SlutWalk at the OBA: A Night of Feminist Legal Analysis

This article was supposed to appear in the November issue of UV, and subsequently in the January issue. It failed to appear in either because of a complete lack of competence on the part of the Opinion Editor, the Editor-in-Chief and Josh Mandryk. For this, and the many other egregious errors that this section commits on a monthly basis, I apologize.

You have probably heard the story. On January 24, 2011, after a series of violent sexual assaults on campus, students at Osgoode Hall gathered to hear two police officers discuss campus safety. One officer suggested that if women wanted to avoid sexual violence they should “avoid dressing like sluts”. This comment sparked a global movement, SlutWalk, which has generated controversy not only in the media, but also among feminists.

On November 3, the Feminist Legal Analysis Section of the OBA held a panel discussion reacting to this global movement.

Sonya Barnett, co-founder of SlutWalk, kicked off the event by recounting how SlutWalk began. Although sparked by the police officer’s comment, the movement came out of a longstanding sense of outrage with “slut-shaming” faced by survivors of sexual violence (remember Manitoba Judge Dewar?). Responding to criticisms of the use of the word “slut” she argued that the term ought to be “slung back” to remind people that sexual assault has nothing to do with attraction, and everything to do with power. She and her co-organizers felt that by using the word as part of the movement, they could begin to reclaim it.

Brenda Cossman, Professor of Law at the Faculty of Toronto, offered a historical analysis linking the current debates about SlutWalk to the “Sex Wars” within feminism. On one side of the debate are feminists who campaign to ban prostitution and pornography, arguing they are inherently violent towards women. On the other side are feminists who maintain that overcoming patriarchal oppression involves the sexual liberation of both women and men. Aligning herself with the latter, Cossman critiqued the notion that women are participating in their own objectification by walking under the banner of “Slut.”

Karin Galldin, partner with Galldin Law, a feminist legal practice that provides representation to sex workers, pointed out that victories in the courtroom may not change things on the ground, particularly for vulnerable and marginalized individuals. She congratulated SlutWalk for transcending this complication by forcing a spotlight on the conduct of the police officer through the media rather than expensive litigation.

We believe that SlutWalk offers an important opportunity to challenge the dominant conversation about sexual assault. It reminds us that sexual assault is not about sex, but about power. Arguments that women can and ought to make themselves safer through changing how they dress and where they walk ignore the overwhelming evidence that most sexual assaults happen not between strangers in dark alleys, but between people who know each other.  More than that, for some women at least, the movement can offer an empowering critique of mainstream portrayals of sexual assault, such as that offered by the Police Officer at the York meeting, which place blame on survivors of sexual assault and obscure important conversations about consent, power and sexism.

SlutWalk, however, faces a major challenge.  Audience members at the panel, and groups such as Black Women’s Blueprint, shared a serious concern about the movement, a concern which has been endemic to feminism since the first wave: the effective exclusion of women of marginalized and racialized communities.  As the Black Women’s Blueprint stated in an Open Letter to SlutWalk, “As Black women, we do not have the privilege or the space to call ourselves “slut” without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the Black woman is.

Many women with disabilities, likewise, argue that SlutWalk excludes their experiences and concerns. “Slut,” they point out, cannot be reclaimed by women whose sexuality has been systematically erased and ignored.  As commentator Jennifer Scott states, “While women all over the world are waiting for people to stop seeing them as sex objects, women with disabilities are still waiting to be seen at all.”

SlutWalk is about changing the way we think about sex and sexual assault: high heels and short skirts have nothing to do with whether a woman does or does not consent to sex. We urge the organizers of SlutWalk, and other like-minded organizers, to work in partnership with other women’s groups, including those that represent women from marginalized communities, to move forward in way that is inclusive of a broader range of experiences and concerns.