Slut. It’s not a term that I’ve ever heard directed at me. But I’ve heard it said about others, and so perhaps others have said it about me. A girl I’ll call Gerrie, in junior high. She’s easy, my friend said with confidence. Want sexual experience? Call Gerrie. She’s a slut. Her locker was on the second floor, just outside our science room. We were in grade 7. She was in grade 9. She walked the halls like she owned them, skin tight jeans painted over generous buttocks decades before Kim Kardashian would make them fashionable, streaked hair perfectly feathered, a knowing smile for any boy caught looking just a hair too long. Or that’s what I thought. Slut. Did they ever say it right to her face? Maybe not. But I learned early that there was a problem when girls liked sex.
I’ve heard it many times since. Whispered in hallways. Yelled in anger, frustration. Spoken competitively. Dismissively. With awe and horror. I learned that you can’t get it right if you’re a girl. You either put out and like sex too much, or you don’t put out at all. And then you’re a tease, a cocktease to be exact. And somehow that, too, makes you a slut because you’re asking for it. Somehow.
Fastforward a decade. Now I’m in a residence hall cafeteria deep in America’s heartland. I’m a grad student. I’m sitting in the cafeteria. It’s breakfast. Around me, students peer bleary eyed into watery porridge. Bursts of laughter at other tables. It’s sunny out. Or maybe the fluorescent lights are bright. A couple of days ago we’d been discussing Thelma and Louise and Fried Green Tomatoes. Women’s empowerment, on steroids. The women were enthusiastic. The men, much less so. And this morning – a bright, early, Saturday – all that stuff that was brewing around finally spilled over.
“If you’re going to dress like that,” one of guys said, “you’re just asking for it.” He was talking about someone he’d seen the night before.
“What?” I wasn’t sure I had heard right.
“You’re asking for it. I mean, you saw her last night, right? She was asking for it.”
“She’s not dressing for you.” My voice tight – dangerous, even – but he didn’t pick up on my tone.
“Oh, come on. She knows the score. She dresses like that, she knows what’s going to happen and it isn’t our fault.”
“You are full of shit,” I roared. “Women aren’t asking for it. They can dress however they fucking well please. It’s not about you, asshole. Keep you stuff in your pants and keep it to yourself.”
My voice had risen several decibels. This wasn’t a burst of laughter. This wasn’t the sound of a debate. This was anger. No. This was fury. In less than fifty words, I had let loose more swear words than I had in the previous six months. That alone was telling, I think to myself today. But again, he didn’t notice, or perhaps, he chose not to.
“Calm down. Shhhh. They can hear you.” In other words, I was making a scene.
“I don’t give a rat’s ass, if they can hear me. You are full of shit. No woman asks to be raped. Not. A. Single. Fucking. One.”
He looked shell shocked. Good. The cafeteria was silent. I picked up my tray and marched to over to the trolleys to drop it off.
A couple of months later, a woman was murdered on the fifteenth floor of that residence building by an ex-boyfriend enraged that she’d broken up with him. He’d driven all the way from California, his car filled with a gun and over 2000 rounds of ammunition. He’d planned his trip carefully. Told his supervisor he was going on a holiday. Even sent him a postcard from the Grand Canyon. Told his ex that if he couldn’t have her, nobody could. Shot her – and her new boyfriend – in her residence room. And then ran down the stairs and into the night before turning the gun on himself.
There weren’t any anti-stalking laws. She’d called the police. She’d done all the right things. But they didn’t help. They couldn’t help.
Last year. The year before last. The year before the year before last. And the year before that, too. Students, a parade of them, in my office, in my email, on my phone, the news, in my memories. Student in women’s shelters fleeing abusive partners. Students with court summons’ to appear as witnesses in sexual assault trials. Students told by mental health professionals that their sexuality was the result of their rape. Students raped by family friends. Students abandoned by friends who called them sluts because they were raped. Students working as sex workers to pay for university tuition. Students told they were sluts. Or whores. Or worse. A student whose mother was murdered by her partner.
People don’t like the term SlutWalk. They say it’s offensive. They say it shuts them down. They say it’s not right. They won’t support it. They hate it. But our women and girls are hearing it every day. If the word is so violent that you can’t bear to hear it, then think about the violence of hearing it every day. Think about Gerrie, who was easy. About the girl in my grad dorm who was asking for it. About my friend who wanted me to calm down. About students who had to testify, to flee, to remain silent. Students who were abandoned when it mattered most. Think, too, about how little we trust our boys and young men, and about how much we devalue them when we teach them they can’t possibly be asked to control themselves. Sure, the name SlutWalk is offensive. But that’s the whole point. If you can’t call it out, how on earth can you change it?
Today I walked for all the women. I walked for my sons. I walked in solidarity. I walked in grief. I walked in hope. I walked in pride.
It was cold. June in St. John’s, we all said to each other, nodding. 9 degrees and overcast. Fog over the harbour.
“I refuse to wear my winter jacket.”
We shivered and we laughed. We cheered and we chanted. And we were 300 strong. I saw students, former students, graduate students and colleagues. I saw famous people and not so famous people. Children. Women of all ages. Fierce women. Saucy women. Quiet Women. Noisy women. I saw sex workers. I saw men. I saw posters. I saw costumes. And I saw a dog dressed up as Wonder Woman.
Hey hey, ho ho. Sexual violence has got to go.