Black Feminist Reflections on a Small Town SlutWalk

This past Saturday, while thousands of SlutWalkers took to the streets of New York, I attended my local SlutWalk, 840 miles away in Carbondale, Ill. I went to the anti-rape march not only because I am as a survivor of gender violence, a feminist and an anti-gender violence activist, but also because I was curious about what I would encounter and whether I would feel, as many other Black feminists have, a strong sense of alienation. I arrived with my partner and our puppy, Huxtable, in tow—for support and, if I am honest with myself, an acceptable out (“So sorry, Huxtable is too young to handle the crowd”). That I felt the need for an out tells me something about my preconceived boundaries around what feminism can look like. Even more telling were the nervous questions tapdancing on my mind: How might the SlutWalk be reproducing oppression in this very moment? What does my “Dr. Griffin” presence signify to the walkers and passersby who recognize me? Goodness me, why does it have to be called a SlutWalk?

With a reminder to myself to keep an open Black feminist mind, I began to pay better attention to what was happening around me. People cruised by on wheelchairs, bikes and skates. One woman, with her SlutWalk wristband on the same wrist as her hospital band, made the journey on crutches. What I saw was a beautifully diverse representation of what feminism can look like. That diversity taught me something about the significance of the SlutWalk.

Looking around at the 400 or so in attendance, I was reminded of the strength of dominant discourse to determine what arbitrary symbols signify “sluttiness.” Among those who chose to dress to fiercely resist such stereotypes, there was a cascade of short skirts, lace tights, knee high black boots and the color red. The signs on display also bespoke defiance: the most memorable read “My Dress is not a Yes”, “I borrowed this outfit from your MOM. Do you still want to rape me?” and, taped on the side of a baby girl’s stroller, “I Deserve to Grow Up in a World without Rape”. The sign that best captured my own sentiments was the sassy yet simple “Fuck Rape” in sparkly blue glitter. The many bodies and voices refusing to be disciplined into demure silence taught me something about the significance of the SlutWalk.

Taking in the crowd on a deeper feminist level with every step I took, I also realized that many women–and men–were unafraid to bare cellulite, stretch marks and tummy fat, all of which are typically outlawed by dominant size and beauty ideals. Baring the parts of themselves most vulnerable to cruel public commentary, they sauntered and strutted with a tangible sense of body confidence that I have never allowed my own body to know. I watched in admiration. Their courage to defy social norms on the very streets they travel daily taught me something about the significance of the SlutWalk.

As I walked, my nerves and suspicion eased. I found myself thinking a powerful thought: THIS is what feminism can look like. To argue otherwise, I realized, is an attempt to foreclose what feminism can be. To do so undermines not only the shift from feminism to feminisms, but also our feminist commitments to self-definition, empowerment and agency. We must ask ourselves, Who am I to determine how someone else should embody a feminist stance of resistance? 

To be clear, I do not believe that the word “slut” can be positively redeemed or reclaimed. Like the word “nigger,” it is often the last one heard by those who pay the price of oppression with their lives. Such dehumanizing words serve to justify violence in the eyes of those who inflict it. I wish that SlutWalkers—myself now included—would pause to outwardly acknowledge the harsh reality of what such hateful words have been used to do.

I also know that the word “slut” has done things to my brown female body that racial privilege prevents White women from ever fully understanding. To purposefully put the word “slut”  back into everyday discourse, available for those fighting against our liberation to hurl at little girls or grown women on a whim, I feel is quite dangerous, particularly for women of color. My caution is motivated by the belief that we cannot control the use or meaning of a word once it moves beyond our lips, nor can we fully sever it from its history of degradation. I wish that SlutWalkers—myself now included—would pause to consider the risk of normalizing a word that has been used to maim, rape and murder.

Despite these feelings, my momentary resting point is that these concerns should not detract from the collective resistance that SlutWalks have birthed. Rather, such concerns should pull us into conversation about the complexity of resistance at the intersections of identities and the significance of building alliances. Even if my feminism looks different than yours, can we be unexpected friends, comrades and allies? SlutWalks seem to offer a loud “yes,” and if people such as myself, with a gaze tempered by suspicion or even outright disgust, choose to attend, listen and learn, we might be moved by the magical synergy of SlutWalks. Then we can open the question of giving them another name.

