How the 'SlutWalk' Has Transformed the Rape Culture Conversation


The following is an excerpt from the new book  SlutWalk: Feminism, Activism and Media  by Kaitlynn Mendes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015):

In January 2011, Toronto Police Constable Michael Sanguinetti addressed a small group of York University students on campus safety. Prefaced by the statement ‘I’m told I’m not supposed to say this’ he went on to advise that, ‘women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized’. While his intention might have been to protect women, his comments that ‘slutty’ women attract sexual assault perpetuated the long- standing myth that victims are responsible, or somehow ‘are asking’ for the violence used against them. In response to PC Sanguinetti’s comments, Toronto residents Heather Jarvis and Sonya Barnett translated their anger at the ways women were slut- shamed and victim- blamed, into political activism. Creating a website and Facebook and Twitter accounts, the women invited the public to join them for a ‘SlutWalk’ to the Toronto Police Headquarters to vent their frustration. On 3 April 2011, the first SlutWalk set off from Queen’s Park in Toronto, attended by thousands. Although the organizers asked people to dress in their normal, everyday clothing to demonstrate the ways that sexual assault occurs no matter what women wear, a number of attendees showed up in ‘provocative’ attire to make a statement that no matter how they dress, they do not deserve to be assaulted.

Before the first march even took place, the movement went ‘viral,’ attracting much initial publicity via the feminist blogosphere, including popular sites such as, Jezebel and Feministing. By the end of the 2011, SlutWalks emerged organically in over 200 cities and 40 nations, mobilizing tens of thousands of women, men and children. In 2014, although the movement had slowed, SlutWalks continued to take place in major cities such as Baltimore, Bloomington, Denver, Edmonton, Guelph, Jerusalem, Johannesburg, Melbourne, Miami, Milwaukee, Munich, Orlando, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Portland, Reno, Rio De Janeiro, Rochester, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria (Canada), Warsaw and Washington DC. In July 2014 a record breaking 11,000 people turned up to the fourth annual SlutWalk in Reykjavík, Iceland. 


The genesis and development of SlutWalk

In January 2011, Toronto resident Heather Jarvis was on Facebook when she came across an article from York University’s student newspaper The Excalibur, recounting PC Sanguinetti’s comments about how women could avoid being ‘victimized’ by not dressing like ‘sluts.’ Angered by the perpetuation of rape myths – particularly the idea that women who dress provocatively, drink alcohol, or who enjoy sex, are regularly blamed if sexually assaulted  – Jarvis shared the story on Facebook, creating an online dialogue between friends. In one exchange with Sonya Barnett, Jarvis stated she wanted to go to the Toronto police headquarters to share her anger, and was immediately supported. After exchanging a few messages, Jarvis and Barnett agreed to stage a protest. The idea for the name emerged when Barnett told a colleague about their protest, who jokingly asked if they were going to call it ‘SlutWalk’. Both Barnett and Jarvis liked the name, and plans for the first SlutWalk began with the creation of a website, Facebook page and Twitter account (Jarvis 2012).

Although the numbers of protesters said to have attended the march range from 1,000 to 3,000 people (McNicol 2012; ‘Toronto’s Slutwalk sparks blogosphere feminism debate’; Onstad 2011), it not only attracted local media attention, but was reported across Canada and the world, fuelling the emergence of this grassroots political movement. News records indicate that marches first began springing up in Canada and the US before moving across the Atlantic to the UK, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, South Africa and a range of other non- Western and non- English- speaking nations (see also Carr 2013; Dow & Wood 2014). Significantly, the movement also went ‘viral’ amongst the feminist blogosphere and received much publicity and attention. SlutWalks generally consist of a march, ending with a range of speeches from sexual assault survivors, sex workers and members of anti- rape organizations. In several cases, the march is either preceded or followed by a range of events including consent workshops, flashmobs, film screenings, poetry readings and more.

SlutWalk in a time of rape culture

For several decades, feminists and academics have increasingly talked about the development of a ‘rape culture,’ or a socio- cultural context in which male dominance is eroticized, and where young men and women are taught that male aggression is a ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’ part of sexual relations (Herman 1978). As a result, rape culture not only fosters the belief that men are entitled to women’s bodies, but that rape ‘makes sense’ in certain scenarios, and is an inevitable part of life (see Buchwald et al. 2005; McNicol 2012; Valenti 2007). Tired of the routine objectification of their bodies and the ways that women are told to accept violence as a ‘natural’ part of sexuality, the SlutWalk movement emerged at a time when the absurdity or ‘dislocation’ of this culture was becoming increasingly evident to large sections of society (see Shaw, F. 2011). Although they might not have been familiar with the term ‘rape culture,’ there is no doubt that women (and many men), had become increasingly frustrated by the ways they were being policed and held accountable for other people’s actions. As co- founders Heather Jarvis and Sonya Barnett articulated on the SlutWalk Toronto website:

We are tired of being oppressed by slut- shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result. Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless if we participate in sex for pleasure or work. No one should equate enjoying sex with attracting sexual assault. (SlutWalk Toronto 2011)

And while a number of high profile articles have been published in recent years, denying the existence of rape culture (see Kitchens 2013, 2014; Roiphe 1994), below are some recent examples which provide the emotional fodder for large scale resistance to it, including SlutWalk.

