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By Destiny Birdsong, Donika Ross, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, and Nikki Spigner
On October 2, 2011, in Nashville, Tennessee, hundreds of people gathered for SlutWalk Nashville. Merely one week before this gathering, the Black Women’s Blueprint issued a statement concerning the critique of the SlutWalk movement, and particularly the ways in which the signed writers felt marginalized as black women. The debate, perhaps begun by and at least taken on as early as May, 2011, by TFW’s own Tamura Lomax, took an increasingly disconcerting turn, when it was reported that at the October 1, 2011 New York City Slutwalk, one white protester held up a sign quoting the John Lennon-Yoko Ono lyrics, “Woman is the Nigger of the World.” A group of women friends, our authors, attended SlutWalk Nashville, in the midst of debate, each member with her own expectations for and understanding of the experience.
The SlutWalk for me was very strange. I wasn’t at all sure what I expected the crowd to look like or sound like, but I was surprised to see so many men and people of color and also other queer folk. Surprised but comforted, and then saddened at my surprise. I should say that the SlutWalk Nashville was my first protest and I think I wanted to feel more empowered, like this protest might change something, but as we stood on the corner of West End avenue, with cars full of men honking and waving in a way that did not feel supportive, I wondered what this would change. I did appreciate, though, the emphasis on the responsibility of those who rape and abuse, that the responsibility lies with them, not with their victims.
The way I understand my relationship to this movement is complicated—I read the Latoya Peterson’s post at racialious.com, Crunktastic’s post on the Crunk Feminist Collective, and the open letter from black women posted on Facebook. The thing is, while I understand and support the arguments that these women are making about black women’s relationship to the word slut, as an individual I feel somewhat isolated from the finer terms of the debate. See, as far as I know, no one has ever called me a slut or ho or chickenhead or hoochie or anything to that effect. If anything, I was asexualized as a teen and adult black woman, which is, I think a category left under-discussed when we focus on the hypersexualization of black women. I have spent most of my life feeling like I possessed a body that was invisible. Which is not to say that I wasn’t a victim of sexual abuse (here I am flashing my assault cred). I was sexually abused for years when I was a child. So then, I think, as I thought at the SlutWalk, sometimes (often?) sexual assault, abuse, has little to do with being slurred, with being “sexy,” or uninhibited, or drunk, or slutty, or black, or even being a woman. That maybe the slurs label a kind of vulnerability that is culturally embedded for women, children, LGBTI folks, and people of color. That maybe the word “slut” isn’t really the point. That whatever the term, non-dominant bodies continue to be vulnerable and violated.
Donika, I think it’s interesting that you talk about your feelings of invisibility (both at Slutwalk and elsewhere). I guess my experience at Slutwalk was equally so, albeit for different reasons, and perhaps with different resulting emotions. I woke up pretty late on the day of the walk, and had contemplated staying home because I hadn’t “figured out what to wear” yet. But I felt a little sheepish when I called a friend to ask her about her attire, and she said “You should read up on this event. It’s not all about dressing slutty.” I felt sheepish because she was right; it wasn’t—just as rape is not—about the clothes, even if the clothes themselves are a statement in defiance of some gross generalization about the relationship between attire, sexuality, and culpability. After all, some of us who have survived sexual (or other forms of) assault weren’t wearing the kind of clothes most often deemed “slutty”; and we know, just as our assailants did (and do), that it was never about what we wore, or what we said, or what we did—it is most often about control, or the need to legitimize one’s power through the disempowerment of others. The friend pointed out that some women who participate in Slutwalk wear the clothes (or clothes that resemble) what they were wearing on the night of their assault.
