The Thing About Slutwalks…And a World Without Rape

I’ll admit, when I first heard about Slutwalks I cringed. I hate the word slut. It is too hateful. Too bound up with shaming women for their sexuality. Too linked to the deep trauma experienced by millions of women and young girls every single day throughout the world. Too much part of the cultural DNA that says, “She deserved it,” or, “She was asking for it,” or, “She’s dirty,” or, “You little cunt whore.”

To get right down to it, for me the word “slut” was too indelibly linked to a girl named Kelly who transferred into my Junior High School in the middle of the year. She was ridiculed and outcast in that kind of mean-girls way that reduces a young woman to an invisible, despised, zero for absolutely no reason except to make others feel like maybe they exist. And really, what could be more lonely and humiliating for a junior high girl than standing in front of a whole cafeteria filled with uproarious laughter carrying your lunch tray from table to table being told that every empty chair is being saved for somebody, anybody, who isn’t you?

But, Kelly had big breasts and so a table full of boys all called out to her and held open a chair. All it took was for her to sit down just that first time. After that, her fate was sealed.

To be honest, as the weeks rolled and on the rumors rolled with them, I have no idea which – if any – were true. I do know there were parties with lots of drinking where the girls still wouldn’t speak to her and the boys would lure her into bedrooms. I also know that a young girl seeking acceptance and desiring some means to explore their own budding sexuality in this highly repressive society can get caught up in – and even, at times, take initiative in – all sorts of behavior that is degrading and demeaning to them in a very deep and lasting way.

But most of all what I know is that Kelly became someone who wasn’t seen by any one in that entire school as an actual human being. No, Kelly was a “slut.”

And I know that wherever she is, even in the best case scenario, Kelly is still living with the trauma of not only by the abuse and (almost certain) sexual assault perpetrated against her by those boys, but also by the widespread dismissal of that crime, and the shaming and disrespect of her for being the victim of it, by a whole school full of her peers.

And I know that were literally millions and millions of Kellys across the country’s junior highs that same year and that in the years since, with the escalating backlash against women’s liberation and the mainstreaming of porn, this story has only gotten worse.

Stop reading for a minute. Take a moment and picture the Kellies you have known in your life. Consider their humanity. Imagine yourself in her shoes. And ask yourself what it says about this society if you’ve never done that before.

So, again, as is probably clear by now, when I first heard of Slutwalk I was not immediately thrilled.

At the same time, I followed as the wave of Slutwalks spread across the globe ever since that asshole Toronto cop told a group of women that if they didn’t want to be raped they should “avoid dressing like a slut.” I watched with growing interest and enthusiasm as thousands of women took to the streets in more than 70 cities across the U.S. I felt something deep in my heart when I saw pictures of women in the streets of India, London, Australia and Mexico. It was not merely that I could find no argument against women proclaiming their right not to be assaulted no matter what they are wearing.  It was the contagious righteousness of a whole wave of young women – after so many years of silently swallowing their pain – finally taking to the streets to say that it is the world, not the women who are raped, that is wrong!

So, when I was finally able to be in the same city at the same time as a Slutwalk was happening, I approached the outpouring with more than an open mind. I was eager to talk with people about why they were taking part, to unite with this defiant resistance, and to get into it with people about the kind of revolution that is both necessary – and possible – to get to a world without rape.

Still, I was not fully prepared for what I encountered at my first Slutwalk earlier today. By the time I arrived, the Slutwalk out here in San Francisco was in full swing. An exuberant and boisterous band of (mostly) women and (some very welcomed) men chanting, “Yes means yes! No means no! However we dress – where ever we go!” A huge somewhat sloppily painted banner read, “Its a man’s world – lets fuck it up!” Homemade signs proclaimed in many creative ways that women’s bodies do not exist for the sexual gratification of men. Many declared the right of women to be sexual without be assaulted, raped or shamed.

But it is when I began talking to people that things really got raw.

I approached a group of young, strong, defiant young women. They had signs, they were loud, and their faces were beaming. But it took less than a hundred words exchanged before the tears started streaming. One young woman explained how, growing up, she came from a very progressive family. “We talked about every political issue you could imagine. By the time I was in junior high I had major political opinions about at least ten things. But I couldn’t even say the word ‘sex.’” It was at the word “sex” that she completely broke down. She started laughing and apologizing, seeming a little embarrassed.

But, her friend – quite correctly – grabbed ahold of her tightly. I reached out too, this being a crowd where you could do that with complete strangers. I told her, and I deeply believe, that her tears are not something to apologize for. They are just just one small indication of the heavy weight of shame that is heaped on women – not only shame about sex where women are still told they have to be “pure,” but even shame about feeling ashamed or confused about sex in this world where women are supposedly “sexually empowered.”

As we talked, I opened up the special issue of Revolution newspaper called, “Declaration; for the Liberation of Women and the Emancipation of All Humanity.” We looked at the pictures from its center-fold of the many ways that women across the planet are oppressed and degraded – from the trafficking of women as sex-slaves to the fundamentalist virginity vows of “Purity Balls” and burkhas, and from domestic violence to sweatshop exploitation and beyond. We talked about the need for a real revolution, that its time for women to stop choking on their pain and their anger and turn it into a mighty force for changing the world. She caught her breath and nodded, we talked for a while more, and then they all got copies of the Declaration and gave me their emails.