Rape culture exists in a town near you

In March 2011, a month before the first SlutWalk took place, an 11- year- old girl in Cleveland, Texas was gang raped by 18 men while the attack was filmed on a mobile phone. In its report of the crime, The New York Times included quotes from the community, stating the girl wore makeup and fashions ‘more appropriate to a woman in her 20s’ (McKinley 2011), thus suggesting she was responsible for her attack. Furthermore, local residents were quoted talking about how the perpetrators would ‘have to live with this for the rest of their lives,’ while ignoring the impact the assault would have for the victim.

In August 2012, while SlutWalks were marching into their second year, a 16- year- old high school student in Steubenville, Ohio was raped by two classmates while passed out at a party. Over a six hour period, the girl was undressed, transported and sexually assaulted while other party- goers captured and disseminated images and texts about the assault via social media. Although there were many witnesses to the assault, no one attempted to intervene. As one witness explained, he didn’t stop it because: ‘It wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I  thought it was forcing yourself on someone’ (Carter & Harlow 2013). Not only is men’s entitlement to a woman’s body symptomatic of rape culture, but so too is the lack of knowledge of what rape actually is or looks like (Meyer 2010).

At the trial of the men who were charged with the 2012 gang rape and murder of a 23- year- old Delhi student on a moving bus, their lawyer stated he had never heard of a ‘respected lady’ being raped in India, and that, as an unmarried woman, she should not have been out in the streets at night (MacAskill 2013). Rape culture supports the policing of women’s behaviour (they shouldn’t be out at night), and justifies male violence if a woman is (perceived) to be out of line. In this way, rape culture serves as a reminder for women to remain in their ‘proper’ place, and demonstrates that if they fail to do so, they will be (threatened with) rape, battery or murder.

This line of thought is also responsible for the views that some women cannot be raped – such as sex workers, ‘sluts,’ or women of colour, who are always thought to be ‘up for it.’ At the same time, the disabled or those not conventionally beautiful are thought to be so undesirable that they would be grateful for any sexual attention at all. Yet rape culture also excuses sexual assault as an inherent part of masculinity, as we saw in 2014 when two teenage cousins were raped, strangled and then hung from a tree in Uttar Pradesh, India. In a country where it is estimated that a woman is raped every 22 minutes, not only were two of the attackers police officers, but the leader of the region’s governing party told an election rally that in cases of gang rape, ‘boys will be boys’ (Blake 2014), thus constructing male violence as ‘natural’ and ‘inevitable.’ This routine excuse of rape is a key feature of rape culture.

‘Legitimate’ rape or ‘bad sexual etiquette’?

One key feature of rape culture is the qualification of rape in terms of its legitimacy. Scholars have noted that when most people think of rape, they think of a stranger attacking a woman in a dark alley – a scenario in which the victim puts up a valiant fight and sustains visible injuries (Meyer 2010). Research has found that any other type of rape is likely to be classified as ‘sex gone a bit wrong’ (see Benedict 1992; Meyer 2010). It is therefore perhaps no surprise that when commenting on the 2012 rape accusations filed against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange by two Swedish women, British MP George Galloway insisted that one of the crimes in question – Assange having sex with one of the women while she slept – was merely a case of ‘bad sexual etiquette.’ Galloway went on to state that even if Assange’s actions were captured on camera, they would not constitute rape ‘as anyone with any sense can possibly recognize it.’ This is because, as the two had previously engaged in consensual sex, ‘not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion’ (‘George Galloway attacked over Assange “rape” comments’ 2012). Similarly, when the US government tried to extradite film director Roman Polanski, who was accused of drugging and raping a 13- year- old girl in the 1970s, The View host Whoopi Goldberg declared: ‘I know it wasn’t rape- rape. It was something else but I don’t believe it was raperape’ (Robertson 2009). This is despite the fact that Polanski admitted his actions and even apologized to the victim (Hare 2011). When rape is downplayed as ‘bad sexual etiquette,’ when rapists are forgiven for their crimes because of their celebrity status, or when qualifications are made about ‘real,’ and ‘legitimate’ rape, these discourses downplay the nature of the crime, and therefore set the context for how it will be handled. This informs what is known as the ‘second assault’ (see Wolburt Burgess et al. 2009), which is another key feature of rape culture.

