“What does one wear to a SlutWalk?” I asked myself as I combed through my closet. A strapless romper? Too dated. A white pleated sundress? Too summer wedding. “What do you think I should wear?” I asked Solomon, my partner of thirteen years, who was becoming as exasperated by my private catwalk as I was. “Whatever you want,” he answered. “Isn’t that the point?”
It was indeed the point. SlutWalk, an anti-rape march and street protest that has gone viral, is as much about freedom of expression as it is a political protest. The first SlutWalk, organized last April by Heather Jarvis and Sonya Barnett in Toronto, was a response to a Toronto police officer telling a group of students in a public safety class that women “should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” Since then, more than seventy SlutWalks have popped up in places as diverse as Chicago, Berlin, Cape Town, New Delhi and Mexico City. New York City’s highly anticipated SlutWalk is scheduled to take place on October 1.
In the United States, SlutWalks have been greeted with a mixed response. Feminist icon Alice Walker recently told the online magazine Guernica that she “always understood the word ‘slut’ to mean a woman who freely enjoys her own sexuality,” and observes that “the spontaneous movement that has grown around reclaiming this word speaks to women’s resistance of having names turned into weapons against them.” I agree. In her op-ed in the Washington Post, Jessica Valenti, founder of Feministing.com and author of the Purity Myth, wrote, “SlutWalks have become the most successful feminist action of the past twenty years.”
But SlutWalk’s critics abound, and their ranks are as diverse as the movement’s supporters. “I think when a woman is dressing in an immodest way, in a provocative way, she has got think about what is she saying by her dress,” said conservative singer/songwriter Rebecca St. James on the Fox News show Hannity, confirming that women also participate in victim-blaming. Meanwhile, writer Rebecca Traister penned the most visible feminist criticism of the marches in The New York Times Magazine; in “Ladies, We Have a Problem.” Traister described the SlutWalkers as “dressed in what look like sexy stewardess Halloween costumes” which “seems less like victory than capitulation (linguistic and sartorial) to what society already expects of its young women.”
Sexy stewardess, however, wasn’t quite what I had in mind that morning—and Traister, like many of SlutWalk’s critics, seems to have missed a critical aspect of the march’s pageantry. While many participants at the DC march I participated in wore in jeans and sneakers, the women who stood out the most were rape survivors wearing the clothes they had been assaulted in—from pajamas to thigh-high boots—carrying signs that said, “This Is What I Was Wearing When I Was Raped.”
After texting back and forth with fellow feminist Holly Kearl, author of Stop Street Harassment, who tried on twelve different outfits ranging from running clothes she is routinely harassed in to a business suit, I solved my wardrobe predicament: a black-and-white baby-T cut-out that reads, “Got Consent?,” suede strapped heels and a black pencil skirt hiked up to a mini held together by a charcoal leather belt that hadn’t seen sunlight for years.
Sadie Healy, a speaker at SlutWalk DC, wore the green-and-gold sequined outfit she was assaulted in to the march. She told me that “every law enforcement officer, district attorney and even friends and family I spoke to about my assault asked me what I was wore that night.”
“I wore that outfit,“ Healy continued, “to show that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you are wearing, they will call you a slut because you come forward and say you were sexually assaulted. The word has everything to do with who we think deserves to be sexually assaulted.”
The sartorial reappropriation that Healy, a white, college-educated Mid-Westerner, managed to find at SlutWalk, however, may well not be possible for women of color who always wear the added complication of race. That’s what Farah Tanis, co-founder of the New York–based feminist group Black Women’s Blueprint, recently declared in “An Open Letter From Black Women to the SlutWalk.” The letter, directed at organizers of SlutWalk NYC, expresses concern that “Black women and girls have found no real space in SlutWalk.” “As Black women, we do not have the privilege or the space to call ourselves ‘slut’ without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the Black woman is,” Tanis and others write. “The perception and wholesale acceptance of speculations about what the Black woman wants, what she needs and what she deserves has truly, long crossed the boundaries of her mode of dress.”
“Approximately 40 percent of African-American women report coercive contact of a sexual nature by age 18,” Tanis told me in an interview. “Part of the problem with SlutWalk in the United States is that is doesn’t speak to the myriad of needs and the complex situations that African-American and even Asian-American, Latina, and Native American women experience when it comes to sexual assault.”
As the co-signers of the open letter suggest, the word and iconography of “slut” can be more difficult for African-American women to reclaim because of the longstanding stereotypes about black women as innately hypersexual. Dating back to the eighteenth century, European and white American slaveholders routinely applied the myth of the jezebel, the sexually promiscuous and morally loose woman, to justify their widespread rape of enslaved black women.
