Live Through This

How We Dress Does Not Mean Yes

A report from SlutWalk NYC.

All photos, except where indicated, by Maya Dusenbery.

This past Saturday morning, I was running late to meet my friends, so I didn’t have time to think too hard about my outfit. I pulled on my favorite pair of jeans and a T-shirt—my default ensemble when I’m in a hurry.

I looked at myself in the full-length mirror on my closet door, twirling my body around to each side so I could view myself at all the angles that others would soon be seeing. How does my body look in these clothes? I thought as I eyed my own ass. Is this shirt/jean combo flattering? Do I like how I look? I didn’t bother to worry about things I would usually consider, like if I was showing too much skin, or if my jeans were too tight.

There was nothing particularly special about the outfit I chose to wear that morning, except for one thing: it was Saturday, October 1st, and I was headed to SlutWalk NYC. I was in a good mood. I felt free and happy. And I wanted to look good. I wanted to feel pretty. Hot, even. And I didn’t feel guilty, ashamed, or scared to admit it.

That’s me on the right, being a faux badass with my friend Nona. Photo by Amanda Marcotte.

SlutWalk is a march against sexualized violence. While it’s similar in a lot of ways to existing movements like Take Back the Night, SlutWalk is also new in some very big ways (big in some very new ways?). It began in Canada when a Toronto police officer said that women should “avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” It has since spread to cities all over the world, including LA, Philadelphia, London, Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, Capetown, Hong Kong, and my very own New York.

I write for Feministing and work in women’s health here in NYC, and I’d been doing some organizing for this event. I had been pleased to find a diverse and friendly group of people involved in the preparations, including second-wave feminists in their 60s and 70s, students, artists, young professionals, journalists, and activists of a multitude of genders and races.

I was especially thrilled to see high-schoolers at the meetings. Indicators and definitions for slut vary widely by cultural context, but I think it’s safe to say that the teenage experience is pretty universally filled with strange and sometimes bizarre encounters with sexual roles, responsibilities, experiences, and expectations. From piercing catcalls to ghost boobs, high school can be a site of great sexual pride and deep sexual shame. Some girls have to endure street harassment on their daily walk to school. Others get shamed for having lots of sex, or having any sex, or seeming like maybe they’ve had sex at some point, or maybe they had a sexual thought, or were molested or raped or … it’s endless what people will shame you for.

In high school, I had the good fortune of running with a crew that liked to celebrate positive sexual experiences; as it happens, my best friend from childhood is now a sex-positive educator and activist. (We once made a condom kite together for geometry class to raise awareness about STD prevention. Seriously! We covered the kite with condoms, which filled with air when the kite was in flight, making it more aerodynamic. But I digress.) Our tight-knit crew boasted a variety of comfort levels and values around sex. We were like a United Colors of Benetton ad, but with diversity of sexual experience as well as color.

But even growing up in that protected bubble of bestie acceptance, I was far from immune to the rampant, mean-spirited, and super-strict slut-shaming culture that dominates so many high school hallways. By the time I graduated from high school I’d been called a slut, or some version thereof, many times over. Sometimes things I did made me slutty, like dating someone new too quickly after breaking up with my long-term boyfriend. Sometimes outfits made me slutty, or sexual advances from an older member of the football team, whether they were wanted or not. And sometimes it was the terrible teenage-girl affliction known as EWB (Existing With Breasts). The good news, I thought at the time, was that after high school I wouldn’t have to deal with that shit anymore, because there was no way that Grown-Up People in the Real World would continue to police one another’s sexual behavior in some weird imaginary sex court, right? RIGHT???

Fast-forward to two days before Saturday’s march. Word spread around New York that in response to a series of sexual assaults in Park Slope and surrounding neighborhoods, Brooklyn police officers were telling women not to wear shorts or skirts in order to avoid being assaulted. It was like Toronto—and high school—all over again.