The second assault

For many victims, the post- assault experience can be just as traumatic as the assault itself. This is credited to the veracity of rape myths – or generalized, false ideas or beliefs about rape which trivialize it, suggests that it did not occur, or can only occur in certain contexts. Rape myths serve to redirect blame for this crime on the victims, or to reduce the perpetrators’ culpability (Bonnes 2013, p.  210; Meyer 2010). Franiuk et al. (2008) argued that rape myths are key to the perpetuation of sexual assault in our culture because they make people question the legitimacy of rape cases (cited in Bonnes 2013, p. 211). The cultural acceptance of rape myths mean that when victims report the assault (to friends, family or the authorities), they are often questioned about their appearance, behaviour, profession, or sexual past, as a way of transferring blame to them (Benedict 1992; Bonnes 2013; Meyer 2010; Worthington 2008).

With this in mind, it is no surprise that, for example in the British and American context, figures show that between 80 and 90 percent of rape is never reported (Campbell 2013, p. 84; Dodd 2014; The White House Council on Women and Girls 2014). The underreporting of this crime is often due to women’s own internalization of rape myths, which either prevents them from seeing the crime as rape (e.g. if it was done by an intimate partner), or makes them believe that they were responsible (see Bonnes 2013). Yet despite the chronic underreporting of rape, it is commonly believed that women ‘cry rape’ because they are ashamed about the encounter and want to save face (Meyer 2010), or because they want to punish or get revenge on the suspected assailant (Benedict 1992). In 2013, Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) found that, in fact, false rape accusations are ‘extremely rare’ – mounting to around two per month, but are extremely damaging to the credibility of all victims who seek justice (Crown Prosecution Service 2013). Other research has similarly suggested that false rape accusations are around two percent, the same as most other crimes (Lonsway & Fitzgerald 1994 cited in Bonnes 2013, p. 211; Lisak et al. 2010).

In Britain, of the estimated ten to 20 percent of cases that are reported, the complaint is withdrawn (often from pressure from the police or family), or the accusation is not acted upon (amidst lack of evidence) 80 percent of the time (Dodd 2014; The White House Council on Women and Girls 2014). In Britain, the Metropolitan Police’s specialist sexual violence unit has been accused of persuading women to drop their cases to help improve their performance record (Dodd 2014). At present, of the 14 percent of reported rape cases that go to trial in Britain, only half result in a conviction (Campbell 2013, pp. 84– 85). This means that only an estimated six or seven percent of all rapes will ever lead to a conviction. These statistics are unsurprising when studies such as the Sexual Assault Research Summary Report (2005) found that one in three Britons believe rape victims are partly responsible for their rape (cited in Meyer 2010, p. 26).

As a result, most rapists get away with their crimes, or receive light sentences if charged. For example, in 2013 a Montana judge gave a 44- year- old male teacher a 30- day sentence for raping a 14- year- old pupil (who later committed suicide in the run up to her trial, after enduring years of slutshaming). Amidst protests over the sentence, the judge defended his actions by claiming that the defendant had ‘suffered enough,’ and that the victim was ‘older than her chronological age’ (Brown 2013). The following year, an Indiana judge gave no jail time for a man convicted of repeatedly drugging and raping his own wife. In his ruling, he advised that she ‘needed to forgive’ her attacker (Pearce 2014). That same year a Dallas judge gave a light sentence to a man who admitted raping a 14- year- old girl, because she neither a virgin nor ‘the victim she claimed to be’ (Belle 2014). These are the cases which at least made it to court. In New Zealand, a group of youths calling themselves ‘Roast Busters’ plied underage girls with alcohol, gang raped them and bragged about it on Facebook. Although several victims have come forward, to date, no one has been charged.

These are but a few examples of the ways in which perpetrators of sexual assault receive impunity for their crimes. As a result, it is no surprise that a thriving rape culture operates in most of the world – a culture not only in which women are raped, but in which assaults can be photographed, recorded and shared, and yet perpetrators either completely avoid punishment, or receive light sentences. And this rape culture is not only evident in the ways that actual violence is acted upon, managed and discussed, but is embedded in our culture. Feminist commentators, activists and scholars alike have highlighted the ways in which sexual violence surrounds us – through images, advertisements, jokes, language and laws. Cumulatively, all of these things serve to validate and perpetuate rape, and result in it ‘making sense’ in certain contexts (such as if a woman is wearing ‘slutty clothing,’ drinks alcohol, isn’t a virgin, or flirts with her attacker beforehand) (Benedict 1992; Bonnes 2013; McNicol 2012; Meyer 2010; Worthington 2008).