I left the SlutWalk feeling quite differently than when I arrived. My skepticism about organizing around the word “slut” is now accompanied by hope and humility. I am hopeful that we as feminists can remain engaged with one another, even when we rightly and righteously disagree. I am humbled by the reality that our local SlutWalk had a larger attendance than any of the Take Back the Night marches that I have been to or spoken at in the last 10 years.

Furthermore, there were more Black women at this anti-gender violence march than I have seen at any previous event in our small town. This reality, represented in sheer numbers, serves as a warning and a reminder for me to embrace how feminism can manifest differently than what I had ever imagined. Having wondered and walked, I find myself wishing that more would attend a local SlutWalk–if not to walk, then at least to witness what feminist activism can look like. Take the chance, you might be challenged and inspired. I was—which to me signals that feminisms and feminists are doing something right.

What does feminist activism look like to you?

Picture from SlutWalk Carbondale’s Facebook page.

Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this. Reading this and re-living the walk on Saturday made me cry. Thank you so much for being open about your perspective (and the ways it did and didn’t shift as the walk progressed) and for taking a chance on hope. This is absolutely beautiful.

    • This shit is GOLD!

      Women complain about how unfair it is that men are called studs when they sleep around, yet women get called sluts for the exact same behavior. It’s actually not a double standard though, because both scenarios are pretty different in terms of circumstances and consequences. I can think of at least four crucial differences:

      First, sleeping around is easier for women. Regardless of how you feel about promiscuity, we can all agree that a guy who manages to rack up a lot of sexual partners has to have some skills. It’s challenging for men to rack up partners, even for men with low standards. A man needs social intelligence, interpersonal skills, persistence, thick skin, and plain old dumb luck. For women, though, a vagina and a pulse is often enough. Whenever an accomplishment requires absolutely no challenge, no one respects it. It’s just viewed as a lack of self-discipline. People respect those who accomplish challenging feats, while they consider those who overindulge in easily obtained feats as weak, untrustworthy or flawed.

      Second, women have potential to do more harm by sleeping around than men do. Say a man sleeps around with a bunch of different women. He’s definitely doing harm to these women if he pretends to be monogamous while sleeping around. He may cause them emotional pain by his promiscuity. He may cause unwanted pregnancy. He may spread VD. When women sleep around, however, they can cause not only all these same ill effects but one additional crucial ill effect: the risk of unknown parentage.

      If one guy sleeps around with five women, each of whom is monogamous to him, and they all get pregnant, it’s a safe bet as to who the father is. If you reverse genders and have one woman who sleeps around with five men who are monogamous to her, and she gets pregnant, the father could be any of the five men. And if one of those men is tricked into raising a baby that isn’t his, he’s investing time, money, estate and property to provide for a child that isn’t carrying his DNA into the next generations, a costly mistake from an evolutionary standpoint.

      Our two basic primal drives are to survive and to reproduce, and promiscuous women traditionally make it hard for a man to know for sure whether he is truly reproducing or is secretly raising another man’s child. Men stand a lot more to lose from promiscuous women than the other way around. And it’s no picnic for the child to not know who his real father is either. And it’s a mess for the women carrying on the deception as well. Or just look at any random episode of the Maury show if you don’t believe me.

      Since the DNA test and the birth control pill didn’t exist until recently, there were no reliable ways to prevent pregnancy or prove parentage for most of human history. For this reason society developed a vested interest in preventing promiscuity among women, and society accomplished this by creating the slut stigma. And even though the creation of birth control and DNA tests have made this less of a risk than the past, longstanding traditions and customs are not easy for society to break so the slut stigma remains.

      Third, men have evolutionary reasons to be programmed to sleep around more. A lot of women roll their eyes when they hear that men are “hard-wired” to sleep around. But from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes total sense. If the two primal drives of humans are to survive and to reproduce, nothing leads to maximum reproduction like one man sleeping with multiple women. If one women sleeps with many men in a nine month period, she can only get pregnant just once. Nine months of rampant promiscuity would give the same result as nine months of highly sexed monogamy: one pregnancy. Now if one man sleeps with many women during a nine month period, you can get many pregnancies during that period. The more women he sleeps with, the more possible pregnancies.

