News & Politics

Slut-Shaming Begone: An Interview with Heather Jarvis, Cofounder of SlutWalk

The Toronto feminist organizer discusses the controversy behind reclaiming a sexual slur and how the protests are catching on like wildfire.

These days it seems likes there’s a SlutWalk in a new city every week. The Toronto-founded movement, which zooms in on slut-shaming, (re)victimization and the language surrounding sexual assault, held its first march on April 3 -- quick galvanization in response to a police offer telling a group of university students that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order to not be victimized.” Since then more than 70 satellite events have taken place or been scheduled in cities from Mexico City to Miami, Cape Town to Sydney. But with such rapid mobilization comes a significant increase in media attention and backlash. Cofounder Heather Jarvis, a Toronto-based activist and student, discusses the nuances and difficulties behind organizing and promoting SlutWalk.

Anupa Mistry: Can you tell me about your first encounter with the word ‘slut’ that you might remember?

Heather Jarvis: I don’t remember any one specific example, but I definitely remember being teased when I was as young as 11. I developed earlier so I remember my bra straps being snapped and boys telling me—when I decided I didn’t like them or didn’t want to be their girlfriend—that they only liked me because of how I looked and I was worth nothing except my boobs. But, I’ve had the word slut—as well as skank, hoe, cunt, dyke—thrown at me a lot of times in a lot of different ways. Sometimes it’s on the street when I’m holding hands with a girlfriend, sometimes it’s been at a club, or if we’re at a bar and I say no to somebody. And sometimes it's just if someone doesn’t like me.

AM: When did you first start thinking about the deeper implications of the word?

HJ: I think I identified as a feminist around the age of 13 or 14, so things clicked pretty early for me. But it was probably in high school. I had a boyfriend at the time and I tended to be, even back then, pretty adventurous in what I thought sex could be. But I didn’t dress the stereotypical part and the girls around me who did… I remember the slut jokes, and the whore jokes, and comments about them being on their knees all the time. These were girls who I knew when we were 12 and now, just a few years later, things had changed so much and suddenly it was like they were worth nothing to some people? I remember it striking me just how wrong it was.

AM: Have you used the word yourself before, in casual conversation?

HJ: I’ve used it in a positive context quite a few times before. As we’ve tried to say but it’s frequently not heard, people like Sonya JF Barnett (cofounder) and I were traveling in circles where this word was already being reclaimed—we definitely weren’t the first people to do it. I was in a circle where cunt could be said in an endearing way [laughs], and so could slut.

AM: I’d say it’s a minority of people out there who do belong to these types of circles and who are familiar with these types of discourses. Is it your intention to address the needs of those who aren’t?

HJ: Oh, it absolutely is our intention. I have experience with some gender studies classes, feminist activism and anti-oppressive work, but one of my biggest issues is that these ideas aren’t accessible to people. They’re spoken about in a certain kind of language in certain circles, but how do we get other people to participate in the discussion when we’re talking about patriarchy and systems of oppression and people don’t understand what we mean? I think that’s a pretty classist aspect that people don’t acknowledge. We chose the name of what we’re doing consciously—we wanted to get attention because we want people to talk about this and pay attention to sexual assault, revictimization and victim blaming—and a large part of it is the language that surrounds these things. We want people to think about the language they use and what it really means.

AM: Is it possible then for marginalized or these 'inaccessible' communities and groups to co-opt this great momentum and message?

HJ: We’ve had people from indigenous and black communities, or of different age groups and generations, saying, “This is wrong. We can’t reclaim this word and never want that or will.” And I completely respect those opinions but I want more choice, not less. This is a choice for some people and everybody can’t do it. I don’t think it’s valuable for people in certain parts of the world, who live in fear, to pick up the word slut and call it a day. But this is something we’ve seen done before—language can shift, language can change—and not everybody agrees with it, but it’s an option.

AM: So is there room for different types of feminism here, in your opinion?

HJ: Absolutely. When is feminism all in agreement?

AM: There’s a lot of talk about SlutWalk as satire. Was that ever your intention? Is it something you agree with as an effective tool of engagement?

HJ: For us, this wasn’t about being satirical or ironic. Some people see this as tongue in cheek and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing for us, but it isn’t what we intended. People did use their bodies as protest, which is a longstanding thing we’ve seen. But we intended to say: “You took this word, Officer Who Is A Representative Of The Police Force, and we’re throwing it right back at you.”

