What happened when a Toronto cop said if women stopped dressing like sluts they wouldn't get victimized? Women started dressing like sluts — whatever that means. Or wearing jeans. Or sweaters. Or anything else they felt like wearing. And then they took to the streets of Toronto by the thousands, in a show of defiance.
The result was SlutWalk, a demonstration that has turned into a movement. Its goal is fighting persistent stereotypes about victims of sexual assault. In the six months since the Toronto event, it has traveled across the world — something its organizers never expected.
"We never started [SlutWalk] with any plan for it to go anywhere," says Heather Jarvis, co-founder of SlutWalk Toronto. "We offer support to people when they contact us and ask for it. But, a lot of other organizers are doing their own thing ... and doing what they feel like is good for their community."
Such is the case with SlutWalk Nashville, scheduled for 4 to 6 p.m. this Sunday, Oct. 2, in Centennial Park. Choice Nashville, a community organization focused on "basic, fundamental human rights," has put the event together. Local organizers include Becca Thomas, a legal assistant and Choice Nashville's co-founder, and Erin Fagot, an ob-gyn nurse and Choice Nashville volunteer.
"SlutWalk [Nashville] has become really focused on sexual assault and domestic violence," Fagot said, "When I [discovered] it ... it was like, 'OK, this is the next step.' Once I figured out what it was."
Figuring out what SlutWalk is can be challenging. Its abrasive name can turn off people before they hear what it's about. And even if they get past the name, the notion of reclaiming a term as insulting, divisive and derogatory as "slut" can be a hard pill to swallow.
"Slut is an offensive word — it's a weapon," Becca Thomas says. "The officer in Toronto used it as a weapon to dehumanize another human being, and that's not OK. We may not be able to make 'slut'... not be a weapon, but [maybe] we can take the edge off of it."
According to Newtona "Tina" Johnson, director of women's and gender studies at Middle Tennessee State University, reclamation of any derogatory word is about taking power away from it.
" 'Queer' was a negative term," Johnson said, "It was a part of a language of abuse, as 'slut' is. [One way] to look at 'reclaiming' is to claim power to the word. We're reclaiming the power. We're taking away the sting so we have agency, so reclamation in that sense is definitely something I agree with."
Various state lawmakers and organizations support SlutWalk Nashville, including Rep. Brenda Gilmore, Sen. Thelma Harper and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Even Avon has come on board. An organization that sees special merit in the event is Nashville's Sexual Assault Center. Its president, Tim Tohill, says that SlutWalk Nashville offers an opportunity to combat the archaic attitude that sexual-assault victims must have provoked the attack — an attitude that hinders prosecution and discourages survivors from coming forward.
"The fact that [Choice Nashville] is coordinating [SlutWalk] provides an opportunity for [SAC] to try to help the community understand what's really behind it all," Tohill says. "[Rape] is the least reported crime out there, and a big part of that is because of the blame that comes to the victim."
According to the Metro Nashville Police Department's public crime reports, there were 330 rapes reported in 2010, which is up by 15.38 percent from 2009's yearly total of 286 reported rapes. Put another way: In 2010, there was almost one reported rape each day in Nashville alone. And those are just the ones that were reported.
As grim as that statistic is, Tohill says there's a reason this event has galvanized media attention where others failed. The reason, he says, is the titillating name.
"The fact that it's a walk to bring attention to sexual assault isn't newsworthy," Tohill says. "What makes this one newsworthy is because of the name, SlutWalk."
The event's notoriety has only been heightened by racy images from other cities of men and women protesting in the streets, some nearly unclothed. SlutWalks have drawn counter-protests from the Westboro Baptist Church, the infamous group known for its virulent anti-gay demonstrations at U.S. soldiers' funerals. According to church spokesman Steve Drain, the event only "promotes, condones and enables sin."
"Rape is wrong, yes," Drain says. "Misogynistic cops are wrong, yes. Now put some clothes on, for God's sake, and keep His commandments. Quit using the victim card to further your whoredoms."
Yet according to Toronto co-founder Jarvis, what people are or aren't wearing isn't the point of the event but a by-product.
"We encouraged everybody to come as they felt comfortable," Jarvis says. "The majority of people ended up wearing jeans, pants, sweaters. Some people came in specific outfits saying, 'This is my jogging outfit ... these are my pajamas: this is what I was wearing when I was assaulted.'
"[Scantily clad] people were definitely there, and we're not judging. But it's not representative of what [SlutWalk is] about."
At a local level, Thomas and Fagot are aware that the event has a sensational quality that some might see as a mixed message. But supporters suggest that if the promise of titillation draws the media, that's in keeping with taking away the stigma of "slut" as a label.
"What gets reported is the salacious aspects," Thomas says. "The ones who put on very little get the press. There are people who are protesting their right to wear what the hell they want to, period. [But] there is something more serious at stake here."
That something is the underlying issue — not just the misperception that women are attacked because of what they wear, but the idea that there's an imposed social code of "ladylike" dress they dare not cross. According to MTSU's Johnson, what a person wears has little to do with what provokes sexual assault.
"Children are raped," Johnson says. "Women who are dressed from head to toe are raped. So what does the way you look — your dress, your attire — have to do with rape? Rape is about the infliction of power. That's what needs to be recognized."
Choice Nashville wants to make SlutWalk an idea, not just an event. Thomas and Fagot have long-term goals, such as working with state legislators to create more comprehensive rape laws. Short-term goals include updating the Tennessee state website to provide better sexual assault information, and creating a universal protocol for use throughout Tennessee's hospitals.
"[The concept behind SlutWalk] shouldn't just be that one day," Fagot says, "because what we're advocating is bigger than just an afternoon in October."
Jo-Jo Jackson is an MTSU journalism major and the Scene's fall intern.
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