Political action really brings out the Generation Xer in me. Like a classic Xer, I’m not a joiner, I prefer sarcasm to earnestness, and folk music makes me itchy. Because of all this, I often approach the process of protesting the streets with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. I picture the pressure towards self-seriousness and chanting, and I want to find something else to do, such as sit at home and read the dictionary. But I go, because I do believe in the power of protests to compel change.
With all that in mind, I have to say that Saturday’s New York City version of SlutWalk wasn’t a chore to be slogged through. It was, dare I say, a really good time. I even ended up chanting, which I never do, because so many of the chants were delightfully funny as well as pointed. My favorite was, “Rapists, go f— yourselves!” With this in mind, I made a list of reasons why SlutWalk NYC was so awesome, with the hopes that those thinking of organizing one in their hometowns are inspired to redouble their efforts.
1) Humor and fun. We’re fighting rape culture, which has been the culture for at least as long as humans have been able to write. It’s going to be a long battle and victory is probably many generations into the future. If we can’t have a laugh while fighting this fight, we’re going to drown in despair. SlutWalkers get this. People strove to have laugh-out-loud signs and half the crowd was wearing outfits sending up the ridiculousness of the very idea that one can objectively define “dressing slutty.” I chose a sign inspired by an episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” that I admired for using humor to show how casually people accept the sexual abuse of women, and how wrong that really is. Signs that relied on humor were more common than not.
2) Aesthetics. Aesthetics matter. Nona Willis Aronowitz got a lot of criticism for pointing out that the patchouli-heavy hippie vibe the dominates Occupy Wall Street is running people off, and that the dress code free vibe of SlutWalk is welcoming, but she’s right. SlutWalk’s message is that anyone can be dismissed with the word “slut” for speaking out against sexual abuse. The crowd responded by either wearing whatever they want, wearing the clothes they were raped or harassed in, or wearing some parody version of what people imagine “sluts” wear.
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Beyond the dress code factor was the general air of modernity and fun. Too many protests hearken back to a hippie aesthetic that fell out of fashion forty years ago. SlutWalk felt much more up-to-date. The music was punk rock or peppy dance music, and while there was the standard “hey, ho” chanting, some people were livening it up with more hip-hop influenced chants.
3) Reversal of expectations. The way the media portrays SlutWalk, you’d think women were using sex to sell an anti-rape message. It is true that many of us were scantily clad or rocking the fishnets (though with our tongues firmly in our cheeks), but I would actually say that SlutWalk uses an anti-rape message to sell sex positivity as much as anything else. You can get most people to agree that rape is bad in a generic sense. The problem is that the existence of rape is being used as a weapon to control and shame women, to tell us we don’t deserve to have sex and have fun and live our lives. SlutWalk gets your buy-in with the anti-rape message, and then sells you on the idea that rape is more than a crime against a single woman but part of a larger system that robs women of our freedom, our pleasure, and our right to live as we see fit.
4) SlutWalk attracts attention. For all these reasons, SlutWalk garnered more onlookers than I’ve ever seen at a protest. Many people came to gawk at the funny clothes and the people having a good time at their protest, and were impressed by the message. The walk got bigger as it went along, in part because of latecomers but it also seemed to attract some people who simply agreed with the message. Many, many onlookers moved from being surprised to being supportive rapidly, including some women who flashed us in solidarity from a 4th Ave. apartment window, and some folks on the sidewalk who were particularly supportive of SlutWalker criticisms of the NYPD in light of a widely unpopular not-guilty verdict for two officers accused of rape.
5) SlutWalk NYC had a broad appeal. There have been many important criticisms about SlutWalk and the role women of color play in it. Perhaps it’s because SlutWalk NYC was responsive to these criticisms, or because New York is conducive to a “we’re all in this together” vibe, but it seemed that a wide variety of people were adapting the SlutWalk message to fit their individual take on the problem of rape and all these different views merged into one important message: We are all affected by rape culture. The march featured people of different races, ages, backgrounds, sexual orientations, and gender identities, but all of us had felt the sting of victim-blaming for sexual violence. I was particularly heartened to see how many men were at SlutWalk, because even though men commit the majority of rapes, the issue is often considered just a women’s issue. Even better, the men did a great job of marching in solidarity (or as survivors themselves) without taking over or making it all about them.
6) Women demanding the right to be sexual beings without shame is deeply threatening to many. This is, above all other things, why I love SlutWalk. Even pro-choice, anti-rape feminists sometimes blanch about unapologetically saying that women are sexual beings who deserve to pursue our pleasures without being punished with it by unintended pregnancy, forced childbirth, sexually transmitted infections, or rape. Having 1,000 people march down the street shouting a pro-sex, anti-violence message scares the pants off people who are still invested in a system where women are supposed to cower in fear and shame about sex. Some of my friends at the march were upset by a couple of guys who reacted to the SlutWalk by making an obnoxious point to take lascivious pictures and grabbing their crotches at the SlutWalkers. Those guys do suck, of course, but they only acted that way because they’re threatened by unapologetic female sexuality, and their reaction to it was to hint at sexual violence. But their behavior underlined the point. For many people, female sexuality is threatening and they respond with violence. And we, the SlutWalkers and SlutWalk allies, are standing up to say, “Enough.”