What NYC SlutWalk Was, and What It Wasn’t

Union Square was packed when I arrived at this weekend’s inaugural New York SlutWalk. The crowd was mostly women, mostly young and mostly white. Clothing styles ranged from topless to scanty to normal street garb to formal. One woman wore a business suit. A common thread was “slut” in red and black markers across foreheads, arms, backs and chests. The red-and-black writing was striking: People silently write “slut” across a girl’s chest everyday, but here it was, literalized.

I wandered through the 3,000-person crowd amid signs such as “Women are Souls, Not Holes” and “If I was asking for it, I would ask for it.” “This is what I was wearing when I was raped” read one sign held by a woman in pajamas. Another held pictures of her battered body from a sexual assault a few weeks prior. As I talked with her and other NYC SlutWalkers, they all kept using the same word: empowerment. For many of them, it was the first time they had ever participated in a march about women’s rights, and it was the first time they felt surrounded by other people who “got it.”

When I finally found my way to the SlutWalk organizers, I was feeling pretty slutty and powerful myself. I’d even found a “Slut Pride” pin and attached it to my shirt. But as I reviewed my prepared questions, I remembered the serious qualms I and other feminists had with SlutWalk, such as the recent criticisms from women of color. When I asked Holly Meyer, one of the organizers, about these critiques, she had a simple response:

We have always been inclusive. We’ve always said anyone is welcome to come to our meetings, we’ve never excluded any group. It’s unfortunate that some people have that perspective and don’t feel welcome, but our message is to end sexual violence.

Plain and simple. The point of SlutWalk isn’t complicated. Or, at least, the NYC SlutWalk organizers don’t seem to think so.

Holly was proud to say that many of rally’s official performances were by women of color. From what I witnessed, those performers focused on calling for solidarity and inclusiveness, but did not get into the unique experiences that black and other marginalized women have had with sexual violence and words like “slut.” For example, Amber Stewart of Radical Women said during her performance:

We have to work to tear down racism, because there is no place in this movement for an Us versus Them mentality. We need all voices, all concerns brought to the table.

Holly told me some other great things about the NYC SlutWalk, like its pressure on the NYPD to have sensitivity trainings or its calls to the FBI asking for a change in the FBI’s definition of rape.

Despite all this, it’s easy to criticize the NYC SlutWalk as a rally for privileged white feminists, especially when women of color at the rally were few and far between. I also couldn’t help but wince when I saw a group of men staring, mouths open, at the woman in lingerie pole-dancing on the back of bike during the march. If I talked to those men today, I doubt they could tell me what the march was about.

Overall, however, I left the NYC SlutWalk feeling like it was a work in progress. Yes, it should focus more squarely on women of color issues. But it brought out thousands of New Yorkers against sexual violence at a time when Brooklyn NYPD are telling women not to wear skirts to avoid being raped. It allowed 3,000 New Yorkers to feel like they were in power for a few hours on a Saturday. We should ask SlutWalks to graduate to a higher level of feminist thinking that addresses race and deeper issues within rape culture, but I think we should also recognize them for the work in their freshman year.

Photo of SlutWalk NYC sign holder from Flickr user David Shankbone under Creative Commons 2.0.