News & Politics

Sluts Don't Cause Rape, Rapists Do: Why "Slutwalks" Are Sweeping the World

The idea behind the Slutwalks is simple, yet so often fails to get through: rape is rape, no matter what the victim wears, says or does.

One Toronto policeman, Michael Sanguinetti, made the mistake of telling women on a college campus “not to dress like sluts” if they didn’t want to get raped. 

It was a stupid and wrong thing to say, obviously. But if it had really been one guy’s mistake, hundreds of women wouldn't be participating in “Slutwalks” that have spread across the continent, and now the globe, and are garnering quite a bit of attention from the media.

According to the Guardian, Slutwalks have already taken place in Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Argentina and Sweden and major events are planned in London, LA, and more this summer. It’s a phenomenon that has gone viral, sporting creative homemade signs, costumes and chants that channel the clever and theatrical elements of feminist protest.

The point of these mass marches? Comments like that misguided police officer's are all too common, reflecting beliefs ingrained in nearly all of us as part of a culture that jumps to blaming the victim, blaming alcohol, blaming loose morals, blaming anyone and anything but the actual rapist. And such a culture isn’t just demeaning, it’s dangerous, because it focuses on the outfits and behavior of victims rather than the criminal behavior of perpetrators.

The idea behind the Slutwalks is simple, yet so often fails to get through: rape is rape, no matter what the victim is wearing. The Slutwalks--after the original one in Toronto was successful and showed up on YouTube and on Internet pictures--have sprung up organically. They tend not to have a vastly unifying principle beyond this: if the law, and society, treat women who are raped as sluts who deserved it, than we are all sluts, because we can all be raped at any time, no matter what we are wearing.

To simplify it even further, a Boston marcher carried a sign reading, “Sluts Don’t Cause Rape. Rapists Do.”

Critics of the marches have had a hard time getting past the word “slut,” as well as the dress-up element of some of the marches, which feature leather and fishnets and low-cut tops as well as jeans and T-shirts, hoodies and sweats. The word slut, so hurtful and shameful, can understandably be a hard one to get around. Both feminists and anti-feminists have expressed reservations about the word’s use, with the anti-feminist side veering into nasty victim-blaming and concern-trolling.

But there’s also a positive, playful and powerful history of reclaiming the term “slut” as Kathleen Hanna once did, a move that has echoes in the joyful, defiant sexuality found at the Slutwalk marches. Ray Filar at the Guardian explains the historical and cultural connection between Slutwalking and the “riot grrl” movement:

This move to embrace the word as a term of positive sexuality may currently be travelling across the world to the tune of the marching band, but it harks back to the dawn of the 1990s when musician Kathleen Hanna, unwilling figurehead for the riot grrrl movement and lead singer for Bikini Kill, went on stage with the word "slut" scrawled across her body. In doing this, she made a visceral, powerful statement about her sexuality. Her message was not "yes, I am a slut." It was this: "by reclaiming the derogatory terms that you use to silence my sexual expression, I dilute your power."

As Lindsey Beyerstein notes at Big Think, the marches go a step beyond that riot grrl attitude. They don’t just reclaim the word, they satirize the very concept. Where do we draw the sacred uncrossable line between lack of sluthood and sluthood? Can virgins be sluts if they dress wrong? To religious folks who demand “modesty,” jeans are slutty, after all:

In fact, Slutwalk is satirizing the whole slut construct. .. Organizers told people to wear whatever they wanted. The message was: Who's a slut? We all are. Or none of us are. And who cares? It's a stupid, meaningless concept anyway. 

So the point of the marches isn’t simply to turn around and make a loaded word like slut positive, or even merely to reclaim it and use its power as a weapon but rather to shed light on its rampant and ridiculous use as an excuse for rape, an easy out for those with a propensity for victim blaming. The idea is that the girls we call sluts, the girls we say “were asking for it,” are our sisters, are friends, our loved ones, ourselves. 

The word “slut,” said Jaclyn Friedman during her speech at the Boston Slutwalk, which drew thousands to the Boston Common, is a weapon that can be used against women for any reason, a weapon that marks them as fair game, as less than human, as a target for violence. 

And make no mistake about it: we can be called sluts for nearly any reason at all. If we’re dancing. If we’re drinking. If we have ever in our lives enjoyed sex. If our clothes aren’t made of burlap. If we’re women of color...If we’re fat or disabled or otherwise considered undesirable... If we’re queer boys or trans women, we’re called sluts in order to punish us...If we’re poor... And god forbid we accuse someone of raping us – that’s the fast track to sluthood for sure, because it’s much easier to tell us what we did wrong to make someone to commit a felony violent crime against us than it is to deal with the actual felon.

Slutwalks are a playful and powerful way of combating rape culture, and they don’t preclude or negate more serious forms of anti-rape activism like the traditional “Take Back the Night” marches and speakouts or prevention work with men and via legislation. They complement these other forms of pushback and add a new dimension to the critique of the twisted way our cultural lens views sexual assault.

Watch Friedman's speech below and view a slideshow of Flickr photos tagged "slutwalk" below that.





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Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at