A new women’s rights movement in the streets

June 13, 2011

SLUTWALK CHICAGO and Los Angeles, both held on June 4, were a sign of the potential that exists to build a new women's rights movement--one that is unapologetic and independent of electoral strategies of the past.

In Chicago, a crowd of some 1,500 people--multi-racial, including both men and women--turned out to show support for victims of rape and sexual assault and call for an end to violence against women.

The SlutWalk marches were sparked by a Toronto police officer's comment that if women want to avoid being raped, they should refrain from "dressing like sluts." The demonstrations have since spread across Canada, the U.S., Britain and--most recently--India.

Activists are saying that no matter how women choose to dress, that's never an excuse for violence against them. The protests are bringing a new generation into the streets to stand up against victim-blaming and for the right of women to be free from harassment and sexual assault.

The Chicago march brought out members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community as well as survivors of sexual assault, sex workers, advocates for rape and sexual assault victims, socialists and hundreds of student activists from across the city. Some individuals came from as far away as individuals from as far away as Terre Haute, Ind., and Syracuse, N.Y., to participate.

The diversity of the crowd spoke to the collective interest in fighting against sexism and sexual assault--an issue that affects every community. As Miranda Dupoint, a volunteer for Rape Victim Advocates, said in an interview:

It was incredibly powerful to see so many diverse people come out into the street today, and to unite with the same goal--of ending sexual violence and the pervasive attitudes behind it, as well as policies that allow this violence to flourish.

As a rape victim's advocate and violence prevention activist, I joined SlutWalk because it fosters a visible and absolutely necessary dialogue about the cultural impunity for rape. We can reclaim a public space, hold rapists accountable for their crimes toward women, and provide solidarity as well as support for survivors. Today, we confront an otherwise silent social problem and create change within our community. The SlutWalk movement's not perfect, but it's definitely revolutionary.

After gathering at the Thompson Center, participants marched along Michigan Avenue, before making their way to Daley Plaza, where a final rally was held. People carried homemade signs, including "My body is not an invitation" and "Rape is never the victim's fault!"

Along the march route, the crowd chanted, "Yes means yes! No means no! However we dress, wherever we go!" and "Hey hey, ho ho, sexual violence has got to go." Pro-choice chants, including "Back alleys no more, abortion rights for rich and poor" and " Money for abortion and sex education, not for war and occupation," were also popular during the walk.

Passersby on the street waved and cheered in support of the crowd, and people in cars honked and yelled in support--including one Chicago Transit Authority bus driver who, stuck in traffic, held her hand out to high-five a marcher passing by.

Several participants at the march spoke about what sexuality and consent mean to individual women--and how that is frequently twisted in a society that oppresses women. "I came to promote dialogue in our communities around consent and pleasure, and to promote compassionate support for victims and survivors of sexual violence," said Emily Robinson, a founding member Sexual Health Education to End Rape (SHEER).

As marcher Olivia Cole put it:

Most women have been called a "slut," "ho" or "tramp" throughout their life. It's just kind of outrageous. A couple of weeks ago, I was getting ready to leave a movie theater, and I realized there was no way for me to get home without being harassed.

It was about one in the morning. There were a couple of people that just felt like it was okay to stare, to catcall...What if I had gotten into a cab? Same thing. Maybe I'll ask a cop? Oh wait, two cops in Chicago just [were accused of raping] a woman. [To be a woman in America] is to be a second-class citizen in the freest country in the world.

Some of the contradictions among participants were evident from the speakers at the rally that ended the march. While an organizer from the Sex Workers Outreach Project spoke well about the question of police harassment and criminalization, especially of the poor, people of color, and transgender people, another speaker actually praised Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and the Chicago Police Department as being advocates for women's rights.

Additionally, march organizers didn't have any next steps to build on the success of SlutWalk. One speaker closed the rally by saying that we all need to go home and have "a million little conversations" to end rape culture. That's surely important, but in the coming weeks and months, activists should try and take concrete steps to build on the momentum of the mobilization.

In Los Angeles, over 400 people gathered in West Hollywood for SlutWalk Los Angeles. The event sent a clear message that we are disgusted with sexism and victim-blaming.

Speakers included Alana Evans, who was drugged and raped in the home of Christian singer Brian McKnight. Because she works in the porn industry, police were dismissive of her case and never brought charges against McKnight.

As Evans told the crowd, "Even if I were stripping or a paid hooker, does that take away my right to say no? My case was pushed aside. We live in a world where sex crimes often go unpunished. But by speaking out, I've learned that I'm not just a victim. I have rights and I deserve to be treated like anyone would want to be treated."

Following the rally, protesters marched through West Hollywood chanting, "Yes means yes! No means no! However we dress, wherever we go!"

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