Slut Walk Vancouver Challenges Blame Placed on Sexual Assault Victims

This piece originally appeared in The Georgia Straight on April 14, 2011.

Slut Walk organizers Josh Tabish and Katie Raso

On January 24, a piece of advice that a Toronto police officer gave at a safety seminar for York University students triggered a worldwide reaction.

“Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized,” said Const. Michael Sanguinetti.

That was the last straw for many Toronto citizens. On April 3, more than 3,000 people—dressed in such provocative attire as raincoats, track pants, and sneakers—took a stand against victim-blaming and participated in what organizers billed as SlutWalk Toronto.

Toronto’s SlutWalk participants, who marched from Queen’s Park to police headquarters, were not only responding to Sanguinetti’s comment. They wanted to inspire a shift in the way mainstream culture blames victims of sexual assault rather than targets the perpetrators of the crimes.

SlutWalk Toronto has already inspired cities around the world, from Canada and the U.S. to New Zealand, to launch their own SlutWalks. In Vancouver, student activists have used social media to mobilize thousands of people in a short amount of time to bring about SlutWalk Vancouver. It will take place on May 15 along Granville Street downtown.

On March 31, SFU student Josh Tabish emailed fellow communications student Katie Raso a link to a newspaper article in which a Saanich police officer was quoted as saying that victims of sexual assault are “people who have placed themselves in vulnerable situations and are unfortunately victimized as a result”. (The newspaper later “updated” the story online and wrote that the officer was quoted “out of context” and that some readers had “misconstrued” the comment.)

Raso posted the link to the SlutWalk Toronto Facebook page; within minutes, she said, she received a text message from a SlutWalk Toronto participant encouraging her to organize a SlutWalk in Vancouver. Raso emailed several local organizations to gauge support for the idea, and by the end of the day, SlutWalk Vancouver’s organizing committee had come together.

Within four days, more than 1,700 Facebook users had confirmed their participation in SlutWalk Vancouver.

“It took off like wildfire,” Tabish said. “We did not expect things to happen this quickly. It reminds us of how important this issue is for everyone.”

Tabish is one of four men on the SlutWalk Vancouver organizing team. “No one has challenged our involvement,” Tabish said. “Most victims of sexual assault are women, but men will be coming to the walk as citizens, as family members, and as boyfriends. We want men to know that whatever role you play, you have an important role in this conversation.”

However, not all responses have been positive. Every day, individuals leave messages on the Facebook event page criticizing walk organizers for encouraging scantily clad women to parade around on the streets.

“There is no such thing as dressing like a slut,” Raso said, “Because there is no such thing as dressing for sexual assault. We encourage participants to wear whatever they would normally wear. We are trying to bring to light that when we excuse away sexual assaults by blaming the victims, we are ensuring that assaults will continue.”

Despite the controversy that a name like SlutWalk is bound to stir up, it might be part of the reason why the walk has generated so much attention and dialogue worldwide.

Natalie Hill, a former Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter volunteer who is doing her master’s research on rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, had reservations about reclaiming the word slut.

“After thinking about it, I realized the irony and the satire in SlutWalk”, she said. “It’s pretty brilliant of them to take a pejorative that a Toronto police officer used and leverage that into a movement that has attracted the support of people who may not usually get involved in activist efforts.”

Becki Ross, who chairs the women’s and gender studies department at UBC, also applauds the SlutWalk organizers for working to challenge harmful cultural norms.

“To me, the SlutWalks in Toronto, Vancouver, Boston, and elsewhere reclaim slut for all women who dare to challenge constricting and punishing gender and heterosexual norms that have historically divided ‘good women’—monogamous, virtuous, passive, subordinated—from ‘bad women’—sexually experimental, curious, and rebellious,” Ross said.

The SlutWalk Vancouver organizers do not expect to overturn entrenched ideas overnight. However, Raso and Tabish said that the event will offer an “open and inclusive forum for people to talk about how to work together to change toxic environments”.

B.C.’s Battered Women’s Support Services is among an assortment of nonprofit agencies that support SlutWalk Vancouver. According to BWSS executive director Angela Marie MacDougall: “The paradigm in our society is that women are prey, and as prey we need to protect ourselves. There is rarely recognition [of the fact] that men are often responsible for sexual violence and the question of how can men help end violence against women. This paradigm needs to shift, and I believe SlutWalk Vancouver is a part of that shift.”

In the weeks leading up to May 15, the SlutWalk Vancouver committee will host a series of discussions on its blog and campaign to spread awareness about its goals. Raso and Tabish also said they hope to lend their support to other communities interested in organizing their own SlutWalks.

“As for SlutWalk Vancouver 2012? The absolute best thing that could happen is that we will help start a conversation that won’t have to be restarted in a year,” Raso said.