When I first heard about Slutwalk, I cringed. I thought then, and think now, that the name is awful. "Slut" is a hate word and I do not believe hate words should be used in any context other than direct quotes and then only as necessary for some specific purpose that can't be met without using the quote. But when I first heard about Slutwalk, I wasn't being asked to pass judgment on it. I didn't have to like it. I was asked for legal help, the kind I am proud to give. A group was being prevented from engaging in a lawful demonstration by a city official deliberately misleading them about their rights. So I became the lawyer for Slutwalk Philadelphia and, with much help from the Philadelphia ACLU, got them a demonstration permit for the August 6th Slutwalk Philadelphia event.
This started in late May of this year, a month or so after the first Slutwalk. In the process of filing forms, I had to assist in figuring out a march starting point and a march route and an end point and the placement of a stage and a power source for a sound system. And before I knew it, I was a co-organizer. In those few short months between the first phone call and my standing on a stage at Philadelphia's City Hall, Slutwalks were taking place all over the world. What began as a protest of a sexist remark by one Toronto constable (telling college women that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized") had grown into an international movement of women outraged that we are consistently and universally blamed for being sexually assaulted. By August, over 80 separate Slutwalks (not all called "Slutwalk" in other countries) had taken place internationally.
One of my tasks was to organize the speakers. No Philadelphia feminist organization would work with Slutwalk. The primary rape crisis center refused to send counselors – much needed in a crowd that would certainly contain a significant number of women who had been sexually assaulted and might be triggered by something that day. But we got speakers – amazing, brilliant speakers who rocked us all. A diverse group: men, women, white, of color, straight, queer, trans, activists, academic, academics who were also activists, a state legislator. Our speakers spoke to, and for, as many people as we could possibly manage.
I don't remember when I first heard that the goal of some Slutwalk organizers in other cities was to reclaim the word "Slut" – to attempt to remove its power to injure by owning it, to remove the hate by embracing it. I remember reacting with shock, thinking, "No, the name 'Slutwalk' comes from the use of the word by the constable!" but a co-organizer told me that indeed reclamation was the explicit goal of some. At some point in organizational meetings we discussed it but I don't recall much. My recollection is that basically Slutwalk Philadelphia would take no position on reclamation. Our motto was "Blame the Perpetrator, Not the Victim." If people who attended the event felt reclamation was important to them, who were we to decide that for them? And when several of our speakers specifically disavowed reclamation (as I did) and none of our speakers embraced it, so it was.
Okay, here comes the part where I screwed up – big time – and I need to apologize.
On September 23rd, Black Women's Blueprint issued "An Open Letter from Black Women to the Slutwalk." I am ashamed of my reaction. My position on the letter, which I shared on more Facebook threads than I can now locate, was informed by two primary motivations: 1) I think like a lawyer and expect others to meet my lawyer expectation when presenting arguments and 2) I wanted to defend the extraordinary event that was Slutwalk Philadelphia on August 6th. As a lawyer I expect assertions to be supported by evidence, I abhor sweeping generalization and exaggerations, and I find it very difficult to keep my mouth shut (or fingers off keyboard) when someone writes something that is simply dishonest. I could find some of those in the Open Letter and all in the "discussions" that followed. So I pointed them out and did so defensively. I tried to be as polite and deferential as possible in the beginning but the responses to my comments were so rude and violent that I became more defensive and finally, beaten bloody, I pled for mercy which I did not receive. I left the discussion and Slutwalk.
You're probably wondering about now where the apology is coming in. Well, here it comes.
Had I not had the expectations of a lawyer in a context in which I may very well have been the only lawyer, had I not been so defensive and taken the Open Letter as an attack on Slutwalk Philadelphia and by extension on me and people I care about, I could have stepped back and given more serious thought to the real meaning of the letter. The central point of the letter was, I think, that Slutwalk, as a movement (and let's just call it that though I understand the arguments against it), had entrenched racism, at least in part, because appropriate safeguards to prevent racism were not in place. Also that the name is so offensive to so many, women of color can not feel welcome. A piece of me knew those were the assertions at the time but I rejected them and did not give them the consideration they deserved.
But then something happened that made everything I had argued before wrong and rendered all of my disagreements with the details of the Open Letter moot. Something happened that showed without doubt that Black Women's Blueprint was right, and I was wrong. On October 1st, Slutwalk NYC had its event and someone carried this sign:
If you have any trouble reading it, the sign says: "Woman Is the Ni**er of the World." [Note: I use the word in direct quote only and even then not in full.] That revolting line is from a song. You can read more about the history of that line, complete with an analysis of its use and an excellent list of posts that have been written about this incident, in a piece by activist filmmaker Aishah Shahidah Simmons who was speaker at Slutwalk Philadelphia. There is much that can be said about the appearance of this sign at a Slutwalk but I want to focus on one thing: it is clear evidence that there is racism at Slutwalks and insufficient safeguards in place to make Slutwalks safe space for women of color. I would expand that even further. Where there is racism, there is also the potential if not likelihood of bigotry and oppression of all kinds. That means that Slutwalks are not safe space for any member of any oppressed group.