As I was getting dressed, I thought about my own experience, one that I had, perhaps up until a few days before (and quite hypocritically), not classified as assault because it happened in my house, on my couch, and was, therefore, somehow my fault. I was wearing a T-shirt and a pair of cherry-printed pajama bottoms, and while the choice of fruit might sound suggestive, believe me, the pants—hot pink, high-waisted, and highwater—are not. Since I didn’t want to wear them I decided to wear something completely opposite of what I had originally envisioned: a tank top, jeans, sneakers, and a hoodie. Not my experiential outfit, mind you, but one similar to that worn by a teenage girl who was carjacked and raped only after the robbers discovered that she was a “chick.” In the case of this girl (who I’ll call Renee), she was both not visible and invisible: her gender was not immediately apparent, and when it was, the rape became an afterthought of the first crime, which suggests to me that it had very little to do with her so much as it had to do with her attackers’ need to control, terrorize, and steal something not rightfully theirs. Her identity as a woman was invisible until it became valuable to those who had originally sought control over her un-gendered (or perhaps misgendered) body. In honor of Renee, I left home feeling inconspicuous and enjoying it. I felt like I should enjoy the right to be visible or invisible, gendered or un-gendered—controlled by neither the need to be identified (via attire) as a sexed being nor the need to contradict the notion that attire is a woman’s way of advertising her gender, sexuality, or her intent to defy chauvinistic anti-rape edicts.
For me, Slutwalk was also, both personally and collectively, an in-visible experience. I didn’t talk about my feelings during the event to my friends, and my group of friends were simply one of many groups of women who came and demonstrated together without (at least where I was standing) real engagement with people outside those they knew. I think I most enjoyed the right to just walk, talk with my friends, and think about my feelings toward my experience, my assailant, and my need to somehow shoulder blame for my victimization. I wonder if the recent debates over term appropriation are most important, not for their (rightfully necessary) call to educate or enlighten those who feel that words like “slut”, “woman,” and “nigger” carry the same cultural weight in our global lexicon, so much as they are about reminding all of us who participate in collective experiences like Slutwalk to remain committed to maintaining a space where everyone feels safe enough to process their feelings and experiences about sexual, physical, emotional, lexical, and other forms of violence.
As it is for Donika and Destiny, the way I’m still trying to understand my involvement in this movement is complicated. I approached the Slutwalk with fourfold concern: did I belong there as a woman who is unsure whether harmful words like “slut,” or “The N word” can be appropriated? Did I belong there as someone who has never, knowingly, been called a slut but who has indeed (hypocritically) called someone else that term? Did I belong there as someone who has no assault cred? Did secondary –school bullying akin to that in Never Been Kissed, The Breakfast Club, or any other teen movie set in or filmed during the ‘80s count?
My concerns were, it turned out, fully valid and fully validated. I was late to the Slutwalk, so I tagged behind the large crowd of protestors who were making their way towards the Centennial Park Pavilion. I was literally at the back and the periphery of the group. Yet, I felt a part of the group and assured that my decision to participate was right when I heard a disturbing conversation taking place behind me. Three older white men stood off to the side of a local restaurant that borders the park. In response to the colorful signs and chanting that had already begun—but really, there’s no explanation for this—one of these men yelled, “Are you sure you don’t ‘want it,’ girl in the back?” I was the girl in the back. I was wearing a long flannel shirt and leggings—my hands, neck, and ankles really the only visible skin in this outfit. I was not, for once, wearing a costume, nor was I dressed as whatever my conception of a slut may be. It didn’t mater. These [need terrible name for terrible men] questioned my belongingness to the Slutwalk, my belongingness to the group called “women,” and my belongingness to humanity in ways that derived themselves not from anything I did or didn’t do, but from a tangled mesh of sexual, political, and racial, gender, and power constructs. In spite of my anger and confusion, I knew instantly that my participation in the protest was necessary.
But I still didn’t “belong.” The men’s lexical abuse, as Destiny so eloquently labeled it, was only the most vocal and violent of the other ways that my presence was questioned that day. Even though my friends and I stood, marched, and yelled with the crowd, more than one person from that crowd asked if we were “actually at the Slutwalk.” Our bodies were read for various reasons as peripheral, off to the side, or separate from the others there. I’m still processing whether or not this is my fault.
