Ottawa Slut Walk 2011: Reclaiming Our Sexuality

TRIGGER WARNING: Discussions of Rape and Sexual Assault

On January 24th, 2011, the Toronto Police were giving a presentation on campus safety at York when one of the officers, Constable Michael Sanguinetti, claimed that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”. Needless to say, many people were pissed. In my previous post, I spoke about Jane Doe’s rape and her case against the Toronto police, the events of which started in 1986. Part of the evidence that Jane Doe brought forward came from internal documentation showing that the police had been trying to address sexism within their ranks, particularly when dealing with sexual assault, since the 1970s. As we can see it is 2011 and the police are still operating on the idea that women are responsible, at least partially, for rape.

After these comments were made at York University, several Toronto feminists decided that they had had enough and organised the Toronto Slut Walk, a mass protest of people who refused to support the consistent victim blaming that gets levied against sexually assaulted individuals from the media, from the police, and from the people that we live and talk with every day. Over 1000 people showed up for the demonstration in Toronto and several satellite events have been arranged as well.

I was lucky enough to be able to go to the event in Ottawa. Hundreds appeared in Minto Park (site of a monument dedicated to abused women murdered by their partners) and then marched to the Human Rights Memorial in front of the Ottawa City Hall. Speeches were made by several local organisations working in the area of sexual rights, including WIN Ottawa, POWER, Families of Sisters in Spirit, the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women, the Sexual Assault Support Centre, and a few other organisations that I know I must have missed.

So what was Slut Walk all about? Some commentators believe that this was all an overreaction to a single cop inappropriately phrasing a supposedly important piece of advice. However, it is not just the police force that refuses to banish these destructive myths from their minds, but society in general that upholds and promotes negative perspectives on sexuality and sexual assault.

For instance, women are taught from a very young age to restrict what we do in order to protect ourselves. We are told to avoid wearing the wrong clothing, using the wrong body language, going to the wrong neighbourhoods, choosing the wrong friends, and basically doing anything at all that might be misconstrued as too sexy or provocative. Women, in this framework, are the gatekeepers of sex and our failures are what cause rape.

Clothing, however, does not cause rape. A woman’s actions, be they flirtatious or not, do not cause rape. Those who have been subjected to rape are not a monolith of glittery tube top and stiletto wearing women of the night as the media and justice system so like to suggest. Furthermore, the women who have been raped while wearing sexy clothing or engaging in sex work did not ask to be raped and did not cause their own rape. We, as women, do not ask for our refusals to be ignored or for our bodily autonomy to be abused. The only person responsible for rape is the rapist.

Rapists make the choice to take away the choice of another. Rapists make the choice to hurt, abuse and harm. Rapists are the ones that can stop rape by refusing to rape. However, we never ask rapists to stop raping. We rarely tell our young men to respect the choices of women or give them the tools and information necessary for understanding what enthusiastic consent and mutuality actually mean in a relationship (of any length).

Jane Doe, in her lecture at my school, listed off the different things that women are told not to do when a rape has occurred in our communities. Don’t go out at night alone. Bring a friend when you leave your house. Don’t cut through alley ways. Don’t wear that low-cut top. Then she asked us to think about the possibility of asking men to stay inside at night because a rapist is on the loose. Why aren’t men asked to be accompanied by a trusted female friend who can vouch for him, or why are men not asked to ensure that their windows are properly curtained so as to hide their very existence. As Jane Doe said these things, the class erupted into laughter. Jane Doe suddenly became serious and asked us why one set of precautions was so much more acceptable than the other. The class went silent.

Slut Walk is about the word slut and all the baggage that the word has in reference to society’s understandings of sexual assault and rape. Not every feminist agrees on whether or not the word can be reclaimed, even at the event itself; however, what is agreed upon is that something needs to change. The Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women receives, on average, 15 calls a day about sexual assault. They are one of 14 different sexual assault centres in the city. How can it be that we as a society view the bodily autonomy of so many women with so little value? Why is it that we view the maturity and humanity of men as so degraded that they cannot help but lose control of themselves? What does slut even mean?

Back when I was in high school, the word slut was never spoken by my peers directly to my face. However, I heard whispers of it around corners and from second-hand gossip. My transgression was that my best friend was a man and obviously we could only be interested in each other for sexual reasons. Interestingly enough, he was never called a slut.

One of the women from the Sexual Assault Support Centre talked about all the reasons that women are called sluts, be it because you develop breasts a little bit earlier than your peers or if you turn down someone’s request for a date because you are a lesbian/not interested/dating someone else. You can be a slut if you have sex with one hundred people or no one. You are a slut if you are wearing a mini-dress or a baggy sweatshirt. Slut, essentially, tells us more about the person saying the word than about the person it is lobbied against. Slut, as an insult, means nothing, and yet it means so much and causes so much pain.

Slut Walk is about being free to live without fear. It’s about being able to make our own choices about how we will live and who we will be with without worrying that someone will try to take away our control over our own bodies. Slut Walk is about the ability of all people to have happy, sexy, consent-based sex, whether you enjoy a different partner every night or choose never to engage in sex at all. Slut Walk is about wearing the clothing that you want and knowing that it does not negate your ability to consent. Slut Walk is about taking responsibility; the responsibility to ensure that our partners are enthusiastically consenting, and the responsibility to challenge the mainstream conceptions of sexuality that harm us all.

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