Knoxville's SlutWalk Organizers Hit a Nerve

When Astrid Dees and Alex Pulsipher decided a few weeks ago to organize a SlutWalk in Knoxville this Friday, they didn't know how quickly word would spread and how enthusiastic the response would be. Modeled on a viral protest movement that started in April in Toronto and has spread to cities around the world, the march would be an assertion of women's (and everyone's) right to be safe from assault and abuse, no matter how they happened to be dressed or present themselves.

But as the "Attending" count on the SlutWalk Knoxville Facebook page rocketed past 150 earlier this week, Dees and Pulsipher realized they might have a problem. What was intended as an informal First Friday event suddenly threatened to overspill downtown sidewalks. "It's gotten a little bigger than we thought it would, and we don't have a permit," Dees says.

So the organizers, both members of a local "arts and healing collective" called Unify, decided to shift gears. They still want anyone interested to gather at 5:30 p.m. Friday in the Krutch Park extension, in whatever garb and carrying whatever signs they please. But the group will then break into smaller clusters of five to 10 people, dispersing through the First Friday crowds and just generally creating a visible presence. In the meantime, Pulsipher and Dees are beginning the formal process of getting permits and insurance for a full-scale SlutWalk later this summer.

"This event just hits a nerve with people," Pulsipher says of the unexpected response, "especially people who have been sexually assaulted. It's kind of all in the name, really—reclaiming that word ‘slut' is a pretty powerful thing to do."

The word is where the SlutWalk movement started, after a Toronto police officer told students at a York University safety forum that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized." The suggestion of victim-blaming sparked outrage that spread through the campus and eventually the city, leading to an organized SlutWalk on April 3. Since then, similar marches have been held from Auckland, New Zealand, to São Paulo, Brazil, and in American cities including Boston, Austin, and Seattle. They have drawn from hundreds to thousands of participants.

Dees, who is a rape survivor herself, happened to be in Chicago on June 4 for that city's SlutWalk. "I posted [online] that I was going to take my 11-year-old self with me to heal," she says, "and it was just the most wonderful, healing experience."

"Slut" itself has unclear origins. There are usages as far back as the 14th century (Chaucer used "sluttish" as an adjective meaning untidy), but it doesn't seem to have acquired its derogatory, gender-specific sense until a few hundred years later. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes, "There is a group of North Sea Germanic words in sl- that mean ‘sloppy,' and also ‘slovenly woman,' and that tend to evolve toward ‘woman of loose morals'," including "slattern" and "slummock." The word's inherent condemnation of women's sexuality has made it a target of feminist critique for decades, producing books like Leora Tanenbaum's Slut! and Jessica Valenti's He's a Stud, She's a Slut. In recent years, a cadre of feminist bloggers have taken aim at what they call "slut-shaming": Any suggestion that a woman who expresses herself sexually deserves either condemnation or, worse, abuse and assault.

But Dees and Pulsipher say the point is not for people to dress or behave in any particular way—SlutWalk crowds typically have a range of men and women, some dressed provocatively, some not. The goal is shift the focus and responsibility from victims to perpetrators, and to rob the word "slut" of its power.

"Really what that word does is shame people for being openly sexual," Pulsipher says. "And that's something we can change."