Sluts from all walks of life took over College Street in Toronto last Sunday, chanting one resounding line: However we dress, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no.
The protest march was sparked when local media caught wind of a statement made by a representative of the police force this January during a campus safety information session at York University. According to the school paper, the officer told female students they should avoid dressing like “sluts” to prevent becoming victims of assault.
City-wide, women and their allies were outraged. Not only was the officer’s comment an attack on rape victims, it was an attack on women’s right to wear whatever they want. The idea that women who dress provocatively are “asking for it” is everywhere in pop culture, from crime shows to video games. Sonya Barnett, a SlutWalk co-founder, was already tired of the primitive stereotypes surrounding women and their appearances in the media. For her, the police officer’s sexist statement was a call to action.
“Women, and any gender identification, have the right to wear what pleases them, not the obligation to wear what pleases another. It’s important to make that distinction,” said Barnett.
Barnett and several others immediately began organizing a peaceful protest.Volunteers were summoned, a website was launched, t-shirts and buttons were made. By the time April arrived, over 3000 people had clicked ‘attending’ on the facebook page. The invitation was compelling:
“SlutWalk Toronto is asking you to COME AS YOU ARE. If you want to wear fishnets, great. If you want to wear parkas, that’s just as great. Any gender-identification, any age. Singles, couples, parents, sisters, brothers, children, friends. No matter how you visually identify, come walk with us. And we’re welcoming ALL those who feel that prevailing attitudes as to why sexual assault happens need to change: WHETHER YOU’RE A SLUT OR AN ALLY, come walk, roll, holler or stomp with us.”
Freedom of dress was one of the main reasons behind the protest. The statement that women can avoid assault by dressing conservatively not only suggests men have no control over themselves, but challenges women’s rights to choose whatever clothing they see fit. It removes the power women have been given to express themselves, creating propaganda against “slutty” clothing and perpetuating fear. And what is “dressing like a slut” anyway, officer? Barnett has a few ideas.
“Over the last century, people have had ‘slut’ tossed at them based on their appearance, but the physical manifestation changes conveniently over time. ‘Slutty’ clothing 80 years ago was wildly different, and by today’s standards, incredibly conservative. Revealing cleavage in some societies is considered slutty, while revealing your ankles in another is just as slutty. It’s all subjective. It’s a constructed concept that sex and appearance are not exclusive. Decisions are made by some to judge others. The thought never crosses their minds that what one may find sexy or slutty, another can find to be the opposite. It’s an easy out for those that can’t conceive the notion that sex and appearance can, in fact, be exclusive,” she said.
At 1:30p.m. on Sunday, April 3rd, an estimated crowd of 3000 gathered outside the Ontario legislative building at Queen’s Park. The throng contained steam punks, fathers, queer folk, slutty dogs, roller-derby girls, grandmothers, and everyone in between. Regardless of what they wore, attendees had one thing in common; they were all ready to fight for the right to wear what they want. Signs littered the crowd, sending out messages of sadness, frustration, and hope; more than one told of personal rape experiences.
Barnett explained the meaning of the name “SlutWalk” to the excited crowd, urging women to reclaim the word “slut” and take away any negative connotation it has held in the past to help put an end to “slut shaming”. Barnett also reinforced the point that being a slut isn’t a form of dress, but an empowering attitude that anyone can employ at any time, regardless of appearance.
“Whether you’re wearing blue jeans, rollerblades, saris, tuxedos or tube tops, sexual assault is a crime of power!” Barnett roared through her megaphone.
With that, the throng was off. Within seconds, College street was filled with people from sidewalk to sidewalk. The crowd appeared to stretch endlessly through the city.
For me, the experience was irreplaceable. Seeing so many people take time out of their sunny Sunday afternoons to rebel against sexism and dress stereotypes was both inspiring and needed. One sign I read instantly had me blinking back tears: “X-mas 1985, 14-years-old, bundled in layers. How did I deserve it?” The fact that authorities could even imply that victims could have avoided their attack by dressing differently not only shows assault survivors that their crime wasn’t taken seriously, but perpetuates fear of reporting such crimes in the future. The idea that anyone invited sexual assault, whether sporting leather and fishnets or an Amish bonnet and prairie skirt, is absurd and unfair. NO ONE, no matter what their appearance, age or gender, wants to experience sexual assault, to any degree. EVER.
Here at WORN, we encourage both staff and readers to wear whatever they want, free of judgement. As a feminist fashion publication, we think the notion that the way a woman dresses could increase her chances of being raped is archaic, incorrect and insulting. There is no relationship between clothing and violent crimes like assault, and women shouldn’t be made to feel that something they feel good wearing could be putting them in danger. Whether donning stilettos or steel toes, women should ALWAYS feel safe, and should NEVER have to question their clothing choices because of how they might be treated if they show too much skin. Women are NEVER asking for violence, and suggesting they are is just another form of oppression women and their allies need to fight.
“Oppression comes in all forms, and one of the easiest is based on attacking another’s appearance,” Barnett said. “We can counter that by choosing what to wear, when to wear it and where to wear it, proving that someone else’s opinion has no bearing.”
- Alyssa Garrison