When you name your protest march "SlutWalk," you're going to get attention. When some marchers dress in hot pants and fishnet stockings, you're bound to get a little more.
That's part of the idea behind the SlutWalk phenomenon, coming to Minneapolis on Saturday. Waving signs like "My dress is not a 'yes,'" women in various states of dress or undress take to city streets to protest an attitude that holds victims responsible for inviting sexual violence. The march has caused controversy among women's rights advocates, not only for its intentionally in-your-face name, but also because of a concern that the medium is smothering the message.
Now represented in more than 75 cities worldwide, SlutWalk was launched by a single remark. At a college safety seminar in Toronto last spring, a police officer told young women they would be less likely to be raped if they didn't dress "like sluts."
The comment sparked anger in people who saw it as a reflection of an antiquated mindset still pervasive in modern culture. Incensed Toronto women, joined by like-minded men, took to the streets, some dressed in lingerie to make the point that their safety shouldn't depend on what they wear.
The protest gained media attention, more for its sensational qualities than its intended purpose. It also struck an inspirational chord with many women, particularly Gen Xers and millennials, and a dissonant one with women who find the strategy misguided.
Once it hit the Internet, SlutWalk leapt language and cultural barriers in a matter of months. Since Toronto, marches have been staged in such cities as Washington, D.C., Buenos Aires and New Delhi. Others are scheduled in New Orleans, San Antonio, Singapore and Bucharest.
More than 600 marchers have signed up for the Minneapolis event so far, said co-organizer Kimberia Sherva.
Sherva, who works for the federal student-services program TRIO, and fellow organizer Elizabeth Johnson, development coordinator for the League of Women Voters, have known each other since they were in junior high in Detroit Lakes, Minn. Both are 40 -- and survivors of sexual assault.
Seeing beyond flashy flesh
When Barbra Peterson, vice president of the Minnesota chapter of the National Organization for Women, first heard about the SlutWalk movement several months ago, she thought it was "disgusting. It made no sense at all."
The more she read about it, though, the angrier she got -- not at the marchers, but at the injustices they are marching against. Now Peterson -- who farms near Sandstone, Minn., with her husband and worked for the Chicago Police Department for a time -- plans to march. When she does, she'll be donning her old uniform, "to remind people that not all cops are insensitive." Female veterans and at least one active-duty soldier also plan to march in uniform, according to posts on the march's Facebook page.
Male voices joining the chorus of support include members of a Minneapolis rock band familiar with outrage-inducing monikers: Hookers & Blow, which has been promoting the event at shows and on Facebook.
"Why are we so worried about a word?" Peterson said. "I find it a lot more offensive that only 6 percent of rapists in Minnesota serve any time. If they called it a women's empowerment march, would the media have paid any attention?"
Some worry about just what kind of attention such an event could draw. Kristine Holmgren, a feminist, playwright and former pastor, said, "There are going to be a lot of men lined up to watch this -- and they're not going to be celebrating women's rights."
Triumph or giving in?
Whether this is the best way to get the message across is at the core of the controversy.
"Something that plays so much into the objectification of women is not an advance," Holmgren said.
Feminist writer Rebecca Traister expressed conflicted feelings about the marches in an essay for the New York Times: "To object to these ugly characterizations is right and righteous. But to do so while dressed in what look like sexy stewardess Halloween costumes seems less like victory than capitulation (linguistic and sartorial) to what society already expects of its young women."
The Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault has taken a neutral position, but has posted a list of pros and cons on its website, www.mncasa.org, encouraging readers to use it as a springboard for discussion and debate. On the cons list, they question whether reclaiming the charged word "slut" is truly effective.
Taking back culturally engrained slurs as a means of rendering their negativity powerless is a common strategy in modern movements for social change. Twisting the sneer out of the pejorative "slut," then replacing it with pride and anger, is akin to gay people re-appropriating the word "queer" or black youths calling each other the "n" word.
Where the SlutWalk movement goes too far, say detractors, is in what they see as its encouragement of scanty dress.
"People are going to make a statement with their choice of attire," said Johnson, who's not planning to expose much flesh herself. "Some will wear blue jeans and T-shirts, to remind everyone that most people who are sexually assaulted are not wearing something sexy. Some will wear provocative clothing to make the point that regardless of what they wear, it's not an invitation for rape."
Johnson's guess is that brigades of women marching topless with duct tape over their nipples, which have been factions in other SlutWalk marches, might not steal the spotlight at this one -- partly because it might not be warm enough for that, but also because Midwesterners are generally more modest.
"This is Minnesota; we're pretty practical," she said.
NOW's Peterson blames part of the rift about the event on misperceptions that feminism is one-size-fits-all.
"Our mothers shook their heads at what we did when we were young, too," she said. "Some things younger generations do aren't my cup of tea, but I applaud them for being active. We shouldn't bash them -- we should be bashing a court system that lets rapists go free."
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046