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The Many Messages of SlutWalk
Posted by richard | June 21, 2011

If you live in Seattle or Edinburgh or Brasilia or Tegucigalpa, chances are you’re still buzzing from last weekend’s SlutWalk and the rush of feel-good, fem-centric empowerment that it delivered.

If you live in Detroit (June 25) or Denver (July 2) or New York (August 20) or dozens of other cities around the world, you’re probably working on your posters and choosing your slut-for-a-day outfit in anticipation of the big event in your city.

No doubt about it, SlutWalk has become a worldwide phenomenon that isn’t likely to go away soon. Although its focus on sexual liberty makes some people (including supporters) uncomfortable and its messages are often mixed and confusing, SlutWalk is as potent a force as the so-called Arab Spring, with roots that go just as deep.

And there’s more to come. Organizers are trying to set up a worldwide SlutWalk United on Aug. 13, and all eyes will be on New Delhi next month, where the renamed “Shameless Protest” will quite literally put marchers in harm’s way on some of the most dangerous streets in the world for women to walk. In that context, SlutWalk suddenly seems as momentous as Tiananmen Square.

The only thing that might dampen the spark lit by SlutWalk is its name, and the way in which that hostile, hateful word has somehow morphed into a badge of honor for angry women around the world. Not everyone wants to “reclaim” the word slut, and not everyone wants to glorify sexual freedom.

But then SlutWalk isn’t just about “sluts” and the regrettable comment made by that single dumb cop in Toronto last winter. It’s become a lightning rod for the collective anger that women around the world feel about denigration by authorities, oppression by orthodoxies and, most of all, the intractable dominance of men in society and culture.


There are many, many messages in SlutWalk. Look around the crowd at any SlutWalk in any city and you’ll see people declaiming or proclaiming a huge variety of issues and causes: gay rights, spousal abuse, program and service cuts, breastfeeding rights, topless and nudist rights, local political issues, Anthony Weiner, and even that IMF goon. Everybody’s got a laundry list of reasons to be pissed, although far fewer will want to wear their “I Heart Sluts” button to work on Monday.

We put together this gallery of posters and signs from SlutWalks around the world (so far) to illustrate that point. Some are funny, some are clever and poignant, some just perplexing. Collectively, though, they show the incredible energy, enthusiasm and purpose that participants bring to the occasion.

Of course, all of this has left the SlutWalk movement without a single, unifying message. “Slut-shaming” and “victim-blaming” and other forms of gender-based bullying are significant issues, but as slogans they only hint at the issues buried underneath.

SlutWalk is only nominally about rape culture and the way women dress; it’s about the intersection of language and gender roles and power politics and social mores — a mighty big stew of issues that have been simmering for decades. Put simply, women are sick of being beaten up, and beaten down, by men.

Not all participants and supporters agree with the name, or even with the attempt to make sluts cool. What I think most people do want, however, is to defuse language and behavior that belittles and judges and pigeonholes women. In which case, “slut” is just a starting point.

I’m not sure if I’ll be wearing an “I Heart Sluts” T-shirt anytime soon, but I do know this: I LOVE SlutWalk.

Resources: Looking for a Slutwalk near you? Go here. For a basic primer on the issues, FinallyFeminism101 is a helpful blog. For a moving first-person account, read The Beautiful Kind. And to get really pissed, visit Grrrlvirus.

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