I felt somewhat isolated, too, Destiny. I felt as if the event was desperately trying to bring together, as a community, a group of people whose pain generally lives in the private world. Sexual violence, as well all know, is closeted and closeting. Groups of people exposing themselves, some physically through “slutty” attire, some through signs that said things as moving and shocking as “I was 4 years old and wearing overalls and tennis shoes…”; “I’m not a Zombie, but I Felt like One After”; “No One Asked What My Rapist Was Wearing.” Others expressed and experienced by simply being there. People talked in almost hushed voices. The speeches did not cause a din of shouts. We were behind the McDonalds and in a corner of Centennial Park. All of these things felt necessary, because to be there for so many already meant vulnerability and revisiting the most vulnerable moments in our lives.
And, so, I desperately want to steel myself from this experience by fighting a fight about race (funny how class, again, hasn’t really shown up—because, I wonder, what do we think the class is of women who face sexual violence). But in my heart—that place which still houses the monsters made of my living room couch (mine too, Destiny), my childhood bedroom, the back of the school bus, my fourth grade classroom, my own bed—I know that to find the many reasons why I was not a part of SlutWalk or should not be is another way for me to avoid and distance myself from the ways in which I, certainly, belonged right there. I feel that the nature of this protest, alone, makes it hard to feel like a cohesive group. We are used to holding our pain, alone. Seventy years ago, Simone de Beauvoir pointed out that “women” do not formulate a single community, for how can “we,” one half of the population on Earth see ourselves as “one”? The struggles against SlutWalk highlight, for me, that very point. We will always have differences. But, we must consider our motivations for staying (more) safely in our differences. More, what of the black man who told our group that he was sexually abused? What of his experience and vulnerability and voluntary exposure that was met by our own silence and discomfort and lack of even language for his history?
I have been having a difficult time with the direction of the broader conversation about SlutWalks, the discussion about racism and feminism, about the failure of SlutWalk to be an inclusive space for women and people of color, about the reclamation of the word “slut.” My difficulties lie, not in the truth of these statements—I feel like we could talk about failure forever—but in the way these arguments move us away from the reason for the SlutWalks: women and girls and men and boys are being sexually violated and instead of being outraged at the violation, we’re told it’s our fault. That we are somehow complicit in our own harm. That we need to manage our shame and “responsibility.” That instead of telling rapists and child molesters, men and women, not to rape, we tell people not to get raped. I agree with Nikki and Destiny that just because so many women and men have been sexually assaulted and violated does not mean we know how to talk to each other about it. We don’t have language for this, perhaps because each violation feels so private, so unique, so awful, or not as bad as it could have been. Who could understand? I wonder if there is a cultural assumption that rape is inevitable. Is there an assumption that all we can do is try not become a target. I wonder if those of us at this SlutWalk were unable to really come together because the thing we were protesting was so diffused, so personal, yet so inherent in our culture. I mean, rapists and sexual offenders are not concrete abstractions like banks or Wall Street or politics. They are our fathers and mothers, our friends and babysitters, siblings and strangers. How do we protest them?
We make assumptions about who gets raped, who gets molested, who gets assaulted. And we make assumptions about who does the raping and molesting and assaulting, which means that men, like the man Nikki mentioned, have no space in this conversation as fellow survivors. They are only allies or potential attackers. And just as we have learned to unsee men and boys as vulnerable to sexual assault, we have learned to ask survivors, “What did you do? What were you wearing?” To distrust those who have been violated. But why? Are we incapable of unlearning these responses?
