SlutWalk Toronto 2011

The origins of SlutWalk Toronto

SlutWalk Toronto might be one of the more provocatively named events of 2011, but that's the whole point. Founded shortly after a police officer participating in a safety forum at York University's Osgoode Hall remarked that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized," the protest seeks to re-appropriate a term that has been used historically not just to limit and stigmatize female sexuality, but as a rationalization for sexual assault.

Although the officer later apologized, according to the walk's organizers, the breach of trust represented by the initial statement — and the attitude that underwrites it — can't be patched up quite so easily. "As the city's major protective service, the Toronto Police have perpetuated the myth and stereotype of 'the slut', and in doing so have failed us.... Being assaulted isn't about what you wear; it's not even about sex; but using a pejorative term to rationalize inexcusable behaviour creates an environment in which it's okay to blame the victim."

In response to this, SlutWalk organizers and supporters will gather at Queen's Park on April 3rd before marching over to Toronto Police Headquarters with the message that they've had enough sexual-based judgment, slut-shaming and of being made to feel unsafe. I caught up with Sonya Barnett, one of SlutWalk's co-founders, to chat about the event and what she hopes it accomplishes.

I've already heard a few people make rumblings about the name of the walk, and yet to a great extent, this idea of reclamation is the most important part. Can you explain why you and your fellow organizers chose to call your event SlutWalk Toronto and how you hope you might be able to re-appropriate the term?

It was an easy decision. Within minutes of hearing about the incident at York, it was the first thing that popped into my mind. And co-founder Heather Jarvis was in quick agreement. With both of us being sexually confident people, we already associate with the modern terminology surrounding 'slut.' We use them term positively to define someone who isn't ashamed of their sexual, consensual proclivities, and this incident seemed like the perfect launching point to spread this definition. If you're going to throw out the word 'slut', be prepared take backlash -- and that goes for both the officer and the members of SlutWalk. We knew we would offend people with the use of the word, but we'd like people to understand that language can be re-appropriated for contemporary use. Sticking to archaic terminology just isn't logical as society moves forward.

We've heard a lot of backlash against us that the officer's heart 'was in the right place' when he made that remark. As much as we understand that he may have been trying to be helpful, he should be expressing his information from statistics that show sexual assaults have nothing to do with appearance, and that it more often occurs in instances where people know each other, or it's abuse of physically or mentally disabled people, or children. There are heavier stats on these instances of sexual violence than the misguided idea of people walking down a dark alley wearing fishnets, 'asking for it.' To be helpful, officers should be working within more relative forms of discussion instead of throwing around sexual epithets.

Do you worry that there's a danger in trying to guide this re-appropriation process? Put differently, is there a concern that an event like this could actually further ingrain problematic stereotypes, and thereby lessen its positive impact?

If we don't guide re-appropriation, who will? Using language pejoratively shouldn't be taken lightly, as it does a lot of damage. With the stereotypical idea of 'slut' comes the mindset that such a person is less deserving of respect, and in this instance, a safe environment. Of course there are people who will hold on to the word, because it's hard to unlearn years of societal training. But it's been proven with words like 'queer' and 'fag' that if you work hard enough, you can take a word and redirect its purpose. I may be naive, but I find it hard to believe that a cause that became 2000-strong within 4 weeks would actually hinder our mission. If you just look at all the intelligent and considered conversations on our Facebook page, you can see that people are determined to spread the word and help educate those who need it. But there is a catch, as we've discovered: this education is certainly easier when someone is open to hearing what we have to say. We know it's not going to happen overnight, as we're certainly not the first people to take up a heartfelt cause against sexual violence. But we're willing to try our damnedest.

What would the ideal response from the police be when you arrive at their headquarters on April 3rd?

Although some people think that our mission is to vilify the Toronto Police and ask for the offending officer's head on a plate, that's definitely not the case, and wouldn't help anybody. What we want is an open discourse with our Protective Services so we can discuss retraining against slut-shaming and sexual profiling, and we want certain aspects of that training to completely change direction: to move the onus away from someone who does not want to be victimized, and onto those who intend to victimize. As Hilary Beaumont so eloquently said 'Society teaches don't get raped, rather than don't rape.' This needs to change.

We've actually sent an invitation to Bill Blair to speak at the event once we land at Police HQ. We hope he accepts.

Do you see this as a potentially annual event?

Initially we thought not, as it was really a response to one event that moved us into action. But the attention we've been getting is fantastic, so who knows what the future holds for SlutWalk. There are already Satellite SlutWalks happening and in planning, so it's great that others are motivated to keep the word spreading.

How many people are you hoping will participate?

Funnily enough, when we first started up, we had planned to be happy with 50. But because we've touched so many people and sparked so many conversations around the city and now around the world, it would be great if all 1217 people who have so far RSVP'd to our Facebook event actually showed up. Strength in numbers.

For updates on the walk, follow @SlutWalkTO on Twitter check out their Facebook page.

Photo by Shi on Flickr.

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