Looking ahead to speaking at the second Slutwalk in Toronto where the worldwide movement started: Higher Unlearning and White Ribbon Campaign’s Jeff Perera looks back at the initial Walk heard ’round the world, why he agreed to speak at this year’s event, and is honoured to do so.
“When a man gives his opinion, he’s a man. When a woman gives her opinion, she’s a bitch.” ― Bette Davis
Confession: I cringe a bit when people refer to me as an ‘expert’ around issues of masculinity and all things gender-related. I am a student of all this, still learning, still listening. Sometimes a lesson is that which you always knew, but now have come to understand. I had this experience in Taiwan last November where a piece of understanding clicked into place.
Mohini Athia is coordinator of Safe@School from COPA who teamed with White Ribbon on It Starts With You (a resource of tools & e-modules to help men be stronger role models to young men & boys). Mohini and I were invited to give keynote speeches at the Garden of Hope’s Breaking and Rebuilding-2011 Asian Conference of Women’s Shelters in Taipei. In part of my talk, I mentioned how anger and aggression can sometimes be the only emotion society encourages men and boys to show. Mohini later talked to me about how this can be the opposite for women and girls. Gender ‘codes of conduct’ throughout society discourage or deny women permission to express anger or display assertiveness. Now I try to always mention in my talks how the Be-A-Lady mantra of ‘sugar and spice and everything nice‘ is part of what leads us to devalue a woman’s voice, deny her anger and mute her cry of discontent.
During a joint presentation later on in Taipei, our translator paused and looked back at Mohini, with an expression indicating the puzzle that was a particular word.
“Slut…walk???” the young woman said, tripping over the phrase.
Misunderstanding? Confusion over just what this new one-word statement meant? This was not exclusive to her. There are some who had an internal lost-in-translation moment grasping the need for Slutwalk. Criticism came from those who misunderstood the aim and goals to those who do not have a sense of the realities women from all walks of life face. Many in the mainstream media focused more on dress than discourse, passing Slutwalk off as a gathering of women in underwear or misinterpreting the message as encouraging women to ignore risks.
Despite this, the core of their defiant message reverberated, stirred debate and dialogue and brought the conversation to the forefront as it resonated with people across the world. Slutwalk remains today about “bringing attention to the continued reality of victim-blaming and slut-shaming in cases of sexual violence…” With a focused, self-reflexive and determined resilience, the Slutwalk movement was born from more than just frustration over the words of a police officer…
…it was the last straw.
“I actually had slut written on my locker in high school too. Thankfully it was written in pencil so I could erase it. I still remember how much I cried. It hurts that people would say such derogatory and demeaning things about a person they don’t even know…get a thrill knowing that they can make someone else cry.” – Soni
I remember standing in front of Toronto Police Headquarters that April 3rd afternoon last year. I was waiting. When I arrived there was just a few signs that something was coming: a handful of media and photographers, people setting up, some police and a few people like me. Waiting. There was no indication of what was on the way.
And then, in the distance surfacing from the horizon of the city…
What was ideally a gathering of a few hundred people ended up attracting thousands in a sea of people as far as eyes could see. I asked Sonya Barnett, co-founder of Slutwalk about that moment when they all gathered, having no idea of what to expect. “When I first arrived at Queen’s Park, the crowd was fairly small, and I thought ‘well, maybe this isn’t that big an issue’…then the buses started piling out and at one point I turned around and *all* I could see were people. I hoped that the energy created and carried that day would continue through the fight and that things would start to change.“
This was a wave of change the world was waiting for…
…for many, they have been tired of waiting.
”Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge” – Toni Morrison
In Fall 2010 I had the opportunity to deliver a TEDx talk at the first ever TEDxRyersonU conference at Ryerson University. My talk was entitled ‘Words Speak Louder Than Actions’ . Playing on the classic phrase, I hoped to engage others in recognizing the power our words have, and the impact we all make in everyday situations.