Some people who have participated in SlutWalk have definitely used irony and satire and I think that’s great. From day one, we encouraged people to come out as they were. This was not about promoting promiscuity or a stereotypical aesthetic. It’s about saying that a slut is not a uniform thing because almost everyone can be called it, and has been, for any reason. If you deem somebody who has been sexually assaulted a slut, then that’s going to be the person in the jogging outfit, the person in their pajamas at home, the 12-year-old, or the 80-year-old.

AM: I found the preface to Officer Sanguinetti’s statement telling. 'I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this, but….' What did you take that to mean?

HJ: That he clearly went through training and it clearly didn’t work, because he knew he shouldn’t have made that comment but felt and believed it was valid and important. When we were organizing, we looked into the Jane Doe case and her work, and found that a few years ago she was on a review board looking at current programs and training within the police force. Her feedback from doing this and sitting in on some of the training classes was that it was appalling. She had to specify: “The person in the classroom needs to stop racist, sexist, homophobic, and rape jokes—that’s not okay to allow in your classroom.” And that was only a few years ago. So we thought, he’s had training and he knows that he shouldn’t say this, but clearly he feels that it’s valuable and necessary.

We obviously don’t think the comments are reflective of the entire police force but that day he was a representative on their behalf so the entire police force has to be accountable to beliefs that are clearly still circulating.

AM: Where’s the viable solution when you’re talking about reclamation and generations of ingrained language and thought processes?

HJ: There is no one solution otherwise hopefully we would’ve found it already. I think conversations need to keep happening and we need to have them at younger ages. We’ve never said 11-year-olds should call themselves sluts. Why aren’t we having conversations about the words that young people attribute to each other? That needs to happen. People need to understand what sexual assault is about, and how to get consent. Our law is, I believe, built on affirmative consent, where legally it’s supposed to be about getting a "yes" but that’s not how we live. How we live is about hearing a "no" and that’s where consent comes in. We need to focus on not hearing the no, but how to get a freely given and enthusiastic yes.

AM: Women are obviously implicated in this, right?

HJ: A lot of people have said slut is a male-created term, and I think it is a male created term. But we can’t deny that women participate in it and women do a lot of slut shaming. Many people have said they hear of women doing this to each other far more than men, and that was my experience growing up. I’ve heard girls tear each other down around sexuality and how promiscuous and "dirty" they were more than I heard the guys do it. So I think women need to pay attention to the ways we participate in this. Some people say, “If women hear each other calling themselves sluts then men will think it’s okay,” but I think it’s more complicated than that. How do you respond to that specific criticism—that this hinders the progress of those activists working to undo/tackle that underlying system of patriarchy and misogyny?

I very much respect and understand people who say we should be fighting to have this word erased. I grapple with it myself, but this language is not going away. We’ve always seen a lot of different approaches and expressions and opinions within feminism, and this is something that thousands of people are connecting to—whether they want to actually call themselves a slut or not. Dismissing those voices because they’re young or not educated enough is damaging. A lot of messages we, and other participants, have received are basically, you don’t know enough so shut up. I don’t think that’s the message that we want to give to people.

AM: As all of these diverse groups engage with SlutWalk, what’s been the biggest wall you’ve hit or the hardest criticism to address?

HJ: Recently, more criticisms within feminism have been coming up and I think that’s been really hard. Some are continuing to make assumptions that are inaccurate. As feminists, we should ask questions and listen to people and hear their perspective, and if you disagree you disagree, but you do so respectfully because you now understand it a lot better.

Second to that, very recently, there has been increasing criticism coming from people of color—not all people of color, but some—labeling us as perpetuating white supremacy and white privileged dominance. What’s tough is that we’re getting back to the place where a lot of these analyses are really valuable, but a lot of them are inaccessible. It’s an absolutely valid criticism, but that does not mean the people of color who have been involved should be dismissed and erased because that’s also been happening. People from outside of Canada are saying we haven’t engaged “Us, as people of color,” and I’m left wondering who that universal “us” is? One of our organizers is a woman of color and part of our speeches on the day of our SlutWalk addressed our more local experience of Indigenous populations, multiculturalism, and women of color in Toronto. So it’s much more complicated than all or nothing.

Just like experience isn’t the same across the board. Being called a slut or being sexually assaulted isn’t the same for every single person because different factors are at play. From the statistics and numbers we do have to go off (which aren’t quite as representative because of the people who don’t talk about it) the majority of girls who are sexually assaulted experience it before the age of 18. I fall into that category. So yeah, it is a big issue and it’s not something we should be talking about when people reach 30 because it’s too late for that. Well, it’s not too late but the earlier the better!

Anupa Mistry lives in Toronto, writing and blogging about music, culture and the Internet. Follow her on Twitter at _anupa.