That’s why, on the day of the march, I felt determined to escape, if only for one morning, this idea that clothing has anything to do with safety. Even though I found that I didn’t really want to wear a skimpy outfit to the march (it was cold, and I liked the clothes I had on), just the idea that it was OK to look hot, to look like a young female human being with a body, and it was OK to want to do so, was incredibly liberating. Marching with thousands of like-minded community members in a protest that was escorted and permitted by police made it possible for many of us to attain previously unimaginable levels of safety. In a city where women are taught to cover their bodies if they want to be safe, a girl was able to march topless alongside me in Union Square, unafraid. No boundaries, no threats, no consequences.

All of a sudden, I felt a rush of gratitude to the SlutWalk founders and organizers for creating such a moment for me. It was like the antithesis of my high school hallway and one of the few times in my life that I recognized how traumatizing it had been to walk the halls feeling policed, judged, and disrespected—to walk the halls feeling like my social and physical safety were dependent on other people’s impressions of how “good” and unassuming I was being.

The rest of the march was amazing. Everyone was gorgeous and vibrant and brave. It felt exhilarating to be part of something so big, and to know that I was becoming part of an international movement to support victims of violence and assault, of which slut-shaming is a part. And it was just fun to be in the middle of a group like that, protesting something together, yelling together, chanting, and listening to live music.

I don’t want to lie and say it was a perfect day. There were certainly some bummer-inducing aspects to the march: rain, another march that unfortunately coincided with ours, and some last-minute and important critiques around SlutWalk’s inclusiveness and diversity that resulted in several valuable speakers pulling out in the 11th hour, including my friend and colleague Jamia Wilson. As a woman of color who helped organize and marched in the rally myself, that last one was an especially hard pill to swallow, though of course I respected all of these women’s decisions. I took the criticisms issued at the march very seriously, and have written about the deep ambivalence I feel toward SlutWalk, even as I feel so passionate about it.

But SlutWalk was still a pretty powerful moment in my life. Plus, it was a lot of fun. It helped grant me the explicit permission to exist simultaneously as a sexual being and as a full member of society, worthy of safety and love.

P.S. Here are some of our favorite signs from the march. (These snapshots were taken by Anaheed.)

We ran into some of our friends there, too! Like:

Molly and Arabelle from the Teen Witch story:

And Claire’s Diary, who are doing this month’s theme song:

37 Comments

  • izzybee October 5th, 2011 3:24 PM

    this is really inspiring and great :)

  • Anna F. October 5th, 2011 4:13 PM

    Oh gosh, I just fell down a rabbit’s hole of links reading articles about SlutWalk because of this piece. My poor homework is suffering!

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Lori. I live in Toronto and actually go to the school where the police officer made his comments – I remember reading the initial article about it in the campus paper, and to see it evolve into a series of international (but locally organized) protests is really something.

    I also think it’s great that it’s opened up such an expansive dialogue – though it’s frustrating that for every thoughtful piece about the problematic elements of Slutwalks, there’s a condescending dude somewhere going “Maybe we’d take these girls more seriously if they didn’t dress like sluts!”

    I think it’s important that people of all identities share their experiences with slut shaming and sexual assault. Pieces like this are very necessary!

  • Pashupati October 5th, 2011 4:15 PM

    It’s necessary, but it’s sad… revolting that it is necessary. Still, it looks like a fun event despite the fact the events and ideas which inspired it are revolting.
    (also, the Open Letter from Black Women to the SlutWalk gives me a 404!)

  • maddiexsaurus October 5th, 2011 4:33 PM

    Hi, you took a photo of me at the walk and it’s not posted here. I was the one wearing the see through top and the nipple tape. Is there any way you could send it to me? Thanks

    • Anaheed October 5th, 2011 4:36 PM

      Yes! Should I send it to the address you registered with?

      We woulda used it (you looked great and your sign was great) but I don’t know how to take a picture and it was a little too dark.

  • Jenny October 5th, 2011 4:38 PM

    I got chills from reading this article and I’m still tingling! I’m so happy you talked about why you support SlutWalk and what it can mean and do and be. I’m also so glad you brought up critiques about how women of color, sex workers, & poor folks fit into all this. Now I’m off to read your Feministing article for chills redux!

  • asleeptillnoon October 5th, 2011 4:48 PM

    really wish I could have gone to this!

