More than 40 years after feminists tossed their bras and high heels into a trash can at the 1968 Miss America pageant — kicking off the bra-burning myth that will never die — some young women are taking to the streets to protest sexual assault, wearing not much more than what their foremothers once dubbed “objects of female oppression” in marches called SlutWalks.
It’s a controversial name, which is in part why the organizers picked it. It’s also why many of the SlutWalk protesters are wearing so little (though some are sweatpants-clad, too). Thousands of women — and men — are demonstrating to fight the idea that what women wear, what they drink or how they behave can make them a target for rape. SlutWalks started with a local march organized by five women in Toronto and have gone viral, with events planned in more than 75 cities in countries from the United States and Canada to Sweden and South Africa. In just a few months, SlutWalks have become the most successful feminist action of the past 20 years.
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In a feminist movement that is often fighting simply to hold ground, SlutWalks stand out as a reminder of feminism’s more grass-roots past and point to what the future could look like.
The marches are mostly organized by younger women who don’t apologize for their in-your-face tactics, making the events much more effective in garnering media attention and participant interest than the actions of well-established (and better funded) feminist organizations. And while not every feminist may agree with the messaging of SlutWalks, the protests have translated online enthusiasm into in-person action in a way that hasn’t been done before in feminism on this scale.
The protests began after a police officer told students at Toronto’s York University in January that if women want to avoid rape, they shouldn’t dress like “sluts.” (If you thought the days of “she was asking for it” were long gone, guess again.)
Heather Jarvis, a student in Toronto and a co-founder of SlutWalk, explained that the officer’s comments struck her and her co-organizers as so preposterous and damaging that they demanded action. “We were fed up and pissed off, and we wanted to do something other than just be angry,” she said. Bucking the oft-repeated notion that young women are apathetic to feminism, they organized. What Jarvis hoped would be a march of at least 100 turned out to be a rally of more than 3,000 — some marchers with “slut” scrawled across their bodies, others with signs reading “My dress is not a yes” or “Slut pride.”
The idea that women’s clothing has some bearing on whether they will be raped is a dangerous myth feminists have tried to debunk for decades. Despite all the activism and research, however, the cultural misconception prevails. After an 11-year-old girl in Texas was gang-raped, the New York Times ran a widely criticized story this spring that included a description of how the girl dressed “older than her age” and wore makeup — as if either was relevant to the culpability of the 18 men accused of raping her. In Scotland, one secondary school is calling for uniforms to be baggier and longer in an attempt to dissuade pedophiles.