Slutwalk organizers tackle a “deeply embedded” rape culture

Media and popular stereotypes about sexual assault are still a long way from reality, say organizers.

St. John’s second annual Slutwalk is taking place on Saturday, and organizers are anticipating a strong response, especially in a city that recently witnessed the high-profile trial of serial rapist Sofyan Boalag for raping and sexually assaulting multiple women in the city’s downtown.

While this is only the second year for Slutwalk in St. John’s, it has a unique connection to the now-global movement. Heather Jarvis, one of the local organizing committee members, was a co-founder of the first ever Slutwalk five years ago in Toronto.

“In early 2011, Toronto police officers were speaking at a university campus about safety,” she explains. “A younger officer interrupted his older colleague to say that ‘I think we’re beating about the bush here…women need to stop dressing like sluts.’”

It wasn’t the first time she’d heard that message, she says, and it wouldn’t be the last time.

“I got really angry, and I thought ‘the police need to do f–king better.’ So I got together with a friend, and we said ‘yeah, we would tell them to do better.’”

Five years later, Slutwalk has grown into an international movement, taking place in over 300 cities around the world. The events are all locally organized.

Jarvis has now settled in St. John’s, where she works with the Safe Harbour Outreach Project (S.H.O.P.), an organization that provides support and advocacy for sex workers in St. John’s and surrounding areas. While Slutwalk has always been somewhat controversial, she says there has been strong support locally from media, politicians, police, and the public. But there has been backlash, too.

“There is always backlash. We wouldn’t be having events like Take Back the Night and Slutwalk if we didn’t have to fight back against rape culture. The people who don’t like Slutwalk are people who already believe in forms of victim blaming. They believe if people were out late at night, were dressed in a certain way, they were already partially irresponsible. And we’re working to reach those people.

“There are also people who feel uncomfortable with the language…and that’s okay too. There’s no one way to fight sexual assault. We need a variety of ways.”

Slutwalk originated in densely urban Toronto, but Jarvis says it’s just as important somewhere like St. John’s.

“Across Newfoundland and Labrador, one in two women above the age of 15 will be physically or sexually assaulted in their lifetime,” she observed. “That’s a heartbreaking and absolutely shameful statistic.”

She cited other statistics, provincial and national alike, and all equally shameful.

“There are reasons for these numbers, because so many people still don’t understand rape and sexual assault. And neither does our justice system hold people to account for it.”

Rape culture “deeply embedded”

Dane Woodland is a 25-year old feminist and community activist who is studying sociology at Memorial University. He’ll be one of the speakers at Saturday’s Slutwalk, and is looking forward to the event.

Dane Woodland. Submitted photo.
Dane Woodland. Submitted photo.

“There’s always more room to be learning about rape culture,” he said. “I think that going to Slutwalk is a really good opportunity to learn, and to connect, and hopefully to feel safe and to also feel empowered and be allowed to celebrate who you are.”

When he tells people about Slutwalk, it often produces a confused reaction, he says, laughing. But that opens a valuable opportunity to talk about the issues, he notes, and to try to raise people’s awareness about just how widespread sexual violence and rape culture is.

“The big thing is that rape culture’s so deeply embedded. Right from a very young age we’re socialized to think that a behaviour that might be considered inappropriate was something that they didn’t mean that way, or that it should be forgiven or overlooked. For myself—being a trans man—being socialized as a woman and being taught to learn how to protect and prevent rape as opposed to rape being something that people are taught not to do, was definitely an experience that I had.

“[As] a victim and a survivor it’s even more important to me because the way that we portray sexual assault and rape in the media and what actually happens are so different. And the experiences that people have with the judicial system and with their friends and their families and their partners and the perpetrators themselves are so much more complex than what we understand,” Woodland adds.

Seeking justice

Woodland says SlutWalk has been an important aid for him in coming to understand his own experience, but he also hopes it’ll provide an opportunity to help others navigate their experiences with sexual violence. It’s also an important opportunity to educate people on how to support those who come forward. The theme for this year’s Slutwalk is ‘Justice’, and it’s a theme that resonates deeply for him.

“For me, justice really sounds like believing someone and believing the circumstances.”

One of the important challenges, Woodland says, is helping to change the stereotypes society associates with sexual assault.

“The way that we portray it is really misleading us. Even myself, my understanding of an assault was you’re really drunk or you were given roofies or you were beaten to a pulp to the point you can’t remember, or you’re chased until you give up, or something like that. Or the assailant is this dark-hooded figure. That’s how we portray it. And we’re seeing now some of these high profile cases coming out where the [perpetrators] are the college superstar or the media mogul, but we’re still not seeing that these assaults can occur with someone that was your friend. And it can occur somewhere that you might have felt safe.

“I think that is a really big barrier that needs to be broken down. Even just from people I’ve spoken to, I’m certain that there are a number of people who have been assaulted who actually have no idea that they were. They just think that they had an experience where it was their fault that they drank too much, or they had sex that they didn’t enjoy having, or they were touched or approached in a certain way that they didn’t like. But they don’t necessarily understand that by definition some of these actions would fall under the category of assault. I think really just breaking down and driving that point home [is important], that this can happen. It happens within marriages, it happens within relationships, with trusted friends, with family members, the whole nine yards. Getting away from that idea that it’s this dark, scary, hooded figure that sweeps you up in the middle of the night when you’re in a place that you shouldn’t be, wearing what you shouldn’t wear, is really important.”

