About a month ago, I was asked by email to participate in a student panel for Stanford SlutWalk 2016.
“SlutWalk,” I thought. “Oh no.”
SlutWalk originated as a street march and rally at Toronto, 2011, when a policeman argued that to avoid sexual assault, women should “not dress like sluts.” The 3000-participant protest inspired similar events in other cities, and soon other SlutWalks were organized across the United States. Though not centrally coordinated, these events collectively sought to call attention to rape culture – the minimizing and justifying of sexual assault, the normalizing of sexual and intimate violence, and the denial of justice to victims – in our society.
Yet many articles and critical pieces on the SlutWalk movement reveal a number of its shortcomings: the participants and organizers of many SlutWalks tend to be overwhelmingly white. The choice to reclaim “slut” as a universal rallying cry for women hurt by sexual assault often does not represent the differing marginalization of women of color. The desired outcome of many SlutWalks’ brand of activism – incarceration and other forms of punitive, retributive justice – has troubling implications for those involved in prison-abolition, anti-state-violence, and other radical activist work. These complaints have led to the common perception in activist spaces that SlutWalk is yet another example of White Feminism, a white-centric feminism that often claims to represent all women and falls short in critiquing larger societal structures.
However, the email in my inbox went on to explain that Stanford’s SlutWalk would center on women of color – that this SlutWalk would be focused on intersectionality, inclusivity and sexual assault. I looked at the email, wanted to give it a chance, and decided not to.
I didn’t believe that Stanford’s SlutWalk could live up to its promise of intersectionality.
SlutWalks, at their heart, address the issue of sexual assault – that, at least, is clear. To understand SlutWalks, then, we must critically understand sexual assault as an issue that is complex in its origins, complicated in its manifestations, and nuanced in its potential solutions.
Our understandings of sexual assault itself are influenced by our relationship in society to patriarchy, society’s systemic and cultural ideas of men’s and masculine superiority. Patriarchy teaches a skewed idea of intimacy where power and responsibility lies with masculinity and men, with the penetrating body, with the person on top. Is it surprising, then, that men, masculine people, people with penises and sexual tops are told that they cannot be raped by women, femmes, people with vaginas or sexual bottoms? These ideas about power create prototypical ideas in our collective consciousness of who can be a rape victim and who can be a rapist. Is it surprising, then, that men who are raped aren’t taken seriously and struggle with trauma alone? At the same time, patriarchy teaches men and masculine people that women and femmes are weaker, and normalizes a masculine entitlement to sex and physical intimacy. Given that, is it surprising that the very real threat of violence or retaliation from rejecting men and masculine people undermines the integrity of our consent?
Throw in racism and white supremacy, those systems that empower and advantage white and light-skinned folks at the expense of Black, brown and Indigenous peoples, and the issues become even more complicated. For example, while 68 percent of all sexual assaults go unreported, that number jumps to 94 percent for Black women – perhaps due to myths of Black women’s physical invulnerability and the devaluing of intersections of Black and femme lives. At least 70 percent of sexual assault experienced by Native American women is perpetrated by a person of a different race – perhaps due to loopholes in prosecuting laws, lack of respect towards Indigenous lives, or other echoes of U.S. imperialism and genocide.
How about queerness and gender-nonconformity? Systemic transmisogyny forces trans woman and femmes of color into sex work, where they are in constant danger of violence or death. Sexual assault and violence within queer communities often goes unreported, with increasing experiences of marginalization creating increasingly complex experiences of sexual assault, and increasingly gaping failures of our society to remedy them.
This is the real complexity of that word we all use now, intersectionality. To clarify, this is about more than just Stanford SlutWalk — this is our responsibility as a community to hold each other accountable in our activism. Intersectionality is not simply taking an inadequate framework and injecting (or “including”) marginalized voices or experiences. It is a larger analysis of not only identities, but also structures and institutions, a critical commitment to find, dismantle and remake those aspects of our societies that create inequity and violence. In the case of SlutWalk, we must understand that sexual assault is a product of our society — a result of overlapping systems of oppression whose nuance demands an equally nuanced approach to finding solutions. This is what any action claiming intersectionality must hold itself to. This is what it takes to make change.
Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.