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SlutWalk Comes to Milwaukee

Jun. 16, 2011
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You may have heard about the SlutWalk movement, which has gone global since its inception in Toronto earlier this year. Organized by a small group of people in response to a Toronto police officer's comment in January that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized," the primary purpose of the walk is to call attention to the victim-blaming that often accompanies reports of sexual assault.

Since SlutWalk Toronto took place in April, satellite SlutWalks have happened in 40 cities around the world, with 39 more planned. These satellite SlutWalks spring up because dedicated groups of volunteers in each city independently work to organize a walk in their location. Here in Milwaukee, Michele Stander-Reimer has taken the lead in planning our own SlutWalk, scheduled for Aug. 13 in Humboldt Park in Bay View. Michele and I talked about why she's planning SlutWalk Milwaukee, what she thinks about the media and blogger reaction to SlutWalk, and how interested folks can get involved.

Laura: Why do you think it's important to have a SlutWalk in Milwaukee? How did you get involved, and what has been the response from the Milwaukee community?

: Victim-blaming related to sexual assault [is] really global, which is why you see SlutWalks appearing in areas all over the U.S. (as well as internationally in] Cape Town, Berlin, London and Sydney. However, there are always local dynamics and local support systems that shape the outcomes for how sexual assault is understood, what prevention systems are in place and how survivors are supported at the community level.

In 2009, there were 453 reports of sexual assault in Milwaukee alone; however, following many of the well-documented studies on sexual assault in the U.S., we know that about 60% of the people that experience a sexual assault do not report it. This represents a serious problem for Milwaukee, one in terms of the sheer number of assaults we experience as a community each year, and another in terms of the resources available to those who have been sexually assaulted. Right now, wonderful organizations like the Healing Center [http://www.thehealingcenter.org/] and Pathfinders [http://pathfindersmke.org/] do amazing work with survivors of sexual assault. [But] the Healing Center resources are so strained that it would take a survivor 10 weeks to get in. We are looking at a proposed budget cut of $396,000 from the state for sexual assault organizations, which will make it harder for services like these to continue. Issues like this, in conjunction with a need for increased sexual assault training for law enforcement, poor outcomes for dealing with sexual assault at some universities and representations of "deservingness" for sex workers within the media, have promoted some serious problems in how we engage survivors of sexual assault and how they view themselves and begin healing.

Milwaukee is also ideal because it has so many good points, too. Very good work with sexual assault victims is being done through our Sensitive Crimes Division, university resources like UWM's Women's Resource Center, who are fantastic advocates, and the amazing advocates within the city that simply need social and fiscal resources to really make a difference. I feel like Milwaukee is a place with some problems, but it is also a place with a lot of potential and a community that can really make a difference if given the opportunity.

There might be some out there that wonder: How do those issues relate to victim-shaming, and why in the world do you need to call this initiative "SlutWalk"? As a society, we overwhelmingly do not believe survivors of sexual assault when they report, [and] we are more likely to call them "sluts" than offer them help. This shapes outcomes for how we vote, outcomes for how important we think resources for sexual assault are—it even shapes outcomes for how likely you are to believe that those numbers of annual sexual assaults are real. "Slut" and words like it, words that shame, dehumanize and isolate their victims as "others," do a lot of harm. As a society, we tend to think that sexual assault is bad, but shouldn't the victim have been responsible enough, chaste enough, to prevent it?

People's lack of belief about sexual assault, and their crude lack of support to survivors, is why I got involved in SlutWalk Milwaukee. I work as an instructor in anthropology and sociology at a number of local colleges. Every semester we talk about sexual assault in the U.S. Every semester, someone, usually a girl, raises her hand and says, "But what about ALL the women who lie about it?" Then the class nods their head, as though they know "that's the truth." Well, here are two truths: Truth one is that counting both reported and non-reported sexual assaults, only about 3% are considered false reports; truth two, 1 in 4 women and 1 out of 6 men are sexually assaulted before 18, and have most likely not reported, most likely blamed themselves in some way for their assault, and have, perhaps, been directly blamed by others. Think about what that means for the potential number of survivors in a college classroom—survivors who have to hear their classmates make statements essentially calling them liars without ever hearing their story. How often does that happen outside the classroom? How often on TV, in movies, in newspaper articles and in casual conversation? How often do we shame victims to their face without even knowing it?