      So from an evolutionary standpoint, there are concrete advantages to men being promiscuous compared to women being promiscuous. This doesn’t mean that women have evolved to be strictly monogamous. Women have evolved to be somewhat promiscuous too, something men badly underestimate. However they haven’t evolved to be as rampantly promiscuous as men.
      Fourth, promiscuity poses more risk to women than to men. A woman has more to lose from choosing bad sex partners than a man does. She’s the one who gets stuck with going through a pregnancy and taking care of a baby alone if she chooses a deadbeat. For this reason, promiscuous women throughout history have historically been viewed as being a vastly more irresponsible risk takers than promiscuous men, who rightly or wrongly could always run away from the consequences of unwanted pregnancies easier than women could.

      These four reasons explain why the longstanding tradition came about of men being rewarded for multiple partners while women get socially punished for similar promiscuity. Of course all this is gradually changing, but we’re up against millenia of evolutionary and cultural conditioning here, so don’t expect any dramatic overnight reversals.

      Understand that I’m just explaining why the double standard came into existence and not condoning or condemning it. This is not an attempt to pass judgment or be self-righteous in any way. It’s just an explanation of why the two conditions are treated differently.

  2. I know the two girls in the picture (: And I love the cause they are portraying <3

  3. THANK YOU for this. i had the same feelings about the SW in austin in june. in spite of the drama-predicting writing that preceded it, the actual event was racially, bodily, ability and sexually diverse. and it was awesome.

    • Hi Julie,

      I appreciate that you had a similar experience so far away. If you feel safe and comfortable sharing more of your thoughts, why do you think the event attracts so many different identity groups? My question is of course open to any and all with ideas. I have been pondering this since Saturday….

      Cheers,

      Rachel

  4. This is beautiful, I didn’t realize how significant and rewarding this walk is for people who truly believe in something like this. Continue your efforts, you are AWESOME!

    Andrea

  5. Wonderful article on the Carbondale Slutwalk! I’m so sorry I missed it to attend something else. I will make sure I am there next year. I’d love to hear about any other feminist activities and events in this area.

  6. I will say the title “Slutwalk” did repel me and deter me from participating though it sounds like it was a successful strategy in bringing the anti-rape, anti-victim blaming point to people’s attention and garnered more interest than the usual approach of Take Back the Night.

  7. I’d just like to say the Huxtable is such a cute effin name for a puppy.

  8. I took part in the Slut Walk NYC, and was honored to walk with these women. I grew up around physically, and sexually abused women(Was raped myself at the age of 6), and the War On Women must end. Here is a link to a Facebook page, with many pics.

    https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.1015031

    • Have no idea how my name got messed up

    • Hi Claude,

      Thank you for being willing to share your thoughts, experiences, and pictures. The classic “I’m sorry that you were raped” never seems to be enough and yet “I’m sorry” immediately comes to my mind whenever survivors share.

      My best,

      Rachel

  9. I hear so much about “alienation” of Black feminists at the Slutwalk events. But I’ve yet to read or hear an essay expounding on the root of such attitudes or the sociological reasoning behind it. Please enlighten me or point me in the direction of such discourse!

  10. What a great article. I live in the Paducah area, and I wish I had known about the walk. I followed the link from a friend on FB. I WILL attend next year. Oh yeah, I am 57 year old white gal with very liberal feelings toward all. I think a Slutwalk is what every little berg and big metropolis needs to open eyes to the hate.

    • Hi Patti,

      You would have been quite, quite welcome of course! The crowd was diverse in terms of gender, race, age, etc. and we need more folks from towns nearby.

  11. Wow, thank you for what your post. Thank you, this gives me a whole new perspective on SlutWalk.

  12. The author is conflating “hey look at all these diverse bodies, yay” with “clearly, my feelings are a sufficient rebuttal to all those feminist objections to slutwalk”.

    http://www.facebook.com/notes/blackwomens-bluepri

    • Hi Andrea,

      Thank you for engaging in terms of what you struggle with about my post. While I very much want to celebrate the diversity of bodies present in our SlutWalk space, I also very much struggled (and still struggle) in alignment with many of the objections raised which is why I struggled with attending the event in the first place. If you feel safe and comfortable sharing, what did you struggle with or object to when you learned about SlutWalks or attended an event?

  13. Thank you so much for this. I am so glad to know that Ms. stands by SlutWalk and all the myriad ways in which women, as complex, free humans, can self-actualize. Thank you.

