Fighting the Exploitation of Women: Beyond Slutwalk

On April 14th, Wheelock College is host to an exciting and innovative conference that will bring young women and men together to develop multicultural strategies to fight violence against women. Called Beyond Slutwalk: Feminists Demand Gender Justice , the conference is in part a response to last summer’s slutwalks that took place around the country. The organizers of the Wheelock conference agree with the aims of the slutwalk, to protest the ever increasing sexual violence against women, but believe that using the term slut is counterproductive.

The original Toronto Slutwalk was a call for women to define themselves, "outside of male-defined terms like slut." (Gail Dines) The original slutwalk began in Toronto to protest a police officer who stated that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” (Read the news article) It is outrageous that a person charged with protecting people from violence should blame the victim, and it is clear from the popularity of the slutwalks, that women and men all over the country felt that the time had come to make a bold statement. However, many women, including sexual assault survivors, women of color, and anti-violence activists, criticized the slutwalk organizers for failing to understand how the term slut could be injurious, and could inadvertently make it more difficult for women to get justice.

An important turning point in the debate came in September when a large group of black women went public with “An Open Letter from Black Women to the SlutWalk.” (Read the letter) The main point of this letter was to explain how the history of racism in the US makes it impossible for black women to take on the label “slut,” since this is a slur that has been used to legitimize the sexual violence that black women disproportionately suffer in this country. They wrote:

Although we vehemently support a woman’s right to wear whatever she wants anytime, anywhere, within the context of a “SlutWalk” we don’t have the privilege to walk through the streets of New York City, Detroit, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, L.A. etc., either half-naked or fully clothed self-identifying as “sluts” and think that this will make women safer in our communities an hour later, a month later, or a year later.

Taking this letter very seriously, students of color and white students at Wheelock have come together to organize a conference that addresses the way racism and sexism intersect. In addition to opening remarks by the primary organizers, Mary McNeil and Ally Harrison, and a presentation by me and Susan Owusu, director of the communication program, there will be student panels on women of color and feminism, the role of men in feminism, and how to build a multiracial movement to stop violence against women.

We were not sure how much interest there would be in such a conference, and were thus thrilled when we filled all 120 seats within a week. We have been turning people away ever since! Not only do we have students from numerous colleges all over New England, but also an interesting mix of professors, activists and public health experts. Wheelock students have once again demonstrated that they are on the cutting-edge of change, and are committed to fighting for a world free of violence.