Michael Eric Dyson describes the most potent insult that can be directed at a man is to question his manhood and feminize him by calling him “a derogatory term usually reserved for women or gay men: “bitch,” “ho,” “pussy” or “fag”. The universal denial of access for young boys to their full humanity and the complete denigration of women, is a key element in the foundation of bullying. Author of ‘The Bully Society’ Jessie Klein sums it up:
“Keeping discussions about gender and sexuality out of schools reinforces isolation and cements our schools’ bully society. Even schools that take bullying seriously often miss the connection to gender. They may punish the bullies and throw one after another out of school, but they leave the culture of sexual harassment and bullying firmly intact “
Stories and headlines have been swirling just above the surface, circling around issues of bullying within high school and post-secondary spaces. Today’s generation faces unparalleled challenges around bullying and harassment that come with our internet age; people living their lives online as much as in person through social media and in the online world of video games. Look at this incident with video gamer Aris Bakhtanians who made extremely offensive and oppressive comments during an episode of “Cross Assault”, a promotional competitive web-TV series, which reflect the sexual harassment, sexist behaviour and offensive language prominent in video game culture. You can see and hear in a compilation of Bakhtanian’s sexual harassing acts and comments in this video. (**Trigger Warning**)
Was she asking for it?
Aris then had a conversation with Jared Rea regarding his harassing treatment of gamer Miranda Pakozdi. The question Rea asked was “Can I get my Street Fighter without sexual harassment?” Aris replies:
“You can’t. You can’t because they’re one and the same thing. This is a community that’s, you know, 15 or 20 years old, and the sexual harassment is part of a culture, and if you remove that from the fighting game community, it’s not the fighting game community “
Aris then goes onto to explain when asked if numbers of male video gamers & fans yelling “Rape That Bitch!” at in-person live contests is acceptable:
“Look, man. What is unacceptable about that? There’s nothing unacceptable about that. These are people, we’re in America, man, this isn’t North Korea. We can say what we want.”
Here it is, in all its horror. This is an example of a man feeling entitlement, oblivious to consequence or impact on others. Is this an experience you can relate to? If not, is this a wake up call inspiring you to do something? Whenever we hear discussions of bullying, sex-shaming and sexual harassment, the sexism and misogyny is treated as a after-thought instead of a hot-trail leading to the source of the crime.
There is a viral and infectious desecration of women worldwide, inhabiting every awake and asleep corner of the planet. Our collective societal response to avoid discussing the real matter at hand has allowed the weeds of hate to overwhelm the garden.
We deny women and girls the right to happiness, equality and even to life itself.
“Rachel Ehmke, a 13-year-old seventh grader in Mantorville, Minn., died April 29 after hanging herself at her home. The months leading up to the tragedy were a whirlwind of peer abuse instances, her parents say…the word “slut” was scrawled across her gym locker… the same group of girls reportedly threatened Rachel and kept calling her a “prostitute” though she had never kissed a boy…two days before Rachel’s death, an anonymous text was sent to other students at the school…”It was pretty explicit. Something to the effect of that Rachel was a slut and to get her to leave the Kasson-Mantorville School” parent Chris Flannery told the station. A note that her parents found read “I’m fine = I wish I could tell you how I really feel,” alongside a picture of a broken heart” – from the Huffington Post.
Here is the point:
In the case of Rachel Ehmke, her parents indicate that to their knowledge, she had never even kissed a boy before. Whether she did or did not does not matter as far as what she went through and experienced. Whether she had slept with 20 boys or never even held a boy’s hand does not matter, as far as defining her value and worth.
Young boys are permitted to explore sex in most circles and attain positive status when they do. Some will fabricate or exaggerate experiences to gain notoriety among peers, at the cost of a woman usually. They even get status nicknames like ‘Smooth Operator’ or ‘Don Juan’. In a certain period of my life where I was very sexually active with numerous partners, there was a quiet pride in being called ‘Shaft’ and seen as a ‘player’ or a ‘stud’ by co-workers both male and female.