This myth, however, grew to encompass not only slave women and the jezebel fast became the catchall for all black women’s sexuality, regardless of their social standing or legal status. A white woman, with the exception of prostitutes and some manual laborers, could be a “lady,” the model of respectability, modesty, and even sexual purity. A white woman can be labeled a slut on the basis of specific behavior, such as perceived promiscuity. But black women, stereotypically, can be considered sluts at any time, no matter what they do or wear.
We witnessed the jezebel’s most recent incarnation this summer when the New York Post ran the headline describing Nafiassatou Diallo, the West African hotel maid who accused Dominique Strauss-Khan of sexual assault, as a “hooker”—when the only “evidence” backing up the accusation was an unnamed source. “Not all women can stop being called a slut when they go home,” Tanis says.
But it is precisely because of the sexual stereotypes associated with black women, says Robin Givhan, fashion critic for The Daily Beast and Newsweek, that “the reverse is also possible. It would seem to me that black women might have an even more powerful reason to want to defuse the power of the word ‘slut.’ ”
“There has always been a strategy amongst African-American men and women that you win respectability by being respectable. The marchers and protesters in the civil rights movement wore their Sunday best because it was a show of their own sense of dignity,” Givhan tells me.
“But I wonder if we have gotten to the point when that doesn’t have to be the only way. I would raise the question, ‘Are black women confident enough in their respectability and femininity that they can wear shorts and a halter and say I am still someone worthy of your respect? Someone who is worthy of being respected? Especially, in an age when the icon of American womanhood is Michelle Obama?’”
Many SlutWalk organizers around the country—who operate independently—deserve the legitimate criticisms that they have not been inclusive of women of color. At the march I attended, despite the efforts of SlutWalk DC organizer Samantha Wright, the majority of women were white.
And that’s precisely why I decided to march. While I had heard the critiques, and agreed with aspects of them, I made the choice to participate as a way of protesting the alarming rates of sexual violence that black girls and women experience. During my speech, I said I was there
because too many women and girls, who look like me, haven’t always been invited to marches like this.… Because young girls, and especially girls of color, are called Jumpoffs. Whores. Sluts. Almost everyday. By friends. By strangers. By parents. By police officers. ’Cause when I took that long walk home after I was raped, my spaghetti strapped dress was turned inside out. And I was afraid to go to the police and be told it was my fault. Scared of someone telling me that being trapped in a room wearing a spaghetti-strapped dress with a man who threatened my life wasn’t rape.
As a longtime activist against sexual violence who has seen the way survivors are consistently silenced, the idea of a march that brought attention to sexual violence and celebrated its survivors was too compelling to ignore. I had to be there.
Still, one of SlutWalk’s biggest strengths—spectacle—might be its ultimate weakness. So far, only a handful of SlutWalks have maintained momentum after the march. For Chai Shenoy, author of “This is Why I Don’t Care to SlutWalk” and an attorney for Washington Empowered Against Violence (WEAVE), the real problem with SlutWalk DC is that “SlutWalk is not a movement, it’s a march.” To create long-term change, says Chai, “It needs to have a purpose beyond just a march. I think it needs to have larger purpose, a call to action, beyond people who already belong to the same community coming together.” Shenoy believes that such a “call to action,” would entail working with communities and grassroots organizations already committed to ending sexual violence, ultimately creating more opportunities for women of color and immigrant women to engage.
None of this negates the fact that SlutWalk has been the most successful protest against sexual violence in the United States since the birth of the Take Back the Night marches in the 1970s. For me, walking alongside women who confidently wore the clothing in which they had been sexually assaulted was exciting and empowering. As a black woman and a rape survivor, it was one of only times in my life that I felt like I could wear whatever I wanted, wherever I wanted, without the threat of rape.
But like any great spectacle, SlutWalk risks going out of style. In order for it to be more than a passing fad, it has to become a healthy marriage of substance and spectacle, a movement that builds on the anti-rape activism of black women, like civil rights activists Fannie Lou Hamer and Rosa Parks, as revealed in Danielle McGuire’s recent book At the Dark End of the Street. One that integrates, as its organizers and protesters, those women—lesbian, queer and transgendered; women of color, low-income women and sexually exploited workers—who are most vulnerable to sexual assault and more likely to be called “slut,” regardless of what they’re wearing.
Maybe this is why when I got back on the Acela after the march, I felt compelled to pull my down my skirt. Just a little.
Salamishah Tillet is an Assistant Professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.