Toronto police constable Michael Sanguinetti thought he was offering the key to rape prevention. “I’m not supposed to say this,” he told a group of students at an Osgoode Hall Law School safety forum on January 24, but to prevent being sexually assaulted, “Avoid dressing like sluts.”
Despite Sanguinetti’s subsequent written apology and promises of further professional training, the victim-blaming gaffe heard round the world sparked a movement that began in Canada but is now sweeping the United States and abroad: SlutWalks.
“We had just had enough,” said Heather Jarvis, who founded SlutWalk Toronto with friend Sonya Barnett. “It isn’t about just one idea or one police officer who practices victim blaming, it’s about changing the system and doing something constructive with anger and frustration.”
While Jarvis, 25, and Barnett, 38, initially expected only 200–300 people to show their support, upwards of 3,000 massed on the streets of Toronto on April 3 — some wearing jeans and a T-shirt; others in outfits more appropriate for a Victoria’s Secret fashion show: thigh-highs, lingerie, stilettos — and marched to police headquarters. Their goal: to shift the paradigm of mainstream rape culture, which they believe focuses on analyzing the behavior of the victim rather than that of the perpetrator.
“The idea that there is some aesthetic that attracts sexual assault or even keeps you safe from sexual assault is inaccurate, ineffective and even dangerous,” said Jarvis. She recalled a sign at the march that read: “It was Christmas day. I was 14 and raped in a stairwell wearing snowshoes and layers. Did I deserve it too?”
Since the movement’s inception, the SlutWalk campaign has gone viral. Facebook groups have been emerging to promote satellite SlutWalks in Europe, Asia, Australia and most major US cities. Asheville, Dallas, Hartford, Boston and Rochester will host SlutWalks between now and May 7.
The ubiquity of a rape culture that attributes sexual assault to a woman’s dress or expression of sexuality (both in the court of law as well as in the court of public opinion) helps explain the movement’s widespread resonance and popularity.
In late February, a Manitoba judge condemned a rape survivor in court for wearing a tube top, no bra, high heels and makeup, which he implied had led to her sexual assault. Justice Robert Dewar called the assailant a “clumsy Don Juan” who had succumbed to “inviting circumstances.”