For young women this is the opposite, and the standard does not stop after high school.
In a study of North American English, Stanley (1977, cited by Graddol & Swann, 1989, p. 110) identified 220 words for a sexually promiscuous woman but only 20 for a sexually promiscuous man.
[Sandra McKay and Nancy H. Hornberger (Cambridge University Press, 1995.): Sociolingüistics and language teaching, p. 226]
For a woman to experience these attacks it doesn’t even depend on sexual activity or rumoured activity, it can come down to her appearance. Should a woman decide to dress in a tight outfit, a ‘power suit’ or be covered in a full length thick winter coat, she is still subject to comments, judgements and evaluation. Her body is still seen as property for public consumption, random eyes feeling entitled to stare and ‘occupy’ her personal space and safety.
When she rejects conforming with societal standards of beauty she is judged and devalued
When she conforms with societal standards of beauty she is judged and devalued
When she simply is herself …she is judged and devalued
This isn’t simply about the word, it is about the denegration of women in every way.
The Slutwalk movement is in part, a defiant effort to take violent language off the table, rip the weapon out of the oppressor’s hands and say ‘enough‘.
The history of land taken from Aboriginal and First Nations hands is lost in such jingles, but one of my favourite commercials growing up was about our province. Good things grow in Ontario.
“Slutwalk Toronto and White Ribbon Campaign have more in common than our similar evolutions from a small idea, mobilized by a few committed people here in Ontario; with a resonance that spread around the world. We even have more in common than our shared visions to end violence against women, girls; to end homophobia; and to support all survivors of violence. We also share a vision that is entrenched in challenging and ending the root causes of these injustices. We both seek an end to the tremendously damaging kinds of victim blaming stereotypes that dominate our discussions of sexual violence; we both seek an end to the polarizing sexual shaming dialogues that are counter productive to healthy, humane, and really human conversations about sexuality, respect, consent, and inclusion…”
I remember standing there with my friends Sarah and Adriana as the crowd dispersed. We ran into others we knew, and wandered in the afterglow. I sensed that we witnessed something historic unfold and lingered, taking in the last moments of inspired-energy drifting into the sky. I remember feeling drawn to the platform area where the speakers stood and there was Heather Jarvis. Feeling my spirit reaching out past my physical body wanting to connect with her, I watched as she paced back and forth from one conversation to another.
Heather, along with Sonya, co-founded Slutwalk. As she later described that moment to me, she was in that state of post-event organizer frenzy, and awash in pure joy. “It was two things” said Heather to me looking back “I was so overwhelmed and shocked, my emotions spiraled…all in the most excited and positive way. I was reeling from all the people I talked to afterwards, survivors, media and old friends who surprised me by coming out to support. Washing over me were these heartbreaking stories and at the same time, this celebration of communal resistance.”
As I debated when to step into her routine and, with all good intentions, talk about building some amazing energy as organizations and individuals, but I didn’t. I said to myself “the right time will come, I know we will connect at some point. She is busy. I need to respect her space and need to focus.”
Men need to realize, that everyday situations and random moments are not always the time to try and meet a woman. Your desire to connect and talk to a woman at the coffee shop, on the train, walking to work, does not override her right to just sit in a coffee shop, sit on the train or walk to work. She isn’t here as an opportunity for you, she is a human being doing her thing. Respect that. This is one of many lessons Slutwalk satellite locations worldwide are sharing with men and young men. Slutwalk Seattle shared this brilliant post that explains it much better than I did:
People are not aware of the amazing, quiet, everyday learning moments the movement has created. On their Facebook pages, Slutwalk Toronto has engaged with people in a way that is inspiring. Not pulled down into arguing over social media threads, they elevate discourse and engage to help others understand…like this exchange between Colleen Westendorf, Communications Coordinator/Organizer for Slutwalk Toronto and a male.