Woodland is originally from Corner Brook, but moved to St. John’s at the age of 18 to study at Memorial. He points out that the very distinct sense of place that exists in a rural province with a small population is one that often mitigates against recognizing and acknowledging the sorts of violence that exist here. He notes that rural communities often have fewer opportunities for education, fewer opportunities for law enforcement, and ultimately fewer opportunities for justice.

 The reality is that when we are creating environments where the objectification of women is supported we are just reinforcing that culture that it’s okay to treat people like that. — Dane Woodland

“We think of crime and we think of big cities. We have such a small town mentality, even here in the capital city of St. John’s. That mentality in Newfoundland that things like that don’t happen here, I think is really outdated.

“[Education] is important here, it’s important in Corner Brook, but think about somewhere that’s got like 100 people where [sexual assault] could happen and people could be totally powerless. Where you have a small community and everyone knows everyone’s business and all of the sudden a victim is someone who’s kind of an outcast because they spoke up, or because they didn’t speak up. So I think that having a movement here where we start to build consent culture and really have people understand what it means to be assaulted and who can be a victim of assault, I think that’s so important to our province. Because of that lack of understanding of the possibility that crime could occur in a place that we see as being safe and quaint and quiet and for the most part harmless.”

Woodland has witnessed first-hand the ostracism of people who were rejected by their friends when they came forward with experiences of sexual violence. He’s also witnessed people pressured by their social groups to not report mutual friends.

“Unless the victim has a really strong circle of support, then that’s the first thing—it’s the blaming, it’s the doubting, and then it’s that separation. Because ‘we don’t want to be associated with this,’ ‘we don’t want this drama,’ ‘we don’t want to be involved with what happens.’ So that person who has gone through something so traumatic is suddenly alienated, left feeling alone and also left wondering what they could have done differently. And what they’re doing wrong at this very point for people to be pushing them away.”

Drinking and downtown culture

This year, Slutwalk will be marching through the downtown core, including George Street. According to Jarvis, it’s part of an effort “to reclaim that space. George Street and heavy bar spaces are often not safe spaces… We’ve seen a lack of support from bar owners and shop owners.”

Woodland has several years of experience working at downtown bars, from bartending to bouncing. He agrees there’s a lot of work to be done.

“I think the culture is a really big issue. The first thing we think of when we think of downtown is rohypnol,” he said, referring to the drug also known as “roofie” or “date rape drug”.

“And that’s not always it…I see quite often customers buying drinks for other people and then if something isn’t reciprocated, then they get angry. Because it’s almost like that drink has been bought on a condition that you’re going to get something in return. I do see that quite often when people are very frustrated that someone might decide ‘I’m going home after this drink,’ and they’re like ‘Well I’ve been buying you drinks all night, what do you mean?’

“I see many times that even a kiss or a handhold or a simple gesture, a physical contact, could be taken to mean this person’s coming home with me tonight. We have this idea that it’s people getting drugged and dragged out of the bars, but it’s not like that at all. There’s tons of people who are just complicit because there’s nothing else that they can do basically except for kind of go along with it, because they’re so drunk or because they’re afraid or because they feel like they have to. Because there is that understanding that, ‘Okay, I’m treating you this way so that means you have to give me this in return.’

“The reality is that when we are creating environments where the objectification of women is supported we are just reinforcing that culture that it’s okay to treat people like that.”

That sort of sexual violence poses challenges for bar staff and patrons alike, Woodland notes.

 I  don’t have to be gay or have something wrong with me to not objectify women. — Dane Woodland

“It’s very frustrating. I have many experiences where I would have male customers saying, ‘Well how much for that?’ and pointing at my female bartender who was on the bar with me. And I would be like, ‘Woah.’ And my reaction to them usually caused them to respond and ask me if I was gay or what was wrong with me, basically. I don’t have to be gay or have something wrong with me to not objectify women. But it seems that that is kind of the environment. Many, many times I’ve had that happen. I’ve even just engaged in conversation with customers who have said, ‘Oh, check out that one’, or ‘What I wouldn’t give to have that one’, or one customer saying to me—it was me on the bar with two other girls, and he said to me: ‘So how many of them are you sleeping with?’ And that was a normal icebreaker kind of conversation to have guy-to-guy,” he recalls.

“It’s hard to know how to behave because there’s that issue of safety. Am I going to open up my mouth and tell you, ‘Hey that was not okay,’ because you might turn around and punch me in the face? So a lot of times you end up keeping your mouth shut and silently observing and saying ‘Woah, this is the sphere that I exist in.’ It is really kind of scary.”

Slutwalk, like last week’s Take Back the Night March and other efforts to tackle gendered and sexualized violence, has a daunting task ahead of it. How does society start tackling deeply systemic forms of rape culture?

“It is tough because it’s so multifaceted,” says Woodland. “I think education would be the first step. Because that understanding of what a victim is, what a survivor is, what a perpetrator is—that understanding [needs to] be carried across the board to the friends who are supposed to be supporting, to the people who could be potential perpetrators, to the people who could be potential victims, to the people making decisions, to the people in the health care system.

“I do think that education is definitely the key, but it does need to be followed by action. And sometimes I think we get so caught up in the educating process that we don’t move beyond that.”

The Second Annual St. John’s SlutWalk begins Saturday, Sept. 24 at 2 p.m. at Harbourside Park and will march to St. John’s City Hall. There will be speakers, a DJ, dancing and more inside city hall in the Foran Room. Visit the Facebook event page for more information.

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