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Slutwalk today aims to smash stereotypes amid controversy surrounding the march

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In a sea of marching people, camera lenses seek and find the snapshots of women decked out in revealing costumes, their flesh painted with words of defiance.

For six months, these images have played the starring role in Slutwalk, a global movement protesting sexual violence. Despite the brisk October day, they may star again this afternoon, as hundreds march through downtown Winnipeg for the city's own edition of the march.

As saucy as some of the outfits are, they are not necessarily the norm. In the background of Slutwalk's most famous photos, just out of focus, the majority of marchers walk in jeans and sweaters or just... whatever.

Critics call this milieu "the pornification of protest." Admirers call it the most exciting feminist movement in decades. Maybe both are right; maybe neither are. "The event itself is a polarizing thing," said Gaz Black, a father, paramedic and one of the organizers of Slutwalk Winnipeg.

"Either you're really for it or really against it. Those that aren't sure seem to be sitting back, listening and thinking, which is a good thing. But there is a concern it could be seen as an attention-grabbing spectacle, rather than a movement."

And all these flames were fanned by a one-syllable weapon of a word.

-- -- --

"Slut" slipped into the English language about 600 years ago, falling first from the lips of people for whom it meant a woman (or occasionally a man) who was "sloppy" or "unkempt." Before that, the word's history is blurry; after, it sharpens into razor focus.

The dictionary definition: "A promiscuous woman; especially: PROSTITUTE."

One definition: "Two words: Paris Hilton."

So the word was well-established on Jan. 24, 2011, when Toronto police officer Const. Michael Sanguinetti told a group of York University students not to "dress like sluts" in order to protect themselves from rape. "I've been told I shouldn't say this," he said, before uttering the phrase that launched a global backlash.

Weeks later, on a bleak Sunday in April, thousands marched through downtown Toronto to the headquarters of the Toronto police. In a flash of fury over Sanguinetti's comment, organizers called the protest Slutwalk, and punctuated it with a bold and simple slogan.

"Because we've had enough."

They weren't alone. By summer's end, Slutwalk was a global phenomenon and, as American feminist author Jessica Valenti put it, "the most successful feminist action of the past 20 years." Since April, tens of thousands of women and men have marched under its banner, demanding an end to rape and an end to women being blamed for being raped. There have been Slutwalks in Mumbai, in London, in Melbourne and Mexico City, where the event was known as Marcha de las Putas.

And then Nila Cottrell found out about it, and Slutwalk came to Winnipeg.

-- -- --

Like many Slutwalk organizers across the world, Cottrell, 22, had never organized a feminist action before. But after two explosive headlines -- Sanguinetti and the "clumsy Don Juan" comments of Manitoba Justice Robert Dewar in January as he described a man convicted of rape -- she felt she had to act.

After all, she too lives in a world where one in four Canadian women will be sexually assaulted in her life, many as children, many more than once. Most will never report their rapes to police, largely fearing they will not be believed. Sanguinetti's comments certainly didn't improve that perception.

But the movement that exploded out of Toronto, Cottrell hoped, could push those issues into the spotlight. "We should be outraged enough to start our own Slutwalk," said Cottrell, a University of Winnipeg student. "It's creating room to talk about victim-blaming and sexual assault. It's hard for a lot of people to talk about it and hard for a lot of people to hear about it."

In August, Cottrell started a Slutwalk Winnipeg Facebook page, hoping others would join in. They did. By early October, more than 2,500 people had signed up in support of the event. But in taking up the Slutwalk brand, Cottrell and fellow organizers inherited a lightning rod.

"We worked so hard to try and get rid of that word," one longtime Winnipeg feminist organizer said, with a sigh. "Now they want to bring it back?"

Maybe, maybe not. While the original Toronto Slutwalk aimed to reclaim the word "slut," and some marchers may feel the same, scholars doubt the word can be salvaged. Cottrell herself isn't convinced that anything can take the sting out of the word "slut."