Bringing these conversations to the mainstream in a way that hasn’t been seen in decades, the movement spread globally like a sweeping wind…
With such a rapid growth, there came growing pains moments. Wind can’t be easily directed or steered. Being able to contain and steer perceptions, get folks in other nations to embrace concepts like having privilege in spaces of non-privilege, all the way from Toronto in an overnight instant, was a real challenge. There were incidents where the group needed to role-model introspection, self-reflection and how to nurture further inclusive spaces. After they received an ‘Open Letter from Black Women to the Slutwalk’ from the Black Woman’s Blueprint‘, they took time to responsibly reflect and respond and help others understand further about the issue.
In a recent statement they also said “In our efforts to become a more well-grounded, safer, anti-oppressive space we have listened to the voices of our critiques and have tried to foster a particular messaging and manner of organizing that challenges the perpetuation of a culture in which privileged identities continue to be centered and “others” are placed on the margins.” A world without violence for women of all walks of life is at the core of the Slutwalk movement, but they also acknowledge that this is a complex conversation, and not a simple one. Kim Crosby points out a quote by Alexis Pauline Gumbs in her brilliant post ‘Who are you calling a Slut? Speaking at Slutwalk 2012’
“May we continue to disagree, may we continue to distinguish our movements by their bases of accountability, may we continue to give different accounts of how we got here and where we are, and may we collaborate but never compromise our visions of where we ought to be.”
Kim’s entire article is brilliant, so I ask you all to take a moment and read it for yourself.
It is with extreme humility and thankfulness that I accepted the invitation to speak at Slutwalk 2012. Their passion and drive to overcome obstacles and resistance coming from every angle has been an inspiration. I have gotten to the know the team over the past half-year and count their presence in my life and life itself as a blessing.
Last year, White Ribbon Campaign co-founder Michael Kaufman spoke to the crowd, I am humbled to follow him and be a part of taking White Ribbon’s message into the future, working with dear allies at Slutwalk. Todd also shared that White Ribbon and Slutwalk “both accept that there is a world where men can be allies, partners, role models & engaged bystanders.” Part of the work is getting men to understand the power of derogatory language towards women and how we can play a role in helping to end street harassment & sexual harassment.
We want to reimagine ideas of masculinity and provide examples of healthy role models in behaviour, attitudes, actions and character. Some say working to ‘dismantle’ words like slut is not possible, just like some will also say ‘boys will be boys’ and that we can can’t reclaim masculinity. This reminds me of the following bell hooks quote, it is the message I truly wish to convey in my talk at Slutwalk this year:
My focus as a male ally is to stop men and boys from using words as violence, from using violence altogether, and become part of that wind of change.
She have been waiting.
She is tried of waiting.
We are tired of waiting.
Jeff Perera is a Program Manager for the White Ribbon Campaign, the world’s largest effort to engage men and boys in working to end violence against women. Jeff speaks to grade school, high school, post-secondary students and people from all walks of life around how society’s unattainable concepts of masculinity are effecting men and boys as well as impacting women and girls. Jeff founded Higher Unlearning as an online space to explore men and masculinity in everyday situations. He also founded a chapter at Ryerson University working to further a gender-inclusive environment. He is the director of the annual discussion-focused ‘What Makes a Man’ White Ribbon Conference and was event director for the first TEDxWomen event in Toronto, Canada. Jeff was recently named to Racism Free Ontario’s Top 100 Person of Colour list spotlighting anti-racism activists. Jeff’s awareness-raising initiatives to create inclusive spaces for people of all walks of life have earned him numerous human rights & equity awards.
He has organized, facilitated and spoken at numerous workshops and events including with the National Film Board of Canada, University of Toronto, and annual ‘YWCA Common Ground’ Conference as well as the ‘Garden of Hope: Empower Women’ Asian Conference in Taipei, Taiwan. In 2010 Jeff delivered the TEDx talk ‘Words Speak Louder Than Actions’ discussing gender construction and roles, the impact we all make as well as the impact words have on our everyday lives.