BY JULIE LALONDE, DIRECTOR OF HOLLABACK OTTAWA
excerpt from Being the Change since 2007
Ottawa had its own SlutWalk and you better believe I was there. In fact, in the interest of full disclosure, I was asked to speak at it, too. But that’s where it ends, for the record. I’ve never organized a SlutWalk, have no part in organizing future ones and quite frankly, spent 5 minutes at the Ottawa one talking about systemic violence against womyn.
I must admit that I was initially a little apprehensive about the whole thing. I’d heard about it in its planning stages and felt that it might have been a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to highlight an issue.
But I was wrong. I was so, so wrong.
It seems that people want to talk about sluts, sluttyness, slut-shaming, slut-positivity and all things slutty. People love sluts, other people love to hate sluts and some people hate that they love sluts.
And that’s the fucking point.
See, the organizers knew that if they organized another “Take Back the Night” or “Anti-Sexual Assault” or even a “Stop Victim Blaming” march, you’d get the same little handful of diehards, maybe a blip or two in the media but not much else. The unfortunate reality is that the average person and media outlet doesn’t give a flying fuck about violence against womyn and sexual assault. Because only sluts get raped, and womyn falsely accuse men all the time and feminists are whiny and don’t know how good they have it and on, and on and on.
A name like SlutWalk catches people’s attention, provokes a reaction and is just downright impossible to ignore. The sight of stiff journalists on the nightly news saying “And now, let’s go to Marcie who is over at SlutWalk” can’t help but solicit raised eyebrows.
And once again, that’s the fucking point.
Whether you want to reclaim the word ‘slut’ or not, you can’t help but perk up your ears when you hear the word being used in mainstream, every day conversation by your average folk. And the organizers knew that. They knew that the only way to ensure this cop’s comments didn’t go unnoticed was to shock people into reacting.
They hoped maybe a couple hundred people would show up, they’d find some solidarity and be able to sleep better at time. Instead, thousands of people showed up, an international media machine was started and there are Satellite SlutWalks around the world. Not bad for a handful of novice organizers in Toronto.
But what about this reclaiming business?
That part is tricky and complicated.
Many womyn of colour have commented that it’s not easy for them to do, considering how slut-shaming and labeling is so tied into racism, colonialism, etc. Makes sense.
Others (including myself) think it’s also classist and rather ‘in-crowd’ to assume that everyone can safely embrace the label. Tell that to poor, 16 year old rural girls who are just trying to survive gym class.
But that’s okay. See, SlutWalk isn’t really about everyone embracing the label Slut because like most things in life, if everyone is one, then nobody is.
But you can embrace the name on a political level while still recognizing how problematic it is at the individual level.
Example: We can embrace Ottawa’s annual “Dyke March” while recognizing that a 16 year old high school girl has no desire to embrace the ‘dyke’ label that is thrown on her daily.
Ideally, everyone who identifies as ‘dyke’ could choose to do so and others who don’t could escape the labeling. But we’re not there yet, although we’re working towards it.
SlutWalk is not an end, but a means to an end. It’s a way to rip open the universal covers on sexual assault and to expose the deeply entrenched stereotypes that enable it to continue at epidemic levels. It’s meant to prompt discussion, to test your knee-jerk reaction.
You don’t want to call yourself a slut? – Why?
You don’t think it can be reclaimed? – Why?
Regardless of what your answer is, it got you thinking and that’s the point.
As someone who has been doing anti-sexual violence work in Ottawa for close to 8 years, I’ve been to every conference, march, demonstration, letter-writing campaign kick-off, red tape cutting, award ceremony, you can imagine. I’ve been there, I’ve spoken at them, I’ve shaked my head at them and I’ve marched in them. And none of them had the turn-out that SlutWalk did.
Ottawa is an extremely conservative city with a small, (too) tight-knit feminist community and here I was, standing amongst a thousand other people, many of which I had never seen before. The crowd was diverse in age, background, gender identity, ethnicity, etc. And despite what you might have read or seen about the celebratory nature of SlutWalk, it was a rather sombre event. People were angry, not laughing. As they should be – sexual assault isn’t funny.
So you’ve got a conservative community out on a Sunday afternoon, talking about womyn’s sexuality and sexual assault in a constructive and meaningful way. Regardless of how you feel about reclaiming language, you have to be impressed by the power it had that day in Ottawa.
(Say it with me) and that’s the fucking point.
I have no desire to call myself a slut. None. My reasons for this are many but include the fact that I don’t want to define myself by my association with other people (ie: how many people I sleep with, who I sleep with, etc). It’s also difficult to call yourself something when a definition doesn’t exist. We know that a slut has something to do with sexuality but ask ten people and you’ll get ten different answers.
I was called a slut for holding a pro-choice sign at an anti-choice rally.
I was called a slut for attending a new school in grade 10 with no friends or history in that city. A rumour was started that I was chased out of another town for having slept with someone’s boyfriend. The truth? I was a virgin who’d had to move for her dad’s new job.
Hell, I was called a slut for defending SlutWalk. (The irony.. it hurts…)
But even though I do not long for the label doesn’t mean I fail to see its importance. As Jaclyn Friedman so amazingly said, we must all stand under the banner of ‘Slut’ and recognize that when it is used against one womyn, it is used against all womyn. Because we can all be called a slut by someone at some point and in many cases, the sting of that word not only offends us, but decides whether or not our rape is convicted properly, whether we get access to housing, a job, a promotion, a reference, or even someone’s Facebook friend request.
So even if you don’t want to call yourself a slut, learn to respect those who do.