  • kim October 5th, 2011 4:50 PM

    This is SO important. I was assaulted (and fought the guy off) when I was wearing jeans — I remember thinking later that night how happy I was that I didn’t wear the short skirt I had on earlier, because then I might blame myself for what happened. Those thoughts should never be in anyone’s head.

    • lilia October 5th, 2011 7:30 PM

      Absolutely. Society says we shouldn’t blame ourselves, and yet suggests that we change things about ourselves to prevent assault…which is just another way of throwing the blame at the victims.

  • Dylan October 5th, 2011 4:51 PM

    Something I’ve been noticing in my new neighborhood, which is in a (quite generously put) “transitioning” neighborhood in Oakland, is interesting. I’m a young white girl in a traditonally black community. I’ve walked home alone under various circumstances, obviously – at night from the train, the morning after a party in party clothes (what most people call walk of shame, but shame? sorry I spent the night at my friends house because busses don’t run late enough for me…), early morning before school, after a run, etc. And I’ve noticed that any time I look potentially “vulnerable” is when I get the most attention. It doesn’t matter what I’m dressed like. I thought I would get a lot of talk when I wore my two inch platforms with cutoff shorts. Nope. But when I carried my suitcase to the train station, for instance, at 10pm with jeans and a hoodie, I had at least 4 men in 5 blocks ask me if my boyfriend kicked me out, if I needed a place to go, if they could give me a ride. Not in a nice way. In a “here little girl want some candy” way. Ugh. While I was on the phone with my MOM!
    Another instance is when I was coming back from a weekend across the Bay and had three duffles slung across my body on my walk home from the train. Wearing NO makeup and gym shorts, I had the same experience – creepers picking up on the fact that I was in transit and seeing that as something vulnerable. It seems like a strategy, like damsel in distress. Again, UGH!

    • Anaheed October 5th, 2011 4:56 PM

      Dude, I have never been hit on more than the 6 weeks when I was on crutches. UGHGHGHGHGH.

    • donutsundae October 5th, 2011 8:27 PM

      The title of this comic (which I can’t actually see the title ON THE PAGE but it was the title you clicked on to get to the actual page) is “THE WALK OF ACCLAIM” which I have fully adopted as part of my personal vernacular.

      http://www.qwantz.com/index.php?comic=1734

      Had to share as I think it is so apt, and I love all the other alternate names suggested in the comic itself. Also I share T Rex’s deep affinity for ice cream (vegan for me though).

    • Dylan October 5th, 2011 11:02 PM

      YES THE COMIC AHH YEAHH (Kool Aid Guy ahh yeah)

  • Mallory October 5th, 2011 5:22 PM

    I was so excited to read about this! I recently moved to New York and I can’t wait to hopefully participate in years to come.

  • erin October 5th, 2011 5:48 PM

    This would have been a super cool thing to go to! Unfortunately, I have some doubts about SlutWalk coming to Utah haha… In my town, it’s “tradition” for girls to wear big poofy dresses to their ankles with necklines up to their collarbones and big, boxy sleeves to prom. Really, their parents pressure them into wearing it, thinking it will protect them from boys. But it doesn’t matter what you wear if a rotten boy wants some from you. It’s something a lot of people have still yet to grasp. Slutwalk is awesome!

    • back2thepast October 5th, 2011 6:25 PM

      Haha, oh man I’m a Utah gal too. I’ve never seen the pioneer gear at a prom, I’ve been seeing the silky above-the-knee strapless dresses. But I’ve heard lots of stories like yours, from other cities. I’m glad that even Utah is being a little more accepting of clothing!

  • back2thepast October 5th, 2011 6:17 PM

    I believe that girls should dress in a way that respects their bodies, but should be able to wear what ever they want and feel safe! This is a really hard subject to talk about, but you worded it very intriguingly :] i also love the photos, my favorite it the one that says men: don’t rape!

