I recently published this open call to boycott SlutWalk in its third year, on the principle that it is literally a parade of white settler privilege pretending and (more-or-less failing) to “raise consciousness about rape culture”. This post will be addressing the racism that has been inherent in the SlutWalk movement (especially in Vancouver, BC) since its inception. I am a white person and a settler living in the traditional ancestral territories of the Coast Salish peoples, currently occupied since the 1700s and known more commonly as Vancouver, BC.
The Concept of SlutWalk
SlutWalk is the product of a generation of women boiling over when a Toronto police officer slut-shamed a rape survivor, blaming her for her experience on the basis of her choice in clothing on the day of the event, when she sought justice. In its inception, or perhaps incitement is a better choice of language here, women planned to fill the streets in protest of victim-blaming and slut-shaming, demanding an end to the dominant social attitude that certain types of clothing spell consent for sex. This idea so quickly evolved into the concept of “taking the word slut back for ourselves” that it is actually difficult, but not impossible, to separate from the reaction to the event that incensed women across the country, and subsequently all over the world. The idea here is that being a so-called “slut” is nothing to be ashamed of (I agree), and yet is not automatic consent for sex either (I also agree). In Vancouver, and very likely elsewhere, a micro-movement within the greater community formed (advanced largely by a narcissistic for-profit business owner who ran a local sex club), which explicitly intended to take SlutWalk and literally turn it into a pride parade for sex-positive women who identify themselves as “sluts”. Try as I might to claim that no one could have reasonably anticipated these important and distinctive corruptions from the original message, I just can’t find the justification for such a claim, due to the decision to name it SlutWalk. Even if women had not advanced these problematic ideas themselves, mass media and the general public most certainly would have hurled them back at women in general, regardless of whether or not they had participated in the protests. This is part of what it means to live and move about within pervasive rape culture.
The Immediate Alienation of Women of Colour
There are two distinct conceptual problems occurring at once here. The first problem is that, with the original message being so focused on debunking the idea that what a woman is wearing is not consent for sex, an important experience shared by most women of colour (but especially indigenous women in Canada) is being erased: the racist and colonialist stereotyping of women of colour (especially indigenous women and visibly racialized women) as promiscuous, hyper-sexual, and sexually available simply for existing. For many women of colour, their skin colour and/or distinctive facial features are observed and sexually objectified long before their clothing even factors into their experiences of sexual stereotyping, sexual harassment, sexual assault, or rape. And for many women of colour, their experiences of being sexually objectified on the basis of their race/ethnicity alone not only starts years earlier than most white women begin to experience sexual objectification, but is also more frequent and characterized by a higher escalation of associated violence. The second problem is a completely reasonably, completely predictable, logical progression from the first. For women of colour, there is no “taking back the word slut for ourselves”, and there is no pride to take in being branded a “slut”. The history of colonialism across the globe and on this continent has ensured that the word “slut” is not for women of colour to “take back” because it was never theirs in the first place; and the continued reproduction and persistence of colonialism across the globe and on this continent ensures that for women of colour, the only thing that being branded a “slut” spells out is extreme personal danger, racism, and colonialism.
Thus, it seems transparently clear to me, especially after three years of observing and confronting privilege-blindness on the part of white women (see also: settlers) in general in relation to SlutWalk, that naming the protest “SlutWalk” only serves to dramatically reinforce the existing conceptual problems inherent in the plural, white-privileging, and increasingly egocentric demands of the movement itself. Once again, this is especially alienating for privilege-conscious indigenous women in Canada, as the very concepts of individual rights and even human rights are both inherently colonial in nature, for prior to the colonization of their ancestors and their territories, indigenous ways of life and world views were about as far-removed from individualism and egocentrism as they could possibly be. Many of these teachings are still passed on to this day, from which one can learn a world view that envisions the very earth we all walk upon as our mother, and all of the human race and the natural world as our relations—in that we all share an equal dependence upon the earth, and thus, the elevation of our species above fish, flora, and fauna is a demonstrably false construct. But on top of the difference in world view, for privilege-conscious indigenous women in Canada, there is also the profound erasure of an important shared experience among indigenous women in this country, that is unparalleled by anything white women collectively face.
In Canada, there is literally a blight of unsolved cases of missing and murdered indigenous women. Collectively, they are acknowledged as stolen sisters. Every year on February 14th, indigenous women all across the country gather and march in the memory of all those stolen sisters — literally thousands of indigenous women who have been silently disappearing for decades — to pray for their return and for justice to be served for those who won’t ever come home, and to raise consciousness among non-indigenous communities about the prevalence of missing and murdered indigenous women. In Vancouver, this march takes place through the Downtown Eastside, where not only had serial murderer Robert Pickton very deliberately targeted indigenous women during his spree that took the lives of 49 women because he was confident that no one would come looking for them, but Vancouver Police Department very actively ignored the disappearances and even laughed one woman out of the Main Street detachment after she had escaped from the serial murderer’s vehicle. This is an open wound for many people, and one that was still very prominent in 2011 when the first SlutWalk was about to take place, as a highly controversial inquiry into the role of police apathy in the serial murder case was still ongoing at the time. In fact, it was still ongoing until January this year, when the damning final report was at last released, indicating that Vancouver Police and Coquitlam RCMP had sufficient evidence for charges against the serial murderer for years, and yet continued to deny justice or even that there was a serial murderer, thus idling by as more women disappeared.