Instead, she sees the Slutwalk banner as a rallying cry. "Whenever someone says 'slut,' they always mean 'someone who's not like me,' " she said. "The 'slut' is The Other. But we're making a movement of solidarity. We're saying, if you call her a slut, then you're calling all women one."

But when it comes to the risks of being called a "slut," the stakes for women are not equal. This debate, too, has raged on as Slutwalks picked up speed: In Winnipeg, the grassroots group FemRev took a vocal stand.

"While Slutwalk focuses on issues of the privileged few, many others are fighting for the right not to be reduced to their sexuality... (and) to be protected from harm while working in the sex trade," the group wrote in a recent issue of The Uniter, the U of W campus newspaper. "Many are too focused on searching for their missing or murdered mothers and sisters or nursing community wounds of police brutality, to fight for their right to be called a 'slut.' "

If there's a point to be made by the outfits, organizers say, it's that clothes (or lack thereof) are beside the point: There is scant evidence that what women wear or where they walk have a meaningful impact on their likelihood of being assaulted.

In fact, the large majority of rape survivors know their attackers; women are more likely to be raped in their own homes than anywhere else; most rapists cannot remember what their victims were wearing. And yet, rape-prevention tips almost always focus on giving women an endless list of places not to go, things not to do, clothes not to wear.

"I've been surprised by the number of otherwise intelligent people who believe that those things could affect victim potential," Black said. "One of the things that attracted me to this movement is how much crap advice there is that shifts responsibility off the predator. When we do that, not only do we re-traumatize the victim, but we restrict the people we want to protect."

If the Slutwalk movement makes one thing clear, it's that women have had enough of those restrictions. What has surprised longtime observers most about the movement isn't the comments by Sanguinetti or by Dewar; it's the strength of the public outcry.

Because these cases are not rare -- they just rarely make headlines. "You can find examples of victim-blaming comments made by justice and law-enforcement officers quite frequently," said University of Manitoba professor Karen Busby, who specializes in issues surrounding sexual assault and the law.

Similar stories that never made much of a splash: In 2007, a British judge gave a light sentence to a man convicted of raping a 10-year-old girl after the court heard that the victim "liked to dress provocatively" and that "she looked 16 (years old)."

Two weeks ago, as Slutwalk New York City prepared to launch, police in Brooklyn reportedly told a group of young women that their shorts were "a little short," and that they were "exactly the kind of girl" a recent serial rapist was targeting.

These stories are the tip of a giant iceberg, the one Slutwalk seeks to smash. Whether the stories make headlines or not, their effect is chilling: Sometimes, Busby asks her students whether they would tell police if someone they knew was sexually assaulted. Although they are among the most empowered and legally aware youth in the country, they usually say "no."

And that is why Slutwalk is relevant, Busby said. "The shock value does not come from the name," she said. "It comes from the boiling over of rage, hurt and bewilderment that women feel about the continuing reluctance of law-enforcement personnel and judges to recognize that they should not be telling women how to dress, but rather they should be telling men not to rape."

The future may look different. Today, a delegation from the U of M's feminist law-student group will be marching in Slutwalk. Though the group has taken no specific position on the movement's controversial questions, the sight of future lawyers and judges marching in step against victim-blaming gives some cause to hope.

"With the public outcry, there's a lot more attention put on the (legal) profession. That's important, because that's what's going to hold people accountable," said Meghan Menzies, one of the leaders of the feminist law-student group. "The public has responded really vocally to the legal system when it comes to treatment of sexual violence."

And for all the words, all the costumes and all the debate, perhaps that is at the heart of what has made Slutwalk so successful: For some, it offers the chance to stand up to cops, courts and culture and finally be heard. "The person who did it to me never took responsibility," said Samantha Harris, 22, who survived years of molestation and sexual assault in silence. But today, when she stands up before the Slutwalk crowd at the march-closing rally, she'll have a megaphone -- and a message. "I was always told, 'You shouldn't have put yourself in that situation,' " Harris said, holding one of the signs she'll be carrying at the rally. "Or, 'You shouldn't have been drinking.' I was silenced by all these different people saying 'It's all your fault.'

"To be part of this gives me my voice back."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 15, 2011 A6

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