Slutwalk Manchester from flickr by Man Alive!
I'll admit, when I first heard about Slutwalks I cringed. I hate the word slut. It is too hateful. Too bound up with shaming women for their sexuality. Too linked to the deep trauma experienced by millions of women and young girls every single day. Too much part of the cultural DNA that says, "She deserved it," or, "She was asking for it," or, "She's dirty," or, "You little c-word whore."
To get even more specific, for me the word "slut" was too indelibly linked to a girl named Kelly. She transferred into my junior high school in the middle of the year. She was ridiculed and outcast in that kind of mean-girls way that reduces a young woman to an invisible, despised zero for absolutely no reason except to make others feel like maybe they exist. And really, what could be more lonely and humiliating for a junior high girl than standing in front of a whole cafeteria filled with uproarious laughter carrying your lunch tray from table to table being told that every empty chair is being saved for somebody, anybody, who isn't you?
But, Kelly had big breasts and so a table full of boys called out to her and pulled up a chair. All it took was for her to sit down just that first time.
To be honest, as the weeks rolled on and the rumors rolled with them, I have no idea which--if any--were true. I do know there were parties with lots of drinking where the girls still wouldn't speak to her and the boys would lure her into bedrooms. I also know that a young girl seeking acceptance and desiring some means to explore their own budding sexuality in this highly repressive society can get caught up in--and even, at times, take initiative in--all sorts of behavior that is degrading and demeaning to herself in a very deep and lasting way.
But most of all what I know is that Kelly became someone who wasn't seen by anyone in that entire school as an actual human being. No, Kelly was a "slut."
And I know that wherever she is, even in the best-case scenario, Kelly is still living with the trauma of not only the abuse and (almost certain) sexual assault perpetrated against her by those boys, but also by the widespread dismissal of that crime, and the shaming and disrespect of her for being the victim of it, by a whole school full of her peers.
And I know that there were literally millions and millions of Kellys across the country's junior highs that same year and that in the years since, with the escalating backlash against women's liberation and the mainstreaming of porn, this story has only gotten worse.
Stop reading for a minute. Take a moment and picture the Kellys you have known. Consider their humanity. Imagine yourself in her shoes. And ask yourself what it says about this society if you've never done that before.
So, again, as is probably clear by now, when I first heard of "Slut"-walk I was not one-sidedly thrilled.
But, then I heard about the thousands of women who had poured out in the first Slutwalk after some a**hole Toronto cop who insisted that if women didn't want to be raped they should "avoid dressing like a slut," and my feelings quickly changed. I watched with growing enthusiasm as women took to the streets in more than 70 cities across the U.S. I felt something deep in my heart when I saw pictures of the Slutwalks in India, London, Australia and Mexico. There was an undeniable and contagious righteousness of a whole wave of young women--after so many years of silently swallowing their pain--finally taking to the streets to say that it is the world, not the women who are raped, that is wrong!
So, when I was finally able to be somewhere at the same time as a Slutwalk was happening, I was thrilled.
Still, I was not fully prepared for what I encountered. By the time I arrived at the Slutwalk in San Francisco it was already in full swing. An exuberant and boisterous band of (mostly) women and (some very welcomed) men chanting, "Yes means yes! No means no! However we dress--whereever we go!" A huge, somewhat sloppily painted banner read, "Its a man's world--lets f*ck it up!" Homemade signs proclaimed in many creative ways that women's bodies do not exist for the sexual gratification of men. Many declared the right of women to be sexual without being assaulted, raped or shamed.
But it is when I began talking to people that things really got raw.
I approached a group of strong, defiant young women. They had signs, they were loud, and their faces were beaming. But it took less than a hundred words exchanged before the tears started streaming. One young woman explained how, growing up, she came from a very progressive family. "We talked about every political issue you could imagine. By the time I was in junior high I had major political opinions about at least ten things... But," she paused a second before continuing, "I couldn't even say the word 'sex.'" It was at the word "sex" that she completely broke down. She laughed a little and apologized as she cried, seeming embarrassed by her flood of emotion.
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