Photo by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.
Yesterday afternoon, I took to College Street with an estimated 3,000 people as part of SlutWalk Toronto. The rally was a response to an incident with police earlier this year, when Constable Michael Sanguinetti advised a group of Osgoode Hall law students in late January that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”—a flawed approach that shifts blame for sexual violence from the perpetrator to the victim. (Sanguinetti has since apologized for the comment.)
Despite the myth of “asking for it,” while many factors can contribute to sexual violence, a victim’s dress is never one.
SlutWalk Toronto started at Queen’s Park with a crowd filled with people of all genders, mostly adults and some children. There was no specific dress code—most people wore comfortable attire suited to the weather. Signs were hoisted proclaiming “Slut Pride” and many addressed the shaming of victims. Among the crowd, Eye Weekly and National Post columnist (and former Torontoist contributor) Sarah Nicole Prickett tweeted: “A lot of signs here are angry, but one made me die inside: ‘Xmas 1985. 14 years old. Bundled in layers. Was it my fault too?’”
Photo by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.
“Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes, and no means no!” chanted the crowd, before SlutWalk Toronto co-founder Sonya JF Barnett spoke. ‘Slut’ has a negative connotation, said Barnett, “used to discredit someone who loves a lot of sex. Being sexually confident is not an invitation to violence.” (As she spoke, I thought of my history with the derogatory potency of words—first as a child with “Chink” and later as an adult with “fag”—and how slurs embody the threat of violence that looms over one’s identity.) Barnett acknowledged the provocative title of the event—”‘slut’ is a strong word with a strong meaning; if we had not used it many less of you would be here today”—and said that it was important to reappropriate the word ‘slut’ because “we have the power to change [its meaning].”
Laying blame with the victim of rape is, simply, ridiculous—akin to saying that an unlocked house deserves to be robbed or that a child walking unattended to a friend’s house down the street deserves to be kidnapped—and yet it happens. Deb Singh of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre spoke yesterday about the number of women who go to the police reporting assaults but are not believed. She shared a story of a woman who was assaulted, but whose attacker was not charged because she had let him into her home—an assignment of blame that makes no sense given that, while sexual violence can be random, it is common for the victim to be acquainted with her attacker. Mere willingness to interact with someone, or to let someone into your home, does not remotely constitute consent.
Photos by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.
“Rape is about power,” said Jane Doe, survivor of an attack by the Balcony Rapist who triumphed in a lengthy trial against the Toronto Police Service. She shared statistics that show disabled women are raped at twice the rate of non-disabled women; for Aboriginal women, the incidence of rape is three times that of non-Aboriginal women. “Equality is the issue,” Doe said, arguing that education was one key to combatting the problem. The environment at the Toronto Police Service that made Sanguinetti feel comfortable advising women to not dress like sluts had been enabled by sexual assault training that was mired in “sexist, racist, and misogynist concepts,” and Doe wondered why police officers weren’t being trained by external experts.
Doe added that “we need to stand up and support women who are sex workers,” a rare and important acknowledgement of those who push the conventional boundaries of a woman’s right to her body. In a habit of shaming by proxy, clients of sex workers are often portrayed as desperate, losers, and/or dangerous—a habit whose problems are analysed by Sasha over at NOW, and which will be further challenged with the release of Chester Brown’s autobiographical graphic novel Paying For It. Doe credited sex workers for being “engaged in one of the most important equality battles of our time.”
The onus in fighting the battle for equality doesn’t lie only with women. Sanguinetti’s attitude stems not only from the police environment he inhabited, but from a broader cultural context which informs how men approach these subjects. As Michael Kaufman of the White Ribbon Campaign noted: “Men look to other men for what it means to be a man.”
I think of how we can safely laugh from a distance at the characters in the television show Mad Men, at the bravado of the men back then, and excuse it as an anachronism, the ways of that time. Yet, today, learning to be a man still means being in the thick of a locker-room culture where masculinity is defined by Charlie Sheen–esque aggression. While it’s clear that the majority of men aren’t committing sexual assaults, Kaufman chided the majority of men who remain silent: “It’s time for men to speak out, to look at our behaviour and our jokes.”
Heather Jarvis, another co-founder of SlutWalk Toronto, concurred, and has been asking that there be more education for men on how not to commit sexual assaults, rather than education for women on how not to get assaulted. Progress in education, however, appears to be slow: after the sending of a statement to the Toronto Police Service asking for better education and training, including third-party recommendations and reviews, the TPS response “did not speak to a single one of our requests.” (TPS also declined to provide a representative for the event.)
Photo by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.
Greater awareness may help add pressure, however, as two more SlutWalks are scheduled in Ontario (in Ottawa and London). Plans for events are also in progress for Vancouver, Boston, Birmingham, and Dallas, with potential ones in New York City, Los Angeles, Munich, and Australia.
The global support is an encouraging step, although no one can know for sure if, as the organizers hope, the word ‘slut’ will be reappropriated. In the meanwhile, here’s to hot, consensual sex (as Doe phrases it), and knowing that the freedom of choice to have it is one worth fighting for.