I first learned about Slutwalk at my job at Temple University, where I am both an Urban Ed doctoral student and writing tutor at the writing center. A young white female freshman wanted me to help revise her paper. She was focusing on Slutwalk and its use of social media. Intrigued by the chain of events that led to Slutwalk and its ideological attack on rape culture, I did more research on the march after our session. The message seemed multilayered and cumbersome: it was about problematizing and reappropriating gendered words; exposing the patriarchal underpinnings of those words and how they shape the ways in which male (and female) authorities talk about accountability; reframing how the larger society privileges avoiding rape as opposed to not raping; and more viscerally, reconceptualizing the body as a cultural text where messages are communicated. This last part was what had made Slutwalk a spectacle and controversial. There seemed to be so many competing and seemingly conflicting messages about what to make of “scantily clad women”: Was this sluttish? Was this attention seeking? Was this real freedom? And if this was an attack on rape-culture, how did the exposed body engage in this attack? Akiba Solomon and Keli Goff further questioned, what did this exposed body really do for the vulnerable bodies that had been raped?
As a rape survivor, an urban woman of color, a feminist activist, and a burgeoning scholar deeply invested in issues of gender and sexuality, I have thoroughly appreciated all of the discussion and critique about Slutwalk. Black Women’t Blueprint unveiled questions I hadn’t thought of when I initially (and quickly) applauded the radicalism of Slutwalk. Their critique of how Slutwalk failed to acknowledge the historical and social context that brings women of color to this conversation in different and unique ways, was undeniably valid. It offered another reason for why it was important for me to enter and entitle myself to a space in that walk, even if the organizers or my fellow white marchers had the privilege to not think about that space, and the cultural baggage that kept them from fully understanding it.
But I walked that day for other personal reasons as well. The day before the march, September 30, marked the 3 year anniversary of my rape. A week before the march, I thought about the deep wounds of that event, all the ways it had unraveled me and all of my notions of trust. I thought of the 3 year sojourn of healing: the tears, the blank stares, the difficulty in naming it, the dancing, the candles, the baths, the yellows, the breathing, the sharing, the silences, the anguish, the memories, the affirmations, the frail hope, the rage, the conviction. No, I would not allow that anniversary to be a day of mourning, but rather a time in memoriam of the healing. I decided that in carving my own space at Slutwalk, I did so as a survivor with conviction; a survivor who craved a public space where I could be fully enraged, who was finally healed enough to make that rage public. And that is what Slutwalk was for me. It was the public space I needed to honor the anguish and to honor the rage, even if that anguish and rage was not fully understood within its cultural context.
My mother’s participation in the walk made the experience that much more powerful. Her support was crucial, but it was the fact that we could share this experience and this space together; it was how she crafted her own space as a mother of a rape survivor. Slutwalk was a space where this elder could share her anguish: that despite all of her conversations with me about not leaving my drink unattended, not riding elevators by myself, or not riding the train so late, that somehow, someone had hurt her baby, badly, and deeply. It was a place where she could cry all the tears she had denied herself, since here was a safe place where everyone agreed we can’t be silent about this any more. It was a space in which she could be angry about that silence, where she could release that anguish into a war cry, a cry that came from deep, deeper than the place where I was born, and closer to that ancient place that Audre Lorde speaks of: “a dark place within where hidden and growing our true spirit rises, ‘Beautiful and tough as chestnut/stanchions against our nightmare of weakness’ and of impotence.” And her cry shook the walls of my own buried rooms of darkness, as we both roared: “This is what a feminist look!”, “What do you do when you are under attack: Stand up fight back!”, “A dress is just a dress, it does mean no and it doesn’t mean yes!”, and her favorite, “Hey rapists, go fuck yourselves!” The space was what I needed, and it was what my mother needed. It was what we needed at that time and in that way.
My mother, a moderately conservative woman, once argued with me that girls do need to watch what they wear, that there are messages that they put out to men, even if they don’t want to. I was so angry that my mother could hold on to such a myth, be so defeatist in reframing the conversation to what we need to tell our boys. But that day, as we walked behind a woman who only wore a sequined bra and a thong, I studied my mother’s face, and I could see her thinking. I could see her thoughts changing shape and changing colors, and I could see her mind making room for radical possibility. I could see how she was embarrassed and then offended and angered. And then astounded and bewildered; I could see her appreciate the beauty of this woman’s body, get lost in it and then, remember where she was, and why she was there, and what all this was about. And finally, mami nodded, turned to me with a tear in her eye and a gaze of understanding, and said: That’s right, we should be able to walk these streets naked without fear. We should have that right, damnit. We should have that right. She continued to roar, a war cry that she felt entitled to and empowered by, a space she crafted for herself, as a mother of color, the mother of a survivor, and a survivor in her own right.
It is my hope that in sharing my experience with Slutwalk, I add to the larger and critical discussion that women of color have had about this spectacle of event, and the individual experiences that women of color have had at Slutwalk. So that when Keli Goff begrudgingly asks, what this walk did for rape survivors, I am so grateful that I can answer, it gave me and my mother a space to walk without fear, a space to walk with conviction, and a space to fight back at all the silences enabled by rape culture, including my own profound silence which disabled me from fighting off my violator. My trusted friend.
I agree that the colorblindness dangerously enables young white woman like Erin Clark to hold up racist signs that extinguish the Black female existence. And I agree with Aishah Shahidah Simmons that there is something critical in coming together as women and there is something dangerous in not doing the difficult work of working through differences. And I wholeheartedly agree with Salamisha Tillet that, “In order for it to be more than a passing fad, it has to become a healthy marriage of substance and spectacle, a movement that builds on the anti-rape activism of black women, like civil rights activists Fannie Lou Hamer and Rosa Parks.” To all of this I add, that I hope we might think of Slutwalk as a space where radical possibilities can be imagined and enacted and that we understand it on those terms. That the march is but a small piece of this larger movement, but an important piece nonetheless. It was and is not realistic, but it wasn’t meant to be realistic for this time, for this place; for me, it was meant to be idealistic for a future we want for all of our girls, in the hood and in the suburbs, and in every patch of earth in the world. A world where we can walk naked, and vulnerable; and still be safe, and still be free.