

    Just because some people on the march said that why would you repeat their ignorance as fact.

    Ignorance is an explanation not an excuse.

    (PS I wont be replying to JB by the way, because on every occasions that I commented on one of her CiF articles pointing out her misleading depiction of feminism they were deleted. At least mine have been allowed to stand here. Thanks)

  11. Zen says:

    Passerby,

    Why do you criticize Slutwalk for encouraging people to dress the way they like? There were as many women wearing their “everyday” clothes as there were wearing “slutty” clothes at the event, and for each person the message was to dress how they felt comfortable. Are you saying that women who want to wear short skirts and corsets shouldn’t be allowed to because it conforms to “consumerism”? Surely that is just another form of personal oppression?