  • indiegirl864 October 5th, 2011 6:32 PM

    So inspiring and meaningful! These pictures really are worth a thousand words

  • lilia October 5th, 2011 7:24 PM

    I really identify with the movement because I am an eighteen-year-old girl that constantly moves states for work, and most recently I am working in a rural area of Pennsylvania. I’ll admit…I have the mouth of a fighter, but standing at 5′ 2″, the body of someone who’d rather run in the opposite direction. This is difficult because I work with all men, in a very secluded area. They’re constantly heckling me, and I am always terrified, because no matter what I wear, I feel endlessly vulnerable. I liked the photo of the sign that said, “We will not change the way we dress because it’s more convenient for your lack of self-control.” I’m not entirely sold on hardcore feminism, but this stands out to me because it reminds me that the male-dominated society underhandedly makes the rules…we have to alter ourselves so that they are “less prone” to raping us…which is absurd if you stop and think about it. I hope more people join this movement; big changes can happen if enough people stand up for what they know is right.

    • Anaheed October 6th, 2011 3:49 AM

      Oh man. So much yes, lilia.

  • MichyMich October 5th, 2011 8:07 PM

    I have to admit that I’ve been accused of “asking for it” before.

    When I was in NYC with my mom two summers ago, we were walking on the street after eating lunch at Momofuku. While we were walking, a creepy construction worker in his 60s (or 70s) was LEERING at my boobs and legs – I wore a striped bodysuit and skinny jeans with triangle-shaped cutouts on the side. I felt SO violated by what that mofo did, but even worse…my mom accused me of “asking for it”. She basically BLAMED me just because I am the victim.

    The major thing that still makes me angry/disappointed is that our culture/society teaches women NOT to be raped than DON’T rape. In addition, men should be taught NOT to rape a woman (or man).

    P.S. We have some triumph: http://jezebel.com/5841709/woman-catches-her-rapist-in-traffic-jam-helps-inspire-indonesias-slut-walk.

  • donutsundae October 5th, 2011 8:21 PM

    Oh, Rookie. I love you for existing.

  • celestica October 5th, 2011 8:41 PM

    i wish i’d gone, slutwalk and new york combined just seems like heaven, i think.

  • Ann October 5th, 2011 10:00 PM

    Rape is a crime of violence & power over someone. Its not really about sex. Sex happens to be the weapon. Lots of rapists get plenty of good sex. When they rape, its really something else they are after..
    Makes sense the women posting above mention they get ‘hit on’ when they are vulnerable/on crutches. It fits the profile.

    Guys being turned on by what you might be wearing is a different story…

    • Dylan October 5th, 2011 11:11 PM

      Word!! Well put. I think that’s a distinction that SlutWalk, as empowering as it is for tonz of peepz, may be missing out on! Rape and sexual assault comes from, in my understanding, a place of domination and a need to harm. Not JUST sexual desire, in all cases. I think that’s a super important idea to keep in mind. SlutWalks are important events to even bring these questions and need for distinctions to the surface.

  • insteadofanelephant October 6th, 2011 2:43 AM

    what a wonderful, wonderful post. i would love to attend an event like this. everything they say, just by their signs, is so true.

    instead of an elephant

  • amanda1882 October 6th, 2011 12:39 PM

    Lori- I love feministing AND rookie, so to see your writing on both is so exciting. I attended NYC slutwalk last Saturday and it was so awesome to meet other young men/women like myself who believe that no matter what you wear, no matter who you’re with, no matter where you are, NO ONE deserves to be harassed or assaulted.

  • genina October 6th, 2011 3:39 PM

    I’d just like to say how much I appreciate this post. I’m from Toronto myself. When I heard the police officer’s comments about avoiding dressing like a slut, it angered me–I was wearing uniform trousers and a coat when I was assaulted on the bus to school, just a couple of years ago in the ninth grade. The experience ultimately made me realise that a girl didn’t have to be ‘asking for it’, or anything; and often everyone forgets that it’s the criminal’s fault–though as unpleasant as the ordeal was, it was completely eye-opening for me and, I hope, the other girls at my school who had the same thing happen to them. This is why I’m so glad there are people who are writing posts like these, because the message needs to be made very clear that no-one deserves this kind of treatment. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, Lori + Rookie! You’ve given me more hope for our society’s standing on this issue in the future!

  • thesundaybest October 6th, 2011 6:42 PM

    I just learned about this site through grantland.com. I hope it sticks around long enough for my as yet hypothetical teenage daughter to read.

