4 min

Thousands march for Slutwalk 2012

International activist movement's genesis was in Toronto

A protester at Slutwalk 2012. Credit: Andrea Houston

UPDATE – May 29: As thousands of sluts and their allies marched from Toronto City Hall to Queen’s Park on May 25, they chanted, “Yes means fuck me! No means fuck you!

Like the previous year, Slutwalk 2012 felt like a celebration. Marchers say they are sex-positive and fighting back against victim-blaming and sex-shaming. They marched for the right to walk the streets safely and to live free of violence.

The march ended with a rally in front of Queen’s Park. Speeches were made by Morgan M Page, trans program coordinator at the 519 Church St Community Centre; Michelle Chai, from Planned Parenthood; and activist Jules Kirouac and her mother, Deborah. 

See Xtra’s photo gallery here:    

Slutwalk set for May 25 at Nathan Phillips Square

May 24: Last year, thousands of women and their allies marched through Toronto to fight back against victim blaming and slut shaming related to sexual violence. One year later, Slutwalk has become an international phenomenon, with more than 200 similar events in cities around the world.

But has anything really changed?

Organizer Colleen Westendorf says there’s still a long way to go. Slutwalk Toronto 2012 will once again take to the streets on May 25, beginning at Nathan Phillips Square at 5pm.

“We want to bring more awareness to how sexual violence affects boys and men. As children, boys are just as likely to be victimized as girls,” Westendorf says. “Certain women are disproportionately affected, such as indigenous women, disabled women, trans women and women of colour.”

Slutwalk began as a reaction to a 2011 comment made by Toronto police officer Michael Sanguinetti who — infamously — advised a group of women at York University how to avoid sexual violence.

Sanguinetti said, “You know, I think we’re beating around the bush here. I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this; however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”

Toronto Police Service (TPS) constable Wendy Drummond distanced the TPS from the comment, saying the organization does not share Sanguinetti’s view, nor does it reflect the training received by officers.

Westendorf says the TPS is still missing the point. “Stop saying it’s only one officer,” she says. “We hear stories of victim blaming and slut shaming all the time still.”

While there has been some willingness from police to begin a dialogue, she says, there is not enough effort to address problems embedded in the organization. “We still don’t think there is anywhere near enough sensitivity training. We know that sexual assault training is not given to all officers.

“We need to ensure safety for victims. God forbid someone is victimized, but if they are, can they be guaranteed support? Can police guarantee that the person they disclose to and reach out to is not going to tell them it was their fault? It should be an obvious thing,” she says.

Drummond says the concerns raised by Slutwalk are “not systemic issues at TPS.”

“The chief [Bill Blair] came out and said it’s archaic thinking. And if it still exists among our officers, we need to provide more training to them and bring more realization of victimization to them,” she says.

Drummond has been among a handful of officers engaging activists discussing these issues on Twitter. She says Slutwalk has had a valuable impact on police. “That’s one of the greatest things that have come out of this.”

“We have the same end goal, which is to stop the violence and bring those responsible to prosecution. And we can’t do that if people don’t come forward. If they don’t feel comfortable coming forward, that needs to be addressed.”

Last year’s march was met with widespread support in Toronto. But in other cities, the reaction has been mixed.

Westendorf says there is still misunderstanding surrounding the use of the word slut.

“This is a word that has been used as a tool to oppress women,” she says. “Our message is, You don’t have to be a slut, but if you are, that’s okay. The point is that slut shaming is not okay. No one should use your body, your sexuality, your experience, as an insult to degrade you.”

In some smaller cities, some organizers have been uncomfortable with the word, while others have been fearful of outside attacks if it’s used. Some have asked participants to “dress appropriately so as not to draw attention to the negative connotations” of the word slut. “That’s really frustrating because that’s the whole point. People should be able to dress how they want. We should not be policing women and their bodies.”

In Bangalore, India, police shut down the march before it even started, she says.

“The police said they were concerned Slutwalk will attract a lot of violence and lead to rape, so it wasn’t allowed to happen,” Westendorf says.

She notes that the majority of mainstream international media coverage about Slutwalk starts with a sentence talking about women dressing “slutty” to protest rape. “No. That’s not what this is. We say, ‘So what if I am a slut in a sex-positive way? Does that make me open to violence? Does that make it okay for you to blame me for violence?’”

Still, Westendorf marvels at how far the Slutwalk movement has travelled, noting marches in Kathmandu, Bucharest, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The message has resonated particularly strongly in Brazil, she says, which has declared national Slutwalk on May 26. “It’s called La Marcha de las Putas, or March of the Whores.”

The most high-profile criticism of Slutwalk came in September in the form of an “Open Letter from Black Women to the Slutwalk.” The letter addressed the inherent privilege of reclaiming the word slut. “Women of colour, whose bodies historically have been hyper-sexualized and put on the auction block through slavery, are still struggling to be seen as human beings. They don’t have the privilege to reclaim the word slut,” Westendorf says. “The letter made some very good points and it sparked a huge dialogue.”

But Slutwalk’s biggest impact so far is perhaps its effect on Google searches, she points out. “Two years ago when you searched ‘slut’ in Google, all you got were porn sites. Now when you type in ‘slut’ you get a lot of really useful information on slut shaming and how victim blaming affects sexual violence, which is another way we are taking up space.”