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

Heather Jarvis isn't afraid to call herself a slut. Clad in jeans and a red T-shirt, the 25-year-old student stood on a Toronto street on April 3 in front of thousands of women and men, raised a megaphone to her mouth and shouted, "As a slut, the only thing I'm asking for is consent." Her declaration was met with roaring cheers.

Jarvis, along with crowds of protesters, had taken to the streets to march in what was dubbed a SlutWalk. The march, organized by Jarvis and Sonya Barnett, was spurred by the comments of Toronto constable Michael Sanguinetti, who told a group of students in a safety class that women "should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized." In response to the constable's remark — and the implication that women's actions, not the actions of rapists, lead to sexual assault — SlutWalk was born.

(PHOTOS: A Brief History of Women's Protests)

Almost immediately, women in cities across Canada and the U.S. began planning their own SlutWalks. Four months later, more than 50 walks have taken place in cities around the world, from London to New Delhi, where anywhere from a couple of hundred to more than 3,000 protesters have turned out. Dozens more walks are being organized, with a large one in Washington, D.C., scheduled to take place on Aug. 13.

Critics of the marches have sprung up as fast as the protests themselves. With a name like SlutWalk, it's not that surprising. The question is whether a movement that has gained momentum from its shock value can turn the tide and change the way victims of sexual assault are treated.

Certainly the decision to use the word slut, which is loaded, to say the least, was ballsy. The idea stemmed from Jarvis and Barnett's desire to use the offensive language the Toronto constable used, but flip it on its head. A number of SlutWalkers have been adamantly pushing to reappropriate the word slut, or redefine it through repeated use. But others say it's just muddling the movement's message.

There is an element of logic to the argument that if women embrace the word slut, its demeaning power will fade. The LGBT community had a similar agenda in the '90s when it focused on transforming the word queer. However, others have questioned the validity of such a pursuit — not everyone wants to call herself a slut after all. This has been an especially passionate argument made by women who've been victimized.

(READ: How 'SlutWalks' Became a Global Movement)

And others still have argued that apart from being damaging, trying to reclaim a word like slut is impossible. Where in the past, the word was used by men to describe a sexually promiscuous woman — or, as in Britain, to describe an untidy woman — now the word has myriad meanings, none of them good. A woman or girl can be branded a slut for almost anything from the people she spends time with to the music she listens to or the clothes she wears. And the word is as likely to be used by a woman as it is by a man — and it's as likely to be used by a girl as it is by a woman.

Branding a classmate a slut has become one of the most effective tools of middle- and high school bullies and it can leave girls traumatized. You don't have to look far for examples of the damaging effects of the word: Phoebe Prince, who committed suicide after girls at her high school branded her a slut, and Anita Hill, who was famously called "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty" in the Clarence Thomas hearings, spring to mind.

Which is precisely the reason that Anne Ream, founder of the Voices and Faces Project, a nonprofit for sexual-assault victims, and an assault survivor herself, finds the word slut irredeemable. "It's a word that's been used to demean women historically, and it's a word that's been used to demean women currently," she says. "Even when we try, we can never really separate [words] from their original, precise meaning." But while the discussions around SlutWalks have shifted to linguistics, the discussion of rape culture and victim blaming seems to have gone by the wayside.

READ: Indian Women Take SlutWalk to New Delhi's Streets

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