By: Lauren Jankowski
According to RAINN: Each year, there are about 213,000 victims of sexual assault.
Recently, hundreds of people marched the streets of Chicago in protest of the victim-blaming that women are burdened with when it comes to the issue of rape and sexual violence. The protest was in response to a Toronto police officer stating that women could avoid being victimized if they avoided dressing like sluts. Almost immediately, there was a feminist backlash in the form of marches held across the globe. These marches are called “SlutWalks” and they are quite the spectacle.
Sitting in my local train station on a hot summer day, I started to feel woefully overdressed. I had heard that there was a possibility of rain, so I threw on some incredibly tight jeans and a black t-shirt with the words “I ♥ [heart] Female Orgasm” across the chest, the most risqué outfit I could come up with that wouldn’t risk too much sunburn. It was my first feminist protest. I have signed numerous petitions on a variety of issues, but I had never experienced a real honest-to-goodness protest firsthand before. That’s kind of sad considering that I attend college in Wisconsin. Needless to say, I was feeling quite excited.
Upon boarding the train, I reflected on the natural tendency to feel nervous whenever heading into the city by myself. I grew up in a family that held old-fashioned values and as a result, whenever I go on excursions on my own, there’s an instinctual wariness. Being a woman and being alone in the city is synonymous with fear. I can still vividly remember my parents commenting on the “shady” areas in the city –the places, were I to be on my own, to be avoided at all costs. As the train rumbled down the tracks, I started to really appreciate the point of these marches. Why should women feel fear when men do not?
I’ve often thought about the power of language when it comes to our development, starting from the time we’re children and continuing into adulthood. As someone who makes a living through writing, I’ve always been keenly aware of the power of language. Throughout the march, the message was continually reiterated: there are no sex-positive words for women indicating an obvious patriarchal bias in language. As a result, women are seen as less, as “the other”. Until this bias is addressed, we will continue to live in a world where rape is sadly commonplace.
But the question remains: can we reclaim derogatory words and reinvent them to be positive, perhaps even empowering?
This was the question I thought of as I stepped off the train and onto the crowded platform. The day was positively sweltering. I caught a glimpse of orange and the glisten of glitter. The sight of the word “slut” in huge black letters has never been so inviting. A group of four girls was only a short way ahead of me and I caught up with them, asking if I could follow them to the march. Much to my relief, they readily agreed.
When we reached the plaza where the march was to begin, I was heartened by the diversity that greeted us. People of all genders, ethnicities, ages, and orientations stood about in the blistering heat. Men held signs of solidarity, declaring that real men didn’t rape. Women were dressed in all sorts of clothes: from conservative to nearly nude. Women on roller blades skated around, handing out fliers to the next roller derby. All of us gathered together, prepared to take a stand against victim-blaming and sexual violence.
There was a rainbow of signs, each proclaiming a different and important statement. Some women carried signs identifying themselves as survivors and I saw at least one who had written “survivor” across her chest in large black letters. A young blonde girl, no more than eight years old, carried a neon green sign that said, “Go ahead. Call me one. I dare you.”
As I stood in a huge sea of people, I began to think about my own experience with victim-blaming. When I was a senior in high school, a sophomore was raped at a party. The entire school, and the community, only asked one question: what was a 16-year-old doing at a party? The narrative immediately turned the blame on her. She shouldn’t have been drinking. It was consensual but she was afraid of getting in trouble so she cried rape. She was asking for it.
Unfortunately, at the time, I didn’t think to speak up against this kind of thinking. She was a nameless, faceless individual. It didn’t concern me so I remained quiet. Standing in that sea of people, I felt somewhat guilty for this silence. At the time, I could only think of getting out of high school and into college. I decided that I would march for that nameless girl in my high school, even though I never knew her personally.
The heat seemed to climb even higher and I began to sweat even before we started walking. Glancing around at the incredibly provocative outfits (one woman came in nothing more than a thong and some very skillfully placed decorative tape), my earlier worry about being overdressed was confirmed. (Though I had no shortage of compliments on the t-shirt.) A few people handed out fliers for various things: the socialists of Chicago, the women from the Roller Derby, a group for the rights of prostitutes. Every group had a unique take on feminism, but women’s equality was the unifying theme.
Then we began walking down Randolph Avenue. I soon got separated from the girls that I had followed, due to my fiddling with my camera. Thankfully, the march was large enough that I was able to fit in nicely in the middle of it. The brief spots of shade were just as hot as the sunlit stretches. The march started attracting attention immediately. Faces peered out of windows, people paused to see what was going on, cell phones were held up to capture the march. It wasn’t too long before the marchers began callbacks.
“Hey-hey, ho-ho, sexual violence has got to go!”
“Hey-hey, ho-ho, yes means yes and no means no!”
“Rape is bullshit!”
At one point, we crossed paths with another group that was marching for breast cancer. We continued on down Michigan Avenue. I glanced to the side when I heard loud cheers and watched as a bus driver gave high-fives to a group of energetic marchers. In the places where traffic was blocked off, we got enthusiastic honks. I choose to believe they were in solidarity rather than annoyance at the inconvenience.
We turned onto Clark Street, the home stretch. By this time, everyone was sweating (I probably more than most), but our energy was not dimmed. We continued shouting. Those carrying signs waved them about excitedly. I found myself smiling, despite the humidity and sweltering heat.
As the march came to an end at Daly Plaza, most of the participants made a beeline for the fountain. They started setting up for the speakers at the huge abstract statue in the middle of the plaza. Music was blasted as they continued to set up. I somehow reunited with the girls that I had followed originally. After a bit, they had to leave and asked if I wanted to go with them. Feeling somewhat lightheaded, likely due to the heat and my forgetting to bring any water, I eagerly took them up on their offer and we hailed a cab.
As the cab pulled away from the Daly Plaza, I looked out the window at the gathering that braved the heat and humidity to make a stand against violence. A rainbow of people still stood around together, cheering and dancing. It was a beautiful sight that I’ll remember for many years to come.
There was no news coverage. The only mention of the protest in the papers was an editorial written by someone who had completely missed the point of the march. There was a blurb online, but that was about it. The march was captured in numerous pictures that can be found online, taken by the marchers themselves.
My disappointment in this stems from the fact that it was an important event for an issue that is frequently dismissed until it affects someone personally. We are living in a culture where rape is often blamed on the victim. We are living in a world where daughters need to be taught that there are dangerous people that will try to violate them. A woman who is raped is someone’s daughter, someone’s friend. Somebody’s wife, lover, child, sister, aunt, niece, possibly even mother.
As women, we are brought into a world where our language is skewed against us. We will all encounter derogatory terms like “bitch”, “whore”, “slut”, and others. They will sting and hurt like hell, but we will have to ignore it because that is all we really can do. But until we find a way to reclaim the language, we will continue to be confronted with issues like sexual violence and other inequalities.
Personally, I hope that the SlutWalks catch on. I hope they are held yearly. I will march in each and every one until victim-blaming is a thing of the past. Hopefully, this was the first step in the much more important process of eradicating sexual violence.