SlutWalk comes to Chicago, motivating a new generation of feminists

June 3, 2011

(Getty/Scott Barbour)
A participant from SlutWalk Melbourne.

That was then: In September of 1968, women’s history was made, when a group of women protesting outside of the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City threw “instruments of torture” into a trashcan. It was inaccurately reported that the women were lighting the contents on fire, and the label of “bra burners” for feminists stuck.

This is now: “My friend Kristen always says it’s like a thousand paper cuts, you know? It’s these tiny little daily oppressions that really, when you look at them together, add up to a huge thing,” says Jessica Skolnik, the Chief Co-Organizer of SlutWalk Chicago.

Saturday at noon, women (and men) will take to the streets of downtown Chicago to bring awareness to rape culture and the victim blaming that accompanies it, in a walk from the Thompson Center to Daley Plaza.

Like many participants from the women’s movement of the 1970s, these women are young -- as young as teenagers. Chief Co-Organizer of the walk Jamie Keiles is a freshman at the University of Chicago, and her co-organizers Katie Bezrouch and Skolnik, are firmly below middle-aged.

“I think third wave feminism definitely makes a lot of space for dissenting opinions,” says Keiles. “I couldn’t be where I am now as a third wave feminist if there wasn’t second wave feminism, so it’s not a movement I’m trying to reject, I’m just saying it’s a movement that I think was right for the time, and now this is right for the time.”

At this point, the history of the original SlutWalk has become media lore. In January, a Toronto Police officer speaking at a University safety panel announced that believed "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” Canadians reacted in outcry, and SlutWalk was born. However, “SlutWalk was a reaction to not one officer’s remark, but to a history that was doomed to keep repeating,” co-founder Sonya Barnett wrote on the event’s website.

It’s a history that brings with it feminism fraught with controversy. The creators of SlutWalk fully admit that, compared to their second-wave counterparts, SlutWalk and its participants have been mostly shaped by the Internet, and redefined what protest is.

Keiles, Skolnik and Bezrouch all participate in the Internet feminist community -- Keiles’ blog The Seventeen Magazine Project became an online sensation last year when she tried to live according to the magazine for a month – but they haven’t put all their faith in it, and see SlutWalk as a consciousness-raising session for those who might side with their cause but aren’t part of the blog scene. They've also been moved by their own personal experiences

“If there’s a feminist epiphany in my life, that’s it,” Skolnik said, referring to the sexual assault she experienced as a teenager. “I was already headed there, but that’s really the moment where you think, you know what, the system failed me, and then you think about the ways the system fails so many other people, and why it fails in those ways, and who gets served and who doesn’t.”

At its crux, SlutWalk aims to redefine the connection between the sexual morals of women and rape. Ideally, “I would like to see sex entirely removed from the idea of rape,” says Keiles. “It’s a violent crime. I don’t think it should have anything to do with, if you’re a virgin, what you were wearing, if you were drinking. It should have to do with someone committed a violent crime against you, and they should be brought to justice.

Speaking of the judgment many women receive for "asking" for rape with their dress or behavior, there's "a difference between being objectified and owning your sexuality," Skolnik says. "I think there can be some confusion when you’re doing something like…using your sexuality as a tool, or putting up pictures of yourself on the internet just to do it. I think it’s possible to be aware of how you are objectified by other people and still retain control over your own body and your own sexuality."

Though SlutWalk might appear to be a spin-off of its counterparts, the leaders of various branches claim otherwise. Barnett, of SlutWalk Toronto, described the Satellite marches as ones that have “their own initiatives, dealing with their own local issues. We acknowledge they’re building on groundwork laid for them by SWTO, as much as we acknowledge the groundwork by movements before us. Not one movement aims to fit all, nor should it.”

The coordinators of the Chicago SlutWalk agree. Though they admit it would be valuable to meet with other city SlutWalk leaders from around the globe, it’s not something they’re rushing to organize.

“I kind of like the idea that there’s not one big organizational board of the Slutwalk new world order, because I feel like these sorts of issues, while they are universal, dealing with them is specific to time and place, and I think it’s important to have people on the ground in the city organizing it, and not some kind of person in an office somewhere…telling you how you’re supposed to organize your city,” said Keiles.

The Chicago SlutWalk certainly has its own stamp; at the end of the Saturday’s event, participants will gather for a forum about race, class and gender issues within the feminist movement, often criticized from within because of its largely white and cisgendered membership. For Keiles, Skolnik and Bezrouch, it’s the potential of the movement, and not necessarily its message, that holds the most power.

They are also not worried about the number of people who attend – “[I’ll be happy] if ten people show up and we’re all high-fiving and talking about how we’re going to start some sort of education program” says Keiles – and more concerned with community building.

“I think the thing about feminism that personally resonates with me right now is feminism itself,” said Keiles. “The idea of building a movement that is inclusive, and is not sort of this cliquey internet thing, that’s like, hey, you post this on your blog and then we all make fun of how it doesn’t agree with the party line. I think sort-of opening up a dialogue is what I care about right now.”