It’s been a year since Toronto’s Heather Jarvis and Sonja J.F. Barnett co-founded the SlutWalk movement, and whatever your feelings about the name, there’s no denying that the marches—now running in more than 200 cities—are a serious feminist force. We caught up with Jarvis before the upcoming May 25 walk to discuss Rush Limbaugh, her love of the c-word, and why wearing a mini skirt has nothing to do with anything.
How much of the march’s name is about shock value and gimmickry?
It honestly wasn’t about that at all. After we started making plans, I think it was one of Sonja’s colleagues who joked, “What are you going to call it, SlutWalk?” She ran it by me, and I said, “Done.” We really felt like he picked the name for us. He threw it at us, so we were throwing it back at him.
By “he,” you mean the Toronto police officer who told York University students that they should avoid dressing like sluts if they don’t want to be assaulted.
Do you think the movement would have taken off in the same way if you had called it something less controversial?
The name is probably what we get criticized for the most, but it’s also what tends to draw people into conversations, which is one of our key objectives. Whether people are for or against the name, it starts a dialogue and makes the conversation relevant and relatable. Most people in the world know what it feels like to be demeaned.
I’m still not totally sold on why we need to reclaim the word slut.
And you don’t have to be. When we started SlutWalk, a lot of it was about reflecting who we are—our politics, our lives, and our experiences. I identify as queer, a word that has gone through a massive re-appropriation. Millions of people now use it in a positive way—there are queer journals, queer studies. That said, the name SlutWalk has never been a prescription. Many people who participate in the walk hate the word and that’s okay.
It just feels like by embracing the word, you are also giving men permission to use it. Men like Rush Limbaugh, for example.
Anybody who thinks that they have permission to use this word to degrade other people has not been listening at all. After the whole Rush Limbaugh thing, I actually heard people say things like, “I don’t get it—last year, it was cool to call women sluts.”
But isn’t that the danger? I mean, a lot of people are idiots and you’re putting this weapon into their hands.
I think language is also about the attitudes of the person on the receiving end. I’ve spoken to a lot of young women who are devastated because they’ve been called words like slut, but the idea is that they can think about this word differently and realize that it says more about the person using it. You know: It sucks, they’re jerks, and I’m fine. The reality is that getting rid of a word like slut isn’t really an option, because there are always going to be other words—tramp, ho, whore, loose—and so many words in different languages, too.
Do you have a least favourite?
I actually love the word cunt. When I was younger, I spent time around older women who used it in a very positive way, so I love it—and I really hate it when the word gets used in a negative way.
Some of the debate surrounding SlutWalk is about rights versus behaving in your own best interest. Like, I have the right to walk home drunk through a park at 3 a.m., but I think I’d be very foolish to do so.
Many people have accused us of doing damage, as if we’re telling people to throw safety out the window. Of course we’re not saying that; we just want to look at the way these conversations about risk management are being handled. For example, clothing is not a factor that contributes to assault, so let’s stop talking about it.
Based on research and countless victim accounts, the amount of clothes you are or are not wearing is not what increases your odds of being assaulted. About 75 per cent of assault victims know the perpetrator. This image of a drunk woman stumbling around in a short skirt is just not accurate the majority of the time.
SlutWalk demonstrations have spread to more than 200 cities worldwide. Is there one march that you were most surprised or excited by?
I’ve been surprised and excited by all of it, but it was pretty amazing when I found out there was going to be a march in Johannesburg, because I was born in South Africa. That was the same week that Sonja found out there was going to be a walk in her family’s hometown in Argentina.
Do you have a favourite protest sign? I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of them.
One of my favourites was from Toronto last year. A woman was dressed up in what was clearly a fake police uniform, and she was holding a sign that said: “Police look like sluts to uniform fetishists.”
Betty Boop or Bettie Page?
I like them both!
Late nights or early mornings?
Coffee or tea?
Beer or wine?
Dirty Dancing or Footloose?
Favourite local politico?
Too many great ones to specifiy, but I do like [The People Project’s] Kim Crosby.
My Tumblr and Twitter feed.