I happen to be acutely conscious of these injustices and profoundly spiritually bonded to these events for several reasons, including the fact that I am a former sex worker, and I lived among survival sex workers in an Edmonton homeless shelter while another serial murderer was deliberately targeting indigenous women engaging in survival sex work for precisely the same reasons Pickton was. Thomas George Svekla is believed to have murdered an astounding 75 Edmonton-area women (at least one, but very likely two of whom, lived in the same homeless shelter at the same time as I was there), most of whom are of indigenous heritage, but has only been held accountable for the murders of two and has persistently denied having a part in their deaths. He was arrested and charged after Pickton, and his trial ran for a relatively short duration at the same time as Pickton’s trial. He received very minimal media attention while the entire country — and subsequently, the rest of the world — was focused on Pickton. I have even, at times, shared my grief with surviving family members of women who went missing from the Vancouver Downtown Eastside. Thus, I am especially aware of how deeply the sting from the immediate conceptual problems of SlutWalk is felt by indigenous women in this country. But it gets worse still. And all this to suggest nothing of the collection of settler privileges inherited through grave injustices, still being felt by the surviving families of indigenous women who continue to disappear from the Highway of Tears; indigenous women (and men, and their families) who were forcibly sterilized, illegally experimented upon, or sexually abused during the residential school era; indigenous women (and their children) who “married out” of their treaty rights under the Indian Act; and indigenous women (and men) whose children have been taken away by Child Care Services (i.e., up to half of children in the custody of Child Care are of indigenous heritage, and there are now more indigenous children in the custody of Child Care than there were incarcerated in residential schools at the height of their operation in this country).
From Stolen Sisters to Stolen Symbolism
The following image was taken from a Facebook page for an event associated with the first Vancouver SlutWalk, but I have edited it to remove the names of several business sponsors, performers, and the business which hosted the event. I made this decision in order to address the far-reaching political issues of the inherent racism, rather than the individual people or businesses that made the mistake of being prominently involved:
While it would appear that this image isn’t an exact copy of the protest on the steps of Vancouver City Hall, it is nevertheless immediately reminiscent, and I would have an extremely difficult time believing anyone who argued to the contrary. I actually confronted this very fact three years ago, and the only answer I received in regards to this issue was that it’s “a stock photo”. Given the nature of the City Hall protest and the initial purpose of SlutWalk, the two are inextricably linked. But given the immediate conceptual problems of racial privilege that SlutWalk promotes as if it was anything else, whereas the City Hall protest was concretely and directly confronting racial privilege, the two protests cannot be said to be working in the same direction. SlutWalk works against everything the City Hall protest worked towards, whether it means to or not, and this particular image solidifies that relationship by co-opting the central visual trigger with a blatant disregard for where it comes from. Where that visual trigger comes from isn’t some stock photo website where someone paid a couple dollars for the rights to use an image. In Vancouver, that visual trigger comes from a heinous serial murder spree during which indigenous women, engaging in survival sex work in the most socially marginalized area of the city, were explicitly targeted. I don’t know what message the organizers were actually intending to send out to the general public with this choice of imagery, but it reads implicitly as making light of these horrific injustices.
In my mind, this decision on the part of the first Vancouver SlutWalk promoters is reminiscent of Michael Alig promoting a grotesque theme party using imagery that mimicked the murder he had perpetrated. Though I am not saying this to suggest that whoever is responsible for compiling the graphics on this poster is equally as responsible for the disappearances of 67 Downtown Eastside sex workers as Pickton (and others who have yet to be brought to justice), any more than the young woman and two men (all of whom are previously known to me in varying degrees) who had compiled a set of photos that was described as eerily reminiscent of Pickton when they came under the national spotlight last year (surviving family members believing at first that these were actually pictures of Pickton in the process of murdering one of those 49 women), I am nevertheless asserting here (aggressively so, and at the risk of offending several friends of mine who were involved in Vancouver’s first SlutWalk to varying degrees) that these decisions cause enormous harm felt disproportionately by indigenous women and to a slightly lesser extent, their allies as well.
Selective Attention to Criticism
I’m hardly the first to vocalize these criticisms to SlutWalk organizers, and yet the only thing that has changed is who is organizing (which means changing who claims to be ignorant of the criticisms repeatedly being offered year after year). It’s been three years of dispute among several community forums, conferences, blog posts such as this one which is undersigned by hundreds of organizations for advancing the rights of women of colour (of which I really cannot say enough, so please just read it yourself), email correspondences, social media postings, and more, and that’s just in Vancouver alone (with the obvious and prominent exception of that blog post). After three years, the only point that all of this arguing back and forth proves is that SlutWalk is an entire movement of women who are in various places ranging from Not Knowing They’re Being Racist, to Not Being Sure How Not To Be Racist, to Not Wanting To Learn How Not To Be Racist But Not Wanting To Be Accused Of Racism (which may or may not be better known to many as Being More Concerned About Being Accused Of Being Racist Than About Being Racist). Rather than taking these serious criticisms as legitimate and planning changes to the movement such as a name change or organizing explicit awareness and solidarity with Operation Thunderbird (launched earlier this year by indigenous women — see #OpThunderbird on Twitter), organizers who maintain a position within SlutWalk pretend to neither hear these criticisms nor even become aware of movements with similar goals in which indigenous women or other women of colour hold leadership roles. Organizers who do take the criticism seriously, however, simply drop out of the movement when their changing leadership is met with too much resistance.
And who can blame them? At literally every angle we approach SlutWalk, all we find is glaring racism and colonialism looking back at us.