That rape culture thrives in its celebration of aggressive masculinity, misogyny and sexism, is evidenced by one of the most popular songs of 2013. In Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines,’ he sings about the supposed ‘grey area’ between consensual sex and rape for ‘good girls.’ Although these girls may say ‘no,’ the lyric ‘I know you want it’ is repeated throughout, implying that they really mean ‘yes.’ Although the song was banned from several UK university campuses, the fact that this response was seen by many as an ‘overreaction’ only serves to highlight how normalized and embedded rape culture is (see Walmsley 2013).

Resistance to rape culture

All of the above examples are evidence that rape culture is not just a Western/Eastern, northern/southern, first world/third world problem, but one which is experienced, albeit in different ways, around the globe. Although it is only just starting to attract mainstream media attention, women (and men) are beginning to fight back against rape culture and challenge the naturalness of such conventions. This applies to so- called ‘honour killings,’ street harassment, rape jokes, sexualized imagery and more. And while people continue to occupy the streets and public spaces, much activism is taking place online. For example, in 2013, an international group of feminists successfully initiated the #FBrape campaign demanding that companies pull their advertisements from the social media company due to Facebook’s refusal to remove misogynist content encouraging violence against women and girls. The one- week campaign resulted in a promise from Facebook to change their policies on hate speech and make it easier to remove offensive pages. In 2014, the #Yesallwomen hashtag trended on Twitter after 22- year- old Elliot Rodger murdered six people in California, saying he was bent on ‘punishing’ women for rejecting him. The hashtag was both a response to the narrative that ‘not all men’ are like Rodger, and as a means of sharing stories about the ubiquitous nature of sexual violence which all women encounter.

Similarly, the grassroots initiatives Hollaback! and The Everyday Sexism Project seek to raise awareness and catalogue the everyday experiences of sexism. As The Everyday Sexism Project explained, by sharing your stories, ‘you’re showing the world that sexism does exist, it is faced by women everyday and it is a valid problem to discuss’ (Bates 2014, italics original). Other online efforts to raise awareness of, and end rape culture, include the ‘I Help End Rape Culture By…’ page on Facebook, in which participants are invited to upload photos of themselves carrying a sign of how they help end rape culture. While the internet opens up a range of possibilities for challenging rape culture, activism is taking place in offline spaces, too. For example, the feminist group FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, seeks to disrupt rape culture by creating an environment in which sexual violence is addressed. Actions include creating a mock Victoria’s Secret line of ‘ consent- themed, anti- rape panties’ (FORCE n.d.), as well as creating public monuments in which rape survivors share their stories (FORCE 2014). Universities across the world, but particularly in the US, are also taking the lead in campaigns to end rape culture. Whitman College in Washington is home to the ‘All Students for Consent’ group which has launched campaigns such as ‘Ask for it,’ in which the ‘it’ stands for consent (All Students for Consent, n.d.). The group 7000 in Solidarity at UCLA in California frequently produces posters, events and art which challenge rape myths. In 2014, Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz’s ‘mattress protest’ went viral, as she vowed to carry a single mattress around campus until college administrators expelled a student she accused of raping her (Grigoriadis 2014).

There have also been a number of marches which protest rape culture. Reclaim the Night, which first began in the US in the 1970s and spread across the world, has experienced a sort of revival in the past decade or so. Since 2004, the London Feminist Network has hosted an annual Reclaim the Night march which attracts thousands. In 2012, thousands of women in Johannesburg attended a Mini- skirt March after two women were assaulted at a taxicab rank for wearing short skirts (Nkosi 2012). In New Zealand, thousands of people attended protests over the Roast Busters scandal discussed above, in which groups of young men were drugging and raping underage girls and then posting videos bragging about it online (Manning 2013). In 2013 and 2014, the One Billion Rising for Justice movement held marches in cities all around the world, demanding an end to violence against women. In 2014, hundreds of Israelis protested against what they saw as the incompetent handling of sexual assault cases (Chai 2014). And in India, thousands of people have come together to protest both the gang rape and murder of a 23- year- old student in 2012, and the 2014 gang rape and murder of two teenage cousins. It is amidst this wider rape culture, and the ways feminists are fighting back, that SlutWalk not only emerged, but exploded as a global grassroots movement. What is significant about SlutWalk is not the premise; after all, women have been protesting against sexual violence for decades. What is striking about SlutWalk was its ability, despite its feminist roots, to capture the mainstream media’s attention. While it is impossible to refute the fact that feminism is experiencing a revitalization, this was certainly not the case in 2011. In fact, I, along with many of its organizers, argue that SlutWalk has been instrumental in bringing feminism and feminist issues back onto the public’s consciousness. Not only did it make it onto the mainstream news, but it became widely discussed amongst news presenters, radio hosts, political and social pundits, bloggers and DJs. As someone who is deeply interested in representations of feminism in mainstream news media (Mendes 2011a, 2012, 2015), I couldn’t help but be interested in this movement, and the complex ways in which it was being discussed. 

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