    Good on you. Where’s the guy version? (Also, it’s cool that I read this, right? Cool.)

  • Naomi October 6th, 2011 6:49 PM

    the best thing about slut-walks in my opinion is simply that more people are talking about it and more people are aware of it.
    i love all these signs and women walking down the street wearing whatever they want.
    i hope one day we’ll all be able to wear what the fuck we want and not have to give a second thought to unwanted attention or victim-blaming.

  • Alkyoni October 7th, 2011 5:56 AM

    Oh thank you. THANK YOU. My mother often is not home during weekends because of work. And I leave home at 9 o’clock in the evening because one of my frineds works in a shop, and I have to go through my grandma. Who by the way tells me that I’m asking for it because I’m wearing a skirt, and one above the knee at that, and because I have a figure, and because I go out alone.
    And I respond that I’m not asking for it. Rapists choose to rape. They choose it. I’m 17 and I do not want to feel like I need to be armed and covered everytime I leave the house. I do not want to be scared everytime I go outside whether I look safe enough. I mean, let’s be honest here, shall we? The reason we’re targeted is because rapists have the notion that because we look (even if we’re not) vulnerable they have the right to attack us. Well they don’t. And that is precisely what society needs to understand.

  • AnaLuisaDonoso October 7th, 2011 4:11 PM

    It’s so true all that you have said, but it is scary and hard to stand up and confront this, because no matter if you are right about it this things happend all the time, to everyone and anywhere.
    Santiago-Chile
    PS: me encanta esta página! la leo todos los días. :)

  • nanaG October 9th, 2011 8:08 PM

    I’ve been a feminist since I was in college in 1970 but this article didn’t make me feel all that great even though you folks clearly had a good time. I don’t believe there are ever any excuses or justifications for rape but I do think that it’s childish to think there won’t be other consequences for walking around in public in a bra and miniskirt–such as catcalls, being stared and being photographed and ending up online. If this was really about stopping rape and educating men, rather than having a good time celebrating your sexuality, what form might that activism take? Lobbying for enhanced or better training of police officers? Having a teach-in at school? Probably something less showy and fun but with greater lasting impact.

  • X October 11th, 2011 2:37 PM

    rookie has made my mind change..my ideas kinda took a flip..another person who made me question society is Keith Richards..the greatest part about him is his i dont give a shit attitude..so what i go into jail for smoking crack and now have to pay a fine?? it was worth it!! it was a life changer because all my life going to jail was the worst thing that could happen you could die even..breaking school rules was the same..your life will be ruined and you will live on the streets..but thats just my side of it..

    http://newtoughgirl.blogspot.com/

    i love all of you beautiful sluts out there!!
    peace
    *_*

  • seaponny October 16th, 2011 5:30 AM

    This is so right and lovely!

  • Razi Beresin-Scher April 20th, 2013 10:58 PM

    Hi, I just want to say that I have a huge amount of respect for you, and all the participators and organizers of this walk. I hope to participate in future years.

    The message sent by this walk is an incredibly important one. Because the point it’s making is no less important today than it was a hundred years ago. And many people I’ve spoken to don’t seem to understand that.

    A couple weeks ago, I had a conversation with a girl in school. She’s a pretty good friend of mine, and was at the time reading the Twilight series, about which we have greatly differing opinions. I was, at the time, wearing a rather low cut shirt, which was a hand-me-down from a slightly less busty neighbor. I brought up my personal opinion that the character seemed to me slightly anti-feminist, and her retort was this:

    “If your such a feminist, why do you always wear such revealing clothes?” In the moment, I was slightly taken aback, but I responded with my whole talk about how we should be proud of our bodies, etc.

    This conversation, however, really got me thinking. How are we supposed to change society’s take on us if many of us are so used to the culture, they don’t even notice that something needs to be changed.

    What we must do is raise awareness, and a protest is a good idea for that. But to truly have the bravery to go out and participate in something like that….

    My hat is off to you, good lady.

  • lizmyster1 June 12th, 2013 8:14 PM

    Really great story and site, just came across Rookiemag a few days ago. Love the shirt you’re wearing in the pic with Nona being a faux badass, where’d you get it??