So why are there no safeguards? Where does Slutwalk fail? Because there are no rules, there is no oversight, and there is no central authority that dictates what is and isn't acceptable at Slutwalks. There is no accountability. Now, this is something that actually attracts many and is what made it possible for Slutwalk Philadelphia to be an inclusive event that did not walk under the "I am a Slut" banner. The founders of the original Slutwalk in Toronto feel strongly that reclamation of the word "Slut" should be a priority. But since Toronto can not dictate what Philadelphia does, we could choose for ourselves. We were autonomous, as are all individual Slutwalk events. And it also allows Toronto to claim they have no responsibility for what happens at any event other than their own. I not only bought that argument, I sold it. It is, after all, a lawyer's argument. I argued "got a problem with what is happening at Slutwalk NYC, take it up with them." And I was wrong. Everyone who organizes a Slutwalk anywhere must be accountable for what happens at Slutwalks everywhere. If unacceptable conduct occurs anywhere, each and every one of us in Slutwalk must stand up and say, "No. This is unacceptable." And ultimately, if efforts to bring change fail, one must say, "I can not be part of Slutwalk if this is happening in any Slutwalk." That is the decision I made and that is why I am no longer part of Slutwalk.
Events like Slutwalk Philadelphia on August 6th are empowering, important and healing. We need people to stand together and say, "It is unacceptable to blame people who have been sexually assaulted for their own assaults. What I wear does not give anyone permission to touch my body. Violence against women and against men must stop." But that space must be safe. In order for that space to be safe the event must have a name that accurately describes the event and is not so offensive to many that people will stay away simply because of the name. I argue that in order for such a space to be safe, it can not be called "Slutwalk."
Such an event must also have some central body that is held accountable for what happens – even if it is only nationwide. There was an attempt to create a space for discussion of issues affecting U.S. Slutwalks. It was a Facebook page. Not much, but a start. For a few days I was one of the administrators of that page. But discussions about U.S. Slutwalks didn't take place, U.S. organizers didn't come to the page or post, and at least one of the other administrators posted links that were off-topic. Exasperated, I resigned as administrator of what was then just dead air. That was on October 5th. Thursday night (October 13th) I came home from a business trip to find, quite by accident, that an administrator who refuses to identify herself had posted a string of racist comments underneath a link of mine. This quite reasonably led people to believe that I was the author of the racist posts. Over fifty comments vilifying me followed. My pleas to the page owner, Atlanta Slutwalk organizer Kim Rippere, to clarify that I was not the author of the racist comments have gone unanswered. I private messaged as many of the commenters whose accounts allowed but received only one response. An unidentified Slutwalk organizer
, and Slutwalk Co-Founder, Heather Jarvis responded to my plea on the wall of the main Slutwalk Facebook page with the following:
No one from our Canadian organizing team has any control or privileges over the SlutWalk USA page you are referencing. Please try to connect with the admins of that page.
Total lack of accountability. That is not safe space for this or any other event.
When the Black Women's Blueprint Open Letter came out, I was authorized on behalf of Slutwalk Philadelphia to approach them and ask to engage in dialogue. I received a very polite reply saying they were going to dialogue with NYC and Toronto only. I was angry. It made no sense to attempt to resolve what is clearly at least a national problem by talking only with two groups out of so many – one of which isn't even in the U.S. Now I wonder that Black Women's Blueprint would want to talk to anyone involved in Slutwalk at all.
Slutwalk NYC responded swiftly to the sign and, while many have problems with the way the sign was dealt with, I don't have first hand knowledge of what happened that day so will offer no judgment. There is a comprehensive letter of apology from the organizer on the Slutwalk NYC website in which they take full responsibility for the events surrounding the sign.
Slutwalk Toronto has posted repeatedly that it is composing a response to Blackwomen's Blueprint. But still, nothing.
Though some organizers have also denounced the NYC sign (including Slutwalk Philadelphia), nothing is being done to stop racist comments from being posted in the name of Slutwalk USA on Facebook. And as long as racism – or any bigotry or oppression – exists in the name of Slutwalk, I can not be a part of it.
To all I have offended along this painful journey, I am sincerely sorry. To those who wish to continue to work to fight blaming women for being sexually assaulted, I hope our paths cross again.