That was one reason why I became involved in SlutWalk. The other was due to experiences with working with young survivors. I used to work with a group of teenagers as an academic counselor. The youth, after some time, felt comfortable enough with me to discuss issues of sexual assault. Many who had been victimized were confused about it. They wondered what they did to "earn" it, and they had a hard time categorizing other girls who were assaulted because the idea that only "sluts" get raped was still so emotionally pervasive they had a hard time being supportive. The worst instance was when a girl, who had just been assaulted, confided in me [and] I took her to an urgent care, not only to find out after some time waiting that the place we were at didn't have resources for her, but to also have the nurse vocally state she didn't think the girl was assaulted because she wasn't distraught enough for her. When we finally sat down and began to talk about it, she cried and begged me for forgiveness. She wanted me to forgive her for going on a date and then getting raped, and felt like she needed to convince me that she wasn't a "slut," using that word specifically. When our society has convinced a 15-year-old that she needs to ask forgiveness for being raped, that she needs to convince those who care for her that she didn't "earn" the rape through "slutty" behavior, you know that something needs to change. SlutWalk Milwaukee is about seeing that change happen.

: Since the original SlutWalk in Toronto, there has been a lot of public debate about whether the word "slut" can actually be reclaimed and whether the walks are inclusive of people of color. What's your take on these issues? Do you plan to address them in any particular way here?

: There has been a lot of debate about "reclaiming slut." Initially, I was on board with it. In fact, I began this movement with the slogan, "When we are all one, no one is," as a way to illuminate that by owning "slut" as a collective we can prevent "slut" from isolating other women as "those kinds of women" that "deserve" to be assaulted. I found a good number of survivors take empowerment from that kind of messaging. However, working with sexual assault advocacy groups, I also became aware of many survivors who had voiced their concern that claiming "slut" was damaging to them. [Since then], we have changed our approach. We are still marching under the SlutWalk banner, because the most important role of SlutWalk Milwaukee was, and is, illuminating the pervasive power of victim-labeling and slut-shaming. Our intention [now] is to illuminate the problems associated with "slut" and deflate its power. How participants want to engage with "slut" is fully up to them. Many may want to lay claim to it, own it in a way that allows them to take control, and others may find control over their healing and control over "slut" by abandoning or shredding it. We are advocating to engage the public in a dialogue that states: No is deserving of sexual assault, PERIOD. No buts about her or his clothing, their sexual history, their occupation, anything.

There has also been a great amount of debate as to whether the walks are racially inclusive. These issues will change from city to city, based on the individual work of various organizers, but I think there is definitely room for criticism there. That being said, I don't think the exclusion of people of color was intentional, nor is this issue individual to SlutWalks, but a reflection of the pervasive nature of racial segregation that continually promotes a lack of, and/or reduced services for, people of color on a national scale. While I think this is true, it's also not an excuse. In Milwaukee, so much of what we're doing is about illuminating how victim-blaming leads to a lack of support for survivors. If we were to not engage all of Milwaukee's communities as we work toward this, then we are essentially saying that it's very bad to engage in victim-blaming for some people, but perhaps permissible among those excluded groups. Such a message would be inexcusable, especially in a city as segregated as Milwaukee is. I think it makes it that much more imperative that we work to engage as many Milwaukeeans as we can in this effort, where we can collectively state NO ONE deserves to sexually assaulted.

In terms of addressing these issues, I am talking with several organizations that engage people of color within the Milwaukee community. As I am working with those organizations in terms of how they would like to define their role as a partner with SlutWalk Milwaukee, I do not want to name them yet. I would prefer to wait until they have made official decisions about how they would like to participate.

I do want to address the issue of location, though. The rally will be at Humboldt Park in Bay View on Aug. 13. Many have asked: If you are trying to engage a diverse population, why Humboldt Park, which is in a predominantly white area of Milwaukee? That's a fair question. The answer is: timing and venue resources. We feel that a rally with speakers who can engage the audience about issues relating to sexual assault, victim-shaming and how they can get involved was pertinent, so we needed a stage. We started SlutWalk Milwaukee May 1, booked a location two weeks later, and by that time Humboldt Park and Washington Park were the only two staged parks available at all on a Saturday in the summer, and Washington's only available date was mid-July. We felt, for the kind of rally we wanted, we would need an August date, so Humboldt was the only option.

: What can interested people do to get involved?

Michele: A lot of the things that we need for the event, and raising awareness for it, take money—from permits for the park, to printing for fliers, all the way down to the port-o-johns that will need to be rented for the event. There are a few organizations who have volunteered to help us with fund-raising events, which we will be updating everyone [about] via Facebook. If you can help us through a fund-raising initiative or sponsorship of some form, that would be most welcome! Any additional money that we raise will be donated to a local sexual assault advocacy organization in Milwaukee. If you would like to help us in terms of planning for the event itself, spreading the word about the event, or help us set up fund-raisers, please contact us about joining our volunteer committee.

Anyone interested in getting involved should email slutwalkmilwaukee [at] gmail.com. Additionally, "like" us on Facebook [https://www.facebook.com/SlutWalkMilwaukee]!

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to
laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master's degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee's East Side.


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