I share Donika’s concerns about our distrust for those who have been violated, but I am, in some ways, implicated among the distrustful. It’s not hat I’m specifically distrustful of male or female victims of sexual abuse. I may have used the word “slut,” but I’ve never blamed survivors. I have great empathy for all kinds of victims of sexual abuse. Particularly since there are so many survivors—both male and female—in my extended family, I live under the generational pall of many people’s experiences. Yet, the SlutWalk forced me to confront some of my assumptions about men and to begin a process of unlearning some of my own responses. While I’m well aware that they are often the victims, not just the perpetrators of sexual abuse, I still tend to view them more in terms of victimizer than victim. When the two male protesters at the SlutWalk shared their stories with me, I listened with great sadness—and suspicion. I wondered if they had an ulterior motive. I wondered why one of them insisted on walking so close to me. I wondered why he didn’t eventually go somewhere else or choose another group to chat with. I joked, to Destiny, that by expressing their vulnerability, these men could take advantage of the opportunity and hit on women at the walk. I realize now that in my suspicion I minimized the legitimacy and significance of their participation, of their part in the conversation. Even while I felt that a limited purview of belongingness—other peoples’ and my own—minimized the justification for my participation in the walk, I also made assumptions about who did and didn’t belong.
Both Donika and Nafissa’s responses make me think about personal concepts of culpability, which is a pitfall for both men and women. Ironically, the “distrust” of the victim that Nafissa describes is not just projected, but is also—more often than not—internalized. I think that, if I thought really hard, I could probably identify other encounters I’ve had with men—and women—that were assaults overlooked by me because I chalked up the experience to my own stupidity, or coquettishness, or whatever. (I don’t want to name any more because they’re excuses that shouldn’t exist in the first place.) It’s actually easier sometimes to blame yourself.
What I mean is that we need dialogue, but where do we begin: with guilty victims or accusatory outsiders? And what about abused men? Unlike the men we met at Slutwalk, there are so many others who speak of their abuse all the time, but don’t know it because they call it something else. I have been in several conversations with men who were seduced at young ages (I’ve heard 12, 10, 8), but who conceptualize those violations as voluntary acts. Some of them even call them their first sexual experiences, their definitive “loss of virginity” stories. I wish these men could understand that their experiences were not sex, but sexual abuse; especially since they were unexpected or unsolicited (and even if they had been, the age of most of them at the time prevented them from giving anything even close to consent). But re-thinking those experiences would mean those men would also have to unlearn the things that they’ve been taught to believe about themselves—or about the men they should be: virile, desirable, invulnerable.
Our current conversations about violence and abuse suffer from the fiction of binaries: the belief that, in cases of abuse, someone has to be the victim and someone has to be the assailant. However, like most dialogues, people have taken sides and determined the guilt and innocence of others without really thinking about the implications—in the same way we do in most other parts of our lives. In the same way we often do to ourselves.
Destiny Birdsong currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she earned an M.F.A. in poetry and is now a Ph.D. student in English at Vanderbilt University. Her poems have appeared in Southern Women’s Review, Torch: Poetry, Prose and Short Stories by African American Women, Georgetown Review, and Tabula Rasa: A Journal of Medical Humanities.
Donika Ross received her M.F.A. from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a Cave Canem Fellow and a former fellow of the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review,TORCH, Indiana Review, Quarterly West, and Best New Poets 2007. She is currently pursuing her PhD in English at Vanderbilt University and is the Poetry Consultant for The Feminist Wire.
Nafissa Thompson-Spires earned her Ph.D. in English from Vanderbilt University. She is the author of several articles exploring the relationship between cultural identity, racial politics and representation in United States and Canadian youth television, including the forthcoming “Tolerated, But Not Preferred: Troubling the Unconscious of Televisual Multiculturalism” (American Review of Canadian Studies, September 2011). Her current projects include a study of teaching singular voice in HBCU composition courses, forthcoming short stories on black identity and a middle-grade novel. She is an instructor of English Tennessee State University.
Nicole A. Spigner is a Ph.D. student in Vanderbilt University’s English program. She received her M.A. and B.A. in English from University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include the intersections of 19th Century African American and Caribbean literature and classical Greek and Roman texts, depictions of conjure women in 19th and 20th Century African American and Caribbean Literature, as well as black feminist theory, New World syncretic religions, Vedic philosophy and African Diasporic folklore.