Message Tangled Up In Fishnets?

Some worry SlutWalk's important mission will get lost in the scantily clad outfits

Posted: August 06, 2011

AT FIRST, Julia Ramsey blamed herself after she became a victim of sexual violence at a campus party.

"Then I realized that when you pass out and wake up, you didn't really say yes," Ramsey, now 30, recalled.

"You're not guilty. You're not to blame. Too often, victims of crime blame themselves."

That's why Ramsey will march today in SlutWalk Philadelphia - to help other victims of rape and sexual violence realize that it's not their fault. She'll join hundreds, possibly more than 1,000, starting at Kahn Park at 11th and Pine streets, said organizer Hannah Altman.

Altman, 20, took the reins in organizing Philadelphia's arm of the worldwide movement, which began in Toronto after a police officer said women "should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized."

Yet, despite SlutWalk's widespread following, some are skeptical of whether the movement will be effective. Feminist and author Rebecca Traister, who grew up in Glenside, has some reservations.

"Of course I wanted to love a big protest movement around such an important issue," said Traister, who now lives in New York. "But there are things about it that I do not love."

Traister worried that people won't understand the movement, viewing the fishnets and short skirts worn by some protesters as an affirmation of a perceived lack of seriousness in young feminists.

"It seems less like protest than capitulation to how the world likes its young women in the first place: scantily clothed and sexualized," Traister explained, adding that in light of recent headlines involving rape, issues addressed in the SlutWalk movement are looming large as ever.

"The mission is much greater. I just worry that people will see a bunch of young people dressing in sexy nurse Halloween costumes," she said. "That's my qualm. But I need to get over it."

One of those people is Dan Rottenberg, the editor of Broad Street Review, who ignited Philly's own victim-blaming controversy in June with an editorial about precautions women should take so they don't become victims. Responding to his editorial, for which he has apologized, the play "Dan Rottenberg Is Thinking About R@ping You: An Educational Presentation" was performed at the Plays & Players Theater near Rittenhouse Square.

He said SlutWalk is largely a movement among young people.

"Most women of my generation and even younger have essentially said they think it's nutty for women or teenagers to go out in scantily dressed clothes," Rottenberg said. "I think what you're getting in SlutWalk is a tremendous assertion of their right to basically behave as they want, and that somebody else is to be blamed for whatever happens to them."

Social critic and University of the Arts professor Camille Paglia echoed that sentiment in a statement about London's SlutWalk.

"Sex is a force of nature, not just a social construct," Paglia wrote. "Too many overprotected middle-class girls have a dangerously naive view of the world."

She called the movement's message "confused" and warned: "Honorable men do not rape. But protests and parades cannot create honor."

Rottenberg said he'd be interested to hear what SlutWalkers have to say about their participation in the protest 10 years from now, but added that the movement has started an important conversation.

"It's better that they're taking to the streets instead of just sitting home doing nothing," he said.

As tangible results in terms of legislation or cooperation from police departments go, however, a SlutWalk Toronto organizer said those have been hard to come by.

"The Toronto Police declined to have any representative speak at our walk and did not respond or even acknowledge a single one of our requests," Heather Jarvis wrote in an email. "[But] SlutWalks have been reported to have spurred massive global activism around sexual violence and inequality."

State Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Delaware/Montgomery, one of six speakers participating in SlutWalk Philadelphia, said some politicians are waging a "war against women."

"I have a young daughter and a wife and female friends, and I don't want them to live in a world where people aren't fighting to protect them," Leach said. "I want to let people know at this rally that there are legislators who do care about this issue."

Leach said he's more concerned with stopping bad legislation than pushing new laws around issues addressed in the movement.

"[This is a] political battle that has to be fought, because if it's not fought, crazy people like Rush Limbaugh will prevail," he said.

SaraKay Smullens, 71, a clinical social worker and feminist, may be one of the oldest SlutWalkers to march today. But the grandmother of four, who plans to don slinky black dress and long purple gloves for the walk, said she finds SlutWalk reminiscent of the civil-rights movement, in which she was an active participant during her college years.

"Here are two essential things that are being brought to light," Smullens said. "When a woman is raped, it isn't because she asks for it, and rape has absolutely nothing to do with sexual desire.

"This is the best of America coming forth now, the best of who we are," she continued. "And it's wonderful to watch."

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