News & Politics

Does SlutWalk Speak to Women of Color?

SlutWalk protests have been critiqued for their focus on white women. One woman of color explains how she came around to the cause.

You could have colored me unsupportive of SlutWalk.

Even though I have jokingly called myself a slut (as in “I’m a handbag slut”), as an African American woman I was rather uncomfortable with the protest’s racial dynamics, at least how it was shaping up in the US and Canada. I felt the word “slut” didn’t speak to me; I found the word “ho” more damaging. Of course, I also thought this word broke down in the black/white binary. in my experience, if a black woman was in a mostly white or all-white setting, the word “slut” as a perjorative would be used. In mostly black or all-black settings, the words “ho” and “fass” (meaning sexually “fast”) would be flung to sexually shame us.

What didn’t help my ambivalence regarding SlutWalk was, when watching some white organizers and speakers talk about the problems of race in organizing the protests, it was the usual “well, ‘slut’ is universal,” or they'd point to the speaker roster or the people in the audience (though the photos show, again, white women). It came off as another word-reclamation project that seemed to recenter white cisgender women’s sexual agency and bodies. (Sort of the way “feminist issues” tends to reincarnate a little too often as “white (cis) women’s issues.”) And, increasingly in the discussions, there is a disturbing new attribute of the “relatable rape victim” as a woman who is “young and sexy” or at least “precocious and body-conscious.”

Simultaneously, I wasn’t feeling how SlutWalk became some litmus test around women of color and being down with the "WoC agenda" of addressing the meld of racism and sexism as linked with issues around class, gender identity and body images and capacities, reproductive rights, sexual identification and sexuality, immigration, the criminal/penal system, education, healthcare, and other issues. (Yes, I mean the WoC agenda facetiously because there’s really no such thing. Women of color aren’t a monolith, and as people are wont to do, will disagree on the best ways to achieve social justice.)

Even when participants like Morgane Richardson, Harsha Walia and Creatrix Tiara have spoken their truths on why they joined the protests in their respective countries, quite a bit of rhetoric coming from some online WoC communities and bloggers is that “women of color” don’t see the use of the march because “it doesn’t speak” to “us” categorically.

But see, the thing is quite a few women of color are called sluts. Three recent examples of this, in consideration of what the word means:

1) Slut, meaning a “servant girl,” has her modern-day descendents in the women to do domestic work, be it in a home or in a hotel—like the woman who cleaned former IMF leader Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s room. She may or may not have been a young woman, may or may not have been body-conscious or thought herself as sexy. What I do believe she was conscious of was that doing her job didn’t involve this man allegedly sexually violating her. Strauss-Kahn probably thought the hotel worker he violated was powerless. He thought wrong, as his arrest and subsequent resignation has proven, thanks to the worker going to her union and people supporting her in getting her story in the media.

2) Slut, meaning “a sloppy, dirty, untidy woman,” which is essentially what Massachusetts Representative Ryan Fattman said regarding undocumented women. He said they deserved to live in fear because that’s what they get for living in the US without having their paperwork in order when they arrived. (Considering that the implicit ethnicity in talking about immigrant women are those from Latin America, another stereotype in play is the “spicy Latina” who’s always ready for sex, which tends to render them “unrapeable” because Latinas are naturally "asking for it.") Regardless of age and whether or not immigrant women are sexually self-confident about their bodies, what they are aware of is they are people living and contributing to this country and they are not a readily available group of women people are free to rape with impunity because the women lack paperwork. Their taxes put clothes on the cops’ and Rep. Fattman’s back and food in their bodies, Undocumented or not, that fact alone means the police and the lawmakers are beholden to these women—including responding to their reporting of sexual violence.

3) Slut, meaning a bitch, which tends to get flung at the woman who stands up for herself, like Rihanna did in her video “Man Down.” We can argue and otherwise carry on about her offing her assailant in the video. But, as a woman who survived rape, I completely understand why her character did what she did. That vengeance fantasy goes through many a victim’s and survivor’s mind because our lives are shattered and quite a few of us don’t feel anyone will bring the perpetrator to justice. We’ve seen how the criminal-justice system will let off male perpetrators, including those who had a duty to protect the citizenry from sexual violence. If the System can do that…then, yes, I can empathize with a victim going the way of the gun or needing to spit on their violators’ graves.

Actually, I have to thank Rihanna for changing my mind about SlutWalk. Not her, per se, but a comment about her video that was posted on Racialicious. The commenter said a friend of hers said Rihanna would have made a stronger point about rape if she would have worn “regular clothes.” I questioned what the commenter said, since Rihanna is wearing "regular clothes" in the video, considering the video’s location and her activities -- strolling in her neighborhood and interacting with her neighbors as well as going to the dance club. I further pointed out that this statement skated too closely to the “she was asking for it because of her clothes” justification. After the reader said that she and her friend were sexual-assault survivors and admonished me not to “attack each other,” she admitted that clothes have nothing to do with sexual assault.

The comment infuriated me…and enlightened me. I was so upset that the commenter couldn’t see the contradiction of saying clothes are a non-issue regarding sexual violence yet wanted to defend her friend making Rihanna’s clothes an issue regarding the rape in the video. That’s when I hopped on the side of the SlutWalk: I couldn’t bear another day of hearing of shaming people, especially women of color, over the “correct” way to dress or speak or needing to be a certain demographic or agree with a certain perceived agenda in order to have our fury over sexual violence be heard. In fact, I volunteered to speak at SlutWalk NYC in August.

So, yes, color my woman-of-color self supporting this cause.

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Andrea Plaid is sexual correspondent for and a writer based in Brooklyn.