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Why SlutWalk matters

By: | September 22, 2016

In 2016 victims of sexual violence still have to live through their trauma in a culture of slut-shaming and victim-blaming.

Michelle Keep
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Hundreds of people marched through the streets of St. John's on June 14, 2015 as part of the city's first annual SlutWalk. Photo by Jenne Nolan.

[Trigger Warning: This article talks in blunt terms about rape and sexual assault, including sexual assault of minors, victim blaming, and slut shaming. Links in this article should be considered under the same trigger warnings.]

I was six when my mother first gave me a book detailing consent. It told me about people who might want to touch me in ways that I wouldn’t want, and that I should say no. It told me that those people might be people I know—family members or friends of my parents–or they might be strangers.

My world changed that day, and I remember it so vividly. A little while later, I got fingerprinted so that if I was ever kidnapped they’d have my fingerprints on file —so that they could hopefully get me back home, or maybe identify my body.

After all, I grew up in Ontario when the Scarborough Rapist — now known to be Paul Bernardo — was attacking young women in the streets.

I can’t remember how old I was when a boy I was playing with grabbed my crotch, but I remember for the first time — and not the last — how I reacted. I froze. I couldn’t say anything. My body felt paralyzed, and my mind just stopped.

I was probably only 10 or so, but I’d been taught about consent, I’d been taught I could say no, but I didn’t say anything.

I blamed myself. I was so ashamed, and I never told anyone, because I thought the longer I held onto the secret, the more responsible I was. No one would understand why I hid it, or why I was ashamed, if I didn’t do something wrong.

When I was 13, I was sitting in math class next to my boyfriend. I was wearing white coveralls and a fuchsia sweater with a cat on it when he reached towards my body and put his hand under my shirt and fondled my breasts. I froze, again. I was too terrified of drawing attention to myself and of what was happening. Everyone would know what I’d done! They’d realize what a slut I was!

I didn’t say anything, and later he told the entire class anyways, and insulted my body while doing it. That was the first time I was called a whore.

Not the last.

I was 14 when the 19-year-old on the bus reached up under my pant leg, feeling to see if I shaved. He complimented me that I did — I shaved my legs while watching Sailor Moon every single morning since I was 10, when I heard a boy make fun of another girl’s hairy legs. Not long after, he fingered me on the bus.

Again, I froze.

Again, I didn’t want to draw attention to what was happening.

Again, I blamed myself.

At 16 I had what I’d call one of my first consensual sexual experiences, and I felt so detached from my body, as if I had no control over it at all. I liked the boy so much, and he liked me, but the next morning everyone was calling me a whore again, and he didn’t speak to me. For the rest of my high school life, I was the whore — the virgin whore, I used to joke to my friends.

This is why SlutWalk — an international movement against victim-blaming, slut-shaming and sexual violence — matters.  Because it’s not just about one person’s actions, like that of the police officer, who instigated SlutWalk.

It’s a culture of no-means-no instead of yes-means-yes. It’s using fear and manipulation to get what you want, because you think if you ask, you won’t get it. It’s the fact that because I reacted to a new situation by freezing up, I blamed myself. I read a book when I was six, and I expected that that would be enough to protect myself, but it wasn’t.

In intense training programs like the military, they tell you that in order to react in a certain way under duress, you must practice until it becomes automatic, because your mind will shut off. It has to be instinct.

And for me, a meek and shy girl who never wanted to draw attention to herself and never spoke up for herself, my instinct was to will myself into the ground.

I wish I could say I’m different now. I am an older and wiser individual, with more experience and confidence. I’m no longer a soft and lost girl, no longer a person with self-esteem that’s been run into the dirt. I’m successful, I’m a professional.

 These cultural beliefs of slut-shaming are so deeply ingrained in myself that even now, it’s my first thought…

And I still freeze up.

When I was being sexually harassed at work, the first thing I said to my husband was: I don’t understand. I was wearing my big, frumpy sweater and a loose pair of slacks.

These cultural beliefs of slut-shaming are so deeply ingrained in myself that even now, it’s my first thought: What was I wearing? What was I doing? Why did I deserve this?

The criminal justice system isn’t made for people like me. In fact, the criminal justice system isn’t made for rape victims at all. It wasn’t until the 1980s that it became illegal to rape your spouse, and in the 30 years since there hasn’t been a lot of changes to how we handle those cases.

