The SlutWalk movement — a worldwide, city-by-city protest march aimed at ending victim blaming in cases of sexual assault — has been full of controversy since its inception. Because blaming the victim is a colorblind phenomenon, SlutWalk organizers may have taken for granted that every woman and every feminist of every color would support the march, which began after a Toronto police officer told women that they could avoid rape by not dressing like sluts.
But that was not the case. Everything — from the name of the movement to the attire of the attendees; from the underlying racial dynamic between black and white feminists to the protest's general effectiveness — has been cause for debate.
As a rape survivor, I support a movement that seeks to end the epidemic of victim blaming in our culture. Rape survivors are revictimized when we are blamed for our attacks, whether it's by the police or even by our friends and family. What we were wearing during the attack, whether we were drinking or whether we took the proper precautions to somehow avoid putting ourselves in that position are all questions that survivors face in the aftermath of an attack.
All of these questions are inappropriate. SlutWalk is a direct response to this problem. You can agree with its premise without agreeing with its name, the spectacle it creates or the lack of diversity among the organizers.
The idea that there is an inherent level of white privilege involved in SlutWalk is an issue that has been debated extensively in the feminist blogosphere. The topic is old hat between white feminists and feminists of color — particularly black feminists, who are too often made to feel that they have to choose between their race and gender.
When it came to SlutWalk, the racial discussion centered on the very concept of the marches. In May a Crunk Feminist Collective writer wrote about how the idea of reclaiming an incendiary word like "slut" was hard for many black women — who "have [historically] been understood to be lascivious, hypersexed, and always ready and willing" — to stomach: "When I think of the daily assaults I hear in the form of copious incantations of 'bitch' and 'ho' in hip-hop music directed at black women, it's hard to not feel a bit incensed at the how-dare-you-quality [of the protests]." Black women would never organize a mass "ho stroll," she argued.
With this racial dynamic in place, at SlutWalkNYC on Oct. 1, a young white woman was photographed holding a sign that read, "Woman Is the Nigger of the World" — inspired by the John Lennon song of the same name. Crunk Feminist Collective broke down the outrage over the offensive sign, which in many ways is the physical representation of the debate between white feminists and women of color who feel alienated by SlutWalk:
If we thought of the history of feminist movement building as a battle over terms, what we would find is that every major battle over terms and the rights and identities attached to them have always had the same damn problem: the racial politics … "Suffrage" didn't include all women. (Just ask Ida B. Wells how she felt about marching at the back of the 1913 suffrage march.) "Woman" is not a universal experience. (Sojourner Truth anyone?) "Nigger" is not a catchall term for oppression. (Ask Pearl Cleage) Feminism is not a universal organizing category. (Ask bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Fran Beale, and on and on) And "slut" is not the anchor point of a universal movement around female sexuality, no matter how much global resonance it has. (Ask a Hip Hop Generation Feminist).
The organizers of SlutWalkNYC responded to the uproar over the sign with an open letter on their website. "We sincerely apologize for the emotional trauma this sign has evoked in everyone who has been affected by it," they wrote. "We apologize for not making it clearer to everyone who attended on October 1st that racist, or indeed any oppressive language or behavior, is unacceptable. We apologize that this space was not safer for black women, black people, and their allies."
Embedded in their explanation and apology is perhaps an unintentional contradiction, that "oppressive language" has no place at a march called SlutWalk. The idea that attendees should have understood the message about avoiding oppressive language belies the point of SlutWalk.
A movement that seeks to "reclaim" the term "slut" sends a mixed message to attendees when the organizers insist that other offensive language is off-limits. Reclamation of the offensive word is one of the main issues that many women of color have with SlutWalk. And the sad truth is, reclaiming the word "slut" doesn't necessarily lead to the end of victim blaming.
Words matter. Not every woman is empowered by identifying as a "slut." The SlutWalkNYC sign effectively proves that offensive language still offends. No matter how many times people have tried to "reclaim" the word "nigger" — in popular culture or by the NAACP — it remains a word that causes an intense emotional response. If the goal of SlutWalk is to end victim blaming, then a name that detracts from that goal may do more harm than good.
And it's not a given that a march is the most effective way to end victim blaming — a point that Hollaback DC! co-founder Chai Shenoy made when she wrote, "[w]hat we need are marches in our own backyard. We need to have dialogue with our community not at them about sexual assault and harassment. We need to engage harassers and ask them why they harass."
None of the debate and disagreement over SlutWalk changes the fact that all women are suffering under the same systemic pressures of rape culture, and that must change.
Zerlina Maxwell is a political analyst and staff writer for Loop21.com, where she writes about national politics, candidates and specific policy and culture issues. She writes frequently about domestic violence, sexual assault, victim blaming and gender inequality. Follow her on Twitter.