Not long after that, I found myself talking to another young group of friends. They, too, were brimming with the rebellious joy of the day. But when I asked why they were there, one of them looked me dead in the eye and explained. “I was sexually abused as a little girl,” she began and then hesitated before continuing, “It’s like every day you have to walk around and hide it.” And then she just crumpled. The tears bounced off her cheeks and soaked into her sweatshirt as her friend hugged her close with equal emotion.

“I bet you’ve never said that to a complete stranger before,” I responded, and she laughed. Then she looked up and seemed to find the words she’d probably never had the occasion to even search for before as explained how much anger she has knowing that other young girls are still going through what she had been through. She wanted to be part of making sure this doesn’t keep happening. She was thrilled – even through her tears – to finally have a chance to do something that might contribute to that.

I told her – and I repeat it here for everyone reading – how deeply courageous and absolutely necessary what she is doing is. It matters both for changing the world so other girls do not have to go through what she went through AND for herself being able to let go of any remaining feelings of blame or shame or denigrated worth for what was done to her against her will.

After she and her friends got copies of the Declaration I told her that in the next few days I am holding a meeting to launch a new political initiative to end pornography and patriarchy. She spoke with great conviction against the violence and hatred she sees concentrated in porn and how she feels that porn has a lot to do with giving men the idea that it would be fun to hurt little girls like herself.

The organizers of the Slutwalk did a very cool thing and opened up a bullhorn for an open-mic speak out at the end of the march. I joined in cheers from the crowd as a young man described the responsibility men have to be part of stopping sexual violence. Then, we gave support to a young South Asian woman who spoke against how rape-culture gets mirrored within the LGBT community. She courageously described her heart-breaking experience of being raped in the bathroom of a club by another woman. When my turn came to speak, I saluted everyone who had come out and exposing the lie that we live in a world where women have achieved their liberation. I spoke of how every fifteen seconds a woman is beaten, every day four women are killed, one in four women are raped, and every second we are assaulted by ads and images and jokes that say women exist for nothing but the sexual plunder of men. I told people that rape is not just part of human nature, that it comes from this world dominated by patriarchy and that we can get rid of it with the kind of communist revolution that liberates women as a driving part of emancipating all humanity. I held up the Declaration and invited people to learn about and get down with the movement for revolution we are building right now.

I literally could sit here the entire night and not exhaust the stories, and the criminal nature of this society that is concentrated in those stories, that I heard from other women after speaking; the stranger rapes, the date-rapes, the sexual abuse, the groping, the violence, the shame of never reporting the rape, the shame of being blamed after reporting the rape, the constant awareness every woman carries with her that she could be raped at any moment on the street, in her workplace, or in her home.

I could also write a whole other essay about the impossibility of reclaiming the word “slut” and the limitations of a movement that seems to be setting out to do so.

But, then I think about Kelly. I think about all the Kellys. I think about all the women who never learned to speak of sex or ask for sex when they wanted it or to feel comfortable with their own desires because they had deeply internalized the hatred and shame that is hurled at girls like Kelly. I think of all the women who have been raped. All the women who have been abused. All the women who have never told anyone. All the women who thought it was their fault. All the women who have learned to deaden themselves to their pain just in order to survive day to day.

The truth is, every single one of us walks among these women every single day. They are our friends, our mothers, our sisters, and our co-workers. They are the women who wait on our tables or take our orders at McDonald’s. They are the girls whose moments of “Going Wild” and succumbing to incredible male-mob-pressure is being sold to other predatory men on late-night cable.

These women are not different than today’s “slutwalkers.” Each one of them is part of the walking wounded that make up half of humanity in this so-called “best of all possible worlds.” Each one of them has the potential to zigzag violently between exuberant fury and near-crippling pain, just as I saw many of the courageous women I met today.

And in the messy process of opening this wound up and cleaning it out, of fighting without compromise against every insult and assault that is heaped upon women, of building the movement for revolution to bring about a world without rape or any form of oppression and then – when the time finally comes and such a revolution is won – going on to build a world that finally uproots and heals all of these scars, in that long and righteous and wild and woolly process, there will be plenty of time and plenty of need to struggle through all of this, including the problems with the word “slut.”

For now, I challenge everyone who is reading this to join with and strengthen this world-wide wave of overwhelmingly righteous defiance. I challenge those of you who are familiar with this revolution already to energetically take it into these marches and connect it with people. And those who are stepping out for the first time, I challenge you to get into what this revolution is about very deeply even as you take to the streets. Lets move forward together towards a world without shame and without rape.

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One Comment

  1. Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    “And I know that wherever she is, even in the best case scenario, Kelly is still living with the trauma of not only by the abuse and (almost certain) sexual assault perpetrated against her by those boys, but also by the widespread dismissal of that crime, and the shaming and disrespect of her for being the victim of it, by a whole school full of her peers.”

    I understand attacking the “slut” dynamic, and how it arises from reinforced power imbalances. Throwing out accusations like “she was probably sexually assaulted,” though, is wrong, as well as counter-productive. You don’t know if she was or wasn’t sexually assaulted. Certainly she was mistreated, but creating one speculative dynamic about sexual assault instead of another, existing unfair one isn’t beneficial.

    You’re ascribing (probable) traumatic experiences of criminal victimization to someone regardless of their actual lived experiences. That’s pretty problematic, and doesn’t serve to help your otherwise valid point.

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