If you accuse someone without any physical markings of abuse or violence, it instantly becomes your word against your perpetrator’s, and your words are going to be used against you. If you can’t remember what the attacker was wearing, or if he punched or slapped you, or how many times you said no, you’re at a further disadvantage. Men who experience sexual assault by a woman are almost unheard of in the criminal justice system.

Statistically, 90 percent of rapes go unreported. The conviction rate of the 10 percent that are reported is one in four. A part of that is the huge burden of proof that is often missing in rape cases, and another part is the often abusive questioning that victims must navigate with very little legal or peer support.

Our criminal justice system requires evidence beyond a reasonable doubt because, when you’re taking away years of someone’s life with a criminal conviction, the heavy burden of proof is what helps us not convict innocent individuals.

But most victims don’t necessarily want their abuser to go to jail. They want their rapist not to be able to rape others. They want their rapist to receive counselling and training and support so that they won’t hurt anyone else.

And they want, for themselves, safety, security and support. They need to feel validated and receive the therapy and help they need to move on with their life.

Our criminal justice system isn’t providing that.

“A powerful movement”

I can tell you the clothes I was wearing when I was touched without consent, because I knew, even as a young girl, that those things would be used against me. My tearaway track pants and overalls made my body too accessible. I wore makeup that day. I shaved my legs. I must’ve wanted it.

And this is why SlutWalk matters, and why it’s resonated with people all across the world, because they’ve been tallying up what they’ve been wearing too. They’ve been thinking about all the times they consented to sex and thought twice about reporting being raped because they know they have enough notches on the bed post that it’ll be used against them in a criminal court of law.

SlutWalk matters because it recognizes that everyone — all genders, all sexual orientations, all ages, all people — are victims of body shaming, of slut shaming, of sexual violence. It’s a movement that says that no matter what you wear, no matter how you present yourself, you don’t deserve to be violated by another person.

SlutWalk matters because sexual violence, and justice, looks different for every survivor, every time. There are no perfect victims with a perfect past, and victims come from every background imaginable. Some victims, though, are deemed more credible based on their past behaviour and clothing, and that is a big problem with rape culture (a way of explaining how rape is normalized and excused, such as saying that if a woman is dressed provocatively, she was ‘asking for it’.)

Our culture has us hoping that our rapist isn’t a town hero, or someone with a bright future, because then it’ll be our fault. He’ll be the Stanford Swimmer, and we’ll be the accuser or victim.

It’s why some people pray for their rapist to seriously physically hurt them so that they have some tangible proof to say, “See? This happened. I’m not lying. I’m not making it up.”

It’s because my youth is not strange or abnormal but disgustingly common. It’s because those little things on their own seem so small, but made such a big impact on me. I don’t even know if the boys knew what they were doing is wrong. Did they take my freezing up as acceptance? Did they grow up believing that if you want something, you must take it?

Rapists often don’t think of themselves as rapists. They think of themselves as misunderstood, or simply parrot back the things that police all around the world believe: if a person behaves in a certain way, or dresses in a certain way, or has certain past experiences, they deserve it. They want it.

SlutWalk is a powerful movement that says: no we don’t.

SlutWalk is a powerful movement that says: biases in the criminal justice system are further victimizing and traumatizing people.

SlutWalk is a powerful movement that says: being raped is not your fault.

SlutWalk is an amazing, and complicated, and messy, and powerful movement that says: no matter who you are, no matter how you dress, no matter your gender or sexual orientation or religion or job or criminal history or sexual history or ability, no matter what — you are a person of value.

No one asks to be raped or sexually assaulted.

No one.

The St. John’s SlutWalk will take place Saturday, Sept. 24 at 2 p.m. at Harbourside Park. We will then walk to City Hall, where there will be speakers, a DJ and dancing. For more information check out the Facebook event page. The event is open to all genders and all ages, and will be physically accessible. There will unfortunately not be ASL interpretation available.

Michelle Keep is an eternal optimist, believes humanity deserves better, and hopes to have a small hand in helping improve the lives of the working poor and marginalized people. A Jill-of-all-trades, she’s written well over 2 million fictional words, runs a small publishing empire with her husband, and takes beautiful photos in her spare time.

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