Will SlutWalks Change the Meaning of the Word Slut?

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Hannah Johnston / Getty Images

Controversial SlutWalks, like this one in Auckland on June 25, 2011, have drawn thousands of participants around the world

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However, the name isn't the only thing distracting from the cause while also drawing the media. To drive home the point that clothing shouldn't determine whether you're raped or not, women have marched with signs saying, "Don't tell me how to dress, tell men not to rape," and many have marched in so-called slutty attire: miniskirts, corsets, even underwear. And the skimpily attired lot has garnered the majority of attention — and the brunt of criticism. In the New York Times Magazine, Rebecca Traister wrote that despite wanting to support SlutWalks, she "mostly felt irritation that stripping down to skivvies and calling ourselves sluts is passing for keen retort."

But while the demonstrations might not have gotten as much attention had some protesters not embraced the look, in reality the majority of the women haven't been provocatively dressed — many marched in the clothes they were wearing when they were raped: jeans, sweatshirts, pajamas.

Yet these discussions about the look and semantics of the protest — rather than, say, the actual message — are the consequences of the controversial name, according to Gail Dines, a professor of sociology and women's studies and the author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality. Dines has been one of the most outspoken critics of SlutWalks from the start and has specifically taken issue with the name. "I think it was a mistake to think you that you can use the word slut and somehow keep the focus on male violence and not turn it onto how women dress," says Dines. "I think the very use of the word slut in the walk undermined the goal of the movement."

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Even organizers have admitted that SlutWalks aren't flawless. "It's not a perfect movement," says Olga Ivesic, a co-organizer of the SlutWalk in Los Angeles, where more than 1,000 people rallied. "But it is constantly moving and changing and evolving. This is a call to action."

Which leads us to an important point: Is there such a thing as a perfect movement? Is there a right way to protest? Even the angriest critics can't deny the galvanizing effect the movement has had. Clearly SlutWalks have struck a chord. But if it is a call to action, where will the movement go after the "summer of slut," as Ivesic termed the past few months, comes to an end?

Organizers have said they're invested in planning more marches — perhaps turning SlutWalk into an annual event — and are working to create public-service announcements and support groups for victims. But Ream, who is a self-proclaimed fan of SlutWalks, points out that the angry fuel that's caused the movement to spread isn't necessarily sustainable. The real challenge, according to Ream, is not just firing people up, but also keeping them around to "engage in the long-term work toward change."

Because it will surely take long-term work to make changes like pushing for colleges to act swiftly when a sexual assault is reported on campus — something most universities have been notoriously sluggish at — as a group of Yale students recently did. Or pushing states to reverse appalling court decisions such as North Carolina's State v. Way, which says that if a woman agrees to sex and then changes her mind during the act, forcible intercourse doesn't qualify as rape. Sure, this sort of activism isn't nearly as sexy as rallying in the street, but it's an important part of systematically changing rape culture.

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Jarvis, a survivor of sexual assault, said the message is getting out despite the media focus on the marches' provocative aspects. "We were really trying to tackle the idea of victim blaming. [It's] not just related to an aesthetic, but an overall mentality of why you judge somebody and why you deem people of deserving or being responsible of their own assault."

And examples of that type of judgment aren't in the distant past. When television reporter Lara Logan was brutally assaulted by a throng of men in Cairo while covering the protests in Tahrir Square, critics were quick to fault her for being there in the first place. When Nafissatou Diallo, an immigrant hotel housekeeper, accused then IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn of attempted rape, she was branded a prostitute by some newspapers.

These high-profile cases in which the public disparages a presumed victim make it harder for women to come forward when they are attacked, argue victims' advocates. Sadly, the statistics back this up: while an estimated 213,000 people are sexually assaulted in the U.S. each year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, less than half of those assaults are reported. If a case does make it to court, there is still only a 16% chance that the rapist will spend any time in jail.

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Those sorts of figures and finding fault with the victims make up what's known as rape culture, according to Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). And, according to O'Neill, protests against this sort of mentality were all but inevitable. "I think they are a spontaneous uprising of women who have finally had it with the victim blaming and rape culture that exists," she says of the marches. She also points out that NOW is helping to organize the Washington, D.C., rally. "I think they're a great idea."

And based on the number of women who've SlutWalked, there is more than enough might to make headway. As Ream points out, thanks to SlutWalks, "there's this phenomenal energy that we have to figure out how to channel."

Which, despite the criticisms, has been the aim of SlutWalk all along. "Did we pick our name to get attention? Yeah, we did. People need to pay attention to sexual assault," says Jarvis. But more importantly, she adds, "we want people to get into action."

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that State v. Way was a "law".

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