At some point in life, we all learn that the saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is utter bull. In fact, verbal abuse goes hand in hand with physical violence—as graphics like this illustrate, language is an instrument that normalizes rape culture.
In response, activists and marginalized communities of all kinds have reclaimed and redefined words used against them as weapons of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Examples include words that have been historically pejorative, like “dyke,” “bitch,” “queer,” and the n-word.
One word in particular has set off a global movement dedicated to end victim-blaming. Slutwalk was born in 2011, after a Toronto policeman made the following statement during a speech at Osgoode Hall Law School: “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this—however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”
The audience—which quickly became global—reacted with outrage to the constable’s misogynist remarks. Organizers in Toronto took the opportunity to organize a protest that focused on educating the public about rape cultures and the various ways it’s maintained through language. Protesters showed up wearing everything from winter coats to underwear and fishnets, calling attention to the fact that no matter what a person wears, they are never to blame for violence committed against them.
Six years later, the Slutwalk movement has spread across the United States and beyond. Slutwalk events have been held everywhere from Argentina to Australia, from South Korea to the Czech Republic. One of the most famous events in the U.S. is Amber Rose’s annual Slutwalk in L.A., which brings in a variety of celebrity guests every year.
Although Slutwalk has grown into a powerful tool for women across the world to reclaim misogynist labels, it’s not perfect. Following the original Slutwalk in 2011, a variety of women, organizations, artists, and activists signed “An Open Letter from Black Women to Slutwalk Organizers.” The letter draws attention to the white-centered nature of Slutwalk. It reads:
“As Black women, we do not have the privilege or the space to call ourselves “slut” without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the Black woman is…We ask that SlutWalk take critical steps to become cognizant of the histories of people of color and engage women of color in ways that respect culture, language and context.”
While Slutwalk has succeeded in raising consciousness about the language of rape culture, it’s clear that activists must continue to recalibrate the way these events are able to include a diversity of experiences. If a movement doesn’t serve all women, then it doesn’t serve any women at all.