  14. Aimee Kolbeck says:

    The Carbondale SlutWalk was certainly a successful event in that a lot of people attended, considering how small of a town Carbondale is. However, I refuse to believe it was successful in thoroughly standing up for sexual assault survivors. Besides the usual feminist criticisms of the event, I had a MAJOR issue with the after party that was thrown for participants. It was held at a local bar with a special deal on “red headed sluts”. This bar had actually hosted Girls Gone Wild in the past and is owned by the same people that own another bar in town which hosted Girls Gone Wild just DAYS before SlutWalk. I don’t understand how associating these bars with SlutWalk is at all helpful to survivors.

  15. Marva Nelson says:

    Rachel, thanks for representing black feminists in Carbondale. Your article is very insightful and well-written. As an older black womanist, (AARP cardholder)and a sexual assault survivor, while I understood the intent behind the SLUTwalk, what’s still missing for me is a proactive dialogue about not what sluts look like so much but how feminists from diverse backgrounds engage in meaningful and ongoing discussions about what a SLUT looks like for women of color. Too often, I, as well as other women of color, have participated in these types of events in Carbondale, as well as other places and people focus on what the event looks like. To wit, people will now see that there were some people of color involved, but how does our own sexual history in the U.S. fit into the overall perception of sluthood? For example: “Black women naturally want IT.”

    Ours is a very rich and complicated history here in the U.S. These feel-good moments have to move beyond feel-good moments. Note: people who comment on how cute a name you’ve given your puppy versus looking beneath the surface of these walks/marches.

    I’m not so much interested in what feminism looks like as what feminism will do for us once the marches are over. I am, however, very proud that you prove that there is more than one voice in the wilderness of women of color who are feminists.

    Brava! Best wishes.

  16. Thank you so much for writing this and participating last weekend! It was amazing to see the way that this idea which grew out of one Facebook posting from Kate into this amazing event. I too was shocked to see so many people out in front of the Varsity Theater. It was extremely empowering and an amazing sight to see so many people supporting the walk.

  17. I have to disagree with you on one small point. The word hasn’t been used to do anything; it’s been used by people who do things, often bad things. Making a taboo of the word doesn’t stop the person, it just sweeps the behavior under the rug. Taking offense to a word itself, rather than the idea that it is often used to represent, misses the point. Until the wound is closed it does nobody any good to hide it, and does a lot to prevent its healing. I agree that it can’t be redeemed, but wearing it puts a face to the name; no longer is it some abstract concept, ‘just some slut’, it, she, is a person, one whose rights cannot be ignored as easily as some nebulous image of “immorality”. Separating the word from the people it has been used to label, if anything, furthers its capacity to dehumanize, to dismiss, to disregard.

  18. Wow! What a splendid article. Feminism at its best. Thanks, Rachel.

    Rachel, I have a question for you. Do you think that Slutwalk will result in stronger anti-violence legislation and enforcement? Do you think it will result in more feminist organizing? I hope it’s not just a flash in the pan.

  19. Amy Boland says:

    Dr. Griffin,

    I (a middle-class white butch dyke) read the Black Women’s Blueprint letter with a mixture of hope and bewildered dismay. On the one hand, I felt hopeful because of how efficiently the BWB laid out their reasoning, how well the letter stuck to a message of respectful request for inclusion. The request to change the name was well-reasoned, well-supported, and seemed to me a good strategic suggestion–one with which I happen to agree.

    My dismay, though, came from my understanding of BWB’s complaint: the SlutWalk unfairly represents only the concerns of white, middle-class, cisgender women. “SlutWalk is not the end of the conversation,” I fretted. “It’s the beginning. It’s a starting point. It reflects the place, time, and people with which this particular conversation started.” Why SHOULDN’T the people who start a movement get to… you know, START THE MOVEMENT? Why should they be faulted for forgetting to include everyone? Activism starts with action! It arrests paradigms, forces analysis and reanalysis! Are we going to get stuck in calling out the definitions of each other’s feminism and lose the message? How does activism about one’s own experience prevent anyone else on earth from acting on her own behalf to raise dialogue about her experiences?

    The counterpoint between SlutWalk and the Black Women’s Blueprint has been fodder for conversation amongst my neighbors and me; what a relief and source of more hope to see your article here and to read more voices of dialogue, debate, and inclusion as more walks happen–some with changed names in acknowledgment of BWB’s concerns. http://stomp-and-holler.tumblr.com/

    I opine that the name could and should be abandoned when it has accomplished its goal: upset the understanding of rape as something that happens to people and replace it with a conversation about rape as something people do to others. That is already happening. And in that sense, SlutWalk is succeeding at what it set out to do.

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