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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.
 
 
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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.

 
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