SlutWalk D.C. rally against sexual violence

Robert McCartney
Columnist August 10, 2011

Although it happened nearly two decades ago, Maryland state legislator Ariana Kelly still recalls the anguish. When she went to a Montgomery County hospital emergency room after being raped as a teenager, a doctor there chided her for supposedly having loose morals.

“He said I shouldn’t be so upset because I’d been promiscuous before,” said Kelly, 34, describing the incident publicly for the first time.

“I hadn’t been promiscuous, but that’s not relevant,” continued Kelly, now a first-term Democratic delegate from Montgomery. What was “awful,” she said, was “hearing that word ringing in my ears for days and weeks as I was trying to recover from a sexual assault.”

Kelly plans to tell that story Saturday when she speaks at the SlutWalk D.C. rally downtown. It will be the Washington debut of the provocatively named, fast-growing movement against blaming victims for sexual violence. Organizers said more than 6,000 people have signed up on Facebook to attend.

The SlutWalk demonstrations have attracted attention partly because of the embrace of the word “slut” and partly because many marchers (though decidedly not all) make a point of wearing skimpy or alluring clothing such as bikini tops, short shorts and high heels.

“The message of SlutWalk is that sexual violence is wrong, whether it’s against a nun or a sex worker. How a woman dresses or chooses to present herself is not relevant,” Kelly said.

The marches’ success — dozens have taken place in numerous countries since the initial one in April in Canada — is refreshing in multiple ways. First, it’s satisfying to see a new, inventive, grass-roots movement spring up. Why should tea party protests get all the hype?

Also, the SlutWalks ought to finally blow to smithereens the persistent, maddening stereotype of feminists as humorless, man-hating prudes. Many of the organizers are active in other women’s issues. They’re angry, but they’re also sassy and ribald. They like men. They like sex. They just want to be attractive without fear of suffering assault or harassment.

Samantha Wright, a 23-year-old Damascus woman who’s the chief organizer of SlutWalk D.C., summed up the message by saying that women “should be able to live in a world where you can express yourself sexually in a positive manner and not have to expect violence. At the same time, men should also feel happy to live in a society where women feel comfortable to express themselves sexually and not be viewed as predators.”

Admittedly, the SlutWalk phenomenon is awkward in a couple of ways. To start, do we really want to endorse the word “slut”? The dictionary defines it as a dirty or immoral woman. The term originated at the first march in Toronto, called to protest a police officer’s statement that women shouldn’t dress like “sluts” if they wanted to avoid rape.

I interviewed seven organizers, speakers or supporters of the Saturday rally, and all of them confessed to some discomfort with “slut.” But they also defended it as an invaluable publicity tool. As a title, “SlutWalk” packs some punch. An “Empowerment March Against Sexual Violence” would sound like a yawn.

“I’m willing to admit it’s a complete gimmick,” Wright said. “People see that name once, and they want to go home and Google it and see what it’s about. That’s how you market products, and that’s a great way to market your issues, too.”

Then there’s the question of whether these rallies boil down to a demonstration for the right to be a tease. A woman sporting a miniskirt and cleavage is inviting sexual attention, so she shouldn’t be insulted if she gets it, right?

To their credit, the SlutWalk supporters readily acknowledged that wearing enticing clothing was likely to attract others’ glances and even gazes. They just emphasized that it must not lead to unwelcome physical contact or verbal hounding.

“If I’m wearing thigh highs and a short skirt, I’m inviting somebody to look at me. And I’m probably inviting some catcalls. But that doesn’t mean I’m inviting somebody to have sex with me against my will,” said Erin Sherrange, 30, of McLean, who’s scheduled to speak Saturday. “No one is going to look at a jewelry store and say, ‘Oh, of course they got robbed; they deserved it because they had all their jewelry out in the window where people could see it.’ ”

That’s a valuable and important message, even if it takes a march with a raunchy name to drive it home.

SlutWalk D.C. begins Saturday at 11 a.m. in Lafayette Park and ends with a rally starting at 1 p.m. at the National Sylvan Theatre near the Washington Monument.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

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