What I've learned by SlutWalk co-founder Sonya Barnett

On January 24, 2011 Constable Michael Sanguinetti spoke on crime prevention at a York University safety forum. He said, "Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized."

Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis decided that they wouldn't sit by quietly and let another authority figure excuse or explain away rape by referring to any aspect of a woman's appearance. They organized a protest in Toronto that they called SlutWalk and, to the surprise of the founders, it caught fire around the world. Since the first protest, there have been SlutWalks across the Americas and throughout Europe, garnering high praise and severe criticism.

I've never spoken with Jarvis, but Barnett and I had become pen pals through my admiration of the Keyhole Sessions, her life drawing workshop with an edge. We met in London in 2011, where she told me of her incredible journey from being a woman with a day job who cared about women's rights and nurtured the connection between sex and art to suddenly being in the spotlight as a feminist activist. I related to her ambivalence about the idea of feminism: championing equality, but not quite feeling at home with the rhetoric. Almost a year on from the statement that sparked the first SlutWalk, I wondered, what Sonya Barnett had learned through this incredible journey. This is Sonya's reply.

  • Media is both your friend and your enemy. Living in the age of social media means information spreads like wildfire. If it's erroneous, it doesn't matter—people are likely to only read 140 character headlines or share links without reading the back story. And many—not all—journalists are lazy. They write their stories based on other people's information without bothering to fact-check or go to the main source, like interviewing those they're writing about.
  • Sharing information can be very therapeutic. We've seen many people unpack their experiences on the SlutWalk Toronto Facebook page, sharing and supporting each other as they deal with what has happened to them. It's not a completely safe space, but people feel they have a voice there.
  • SlutWalk and other independent movements are not the final answer for feminism. It's one facet of a giant movement and like all the others, cannot solve all the problems that women face. Every group has its pros and cons, as well as supporters and critics. SlutWalk Toronto was based on one officer's comment in our own city. We had a response and did the best we could with what we had. We are all still learning—about gender, race, class, etc.—and it will take a while for us to figure it all out.
  • Feminists eat each other alive. I, perhaps quite naively, thought that fighting for women's rights meant a kind of "we're all in this together" attitude. That's far from the truth. Clashes amongst feminist groups happen often and this infighting is a big reason that the movement is at a standstill. Education between them is key, not offensive/defensive actions.
  • Language plays a large part in our lives. It's been amazing to see the reactions of one word and how it still holds the power to be divisive. Because it holds such a power, many people still can't get past the 'slut' part of SlutWalk, and don't delve further into the real issues: how rape culture still shapes society to a point where so many people stay silent.
On May 26, there will be another SlutWalk in Toronto. If you're in town, do join them to fight back against victim-blaming and slut-shaming around sexual violence.


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