Got Consent?: Reflections on re-appropriation, sexism, and patriarchy
By: Nicole Rallis (This is Hamilton)
Sunday, July 8, 2012, was the second annual Hamilton SlutWalk. Over a hundred local residents and activists gathered in solidarity at City Hall to address issues of victim blaming and (social) structures of patriarchy that stratify Hamilton and greater society based on gender, sexual orientation, racial, and economic lines. Formally classified as a feminist, anti-oppresive , anti-racist, non-violent event, SlutWalk Hamilton’s official website (http://www.slutwalkhamilton.com) states:
“We decry not only our protective services, but to make it known that everyone deserves respect, protection, and justice – no matter how we present ourselves. SlutWalk Hamilton will give loud, local voice to end slut shaming, and fight for the dignity of survivors’ rights in our community…”
It seems necessary to reflect upon the importance of social justice events such as SlutWalk Hamilton to better understand how they are able to raise public awareness, while also working in solidarity with other grassroots movements working towards social justice. It is also important to ask how problems of gender discrimination and sexism work into issues around poverty and inequality, both globally and locally.
SlutWalk Hamilton stands in solidarity with the original SlutWalk that took place in Toronto, in 2011. The original event was organized as a reaction to a Toronto Police Services representatives remarks made at a York University safety information, suggesting that, “Women could avoid sexual assault by not dressing like a ‘slut'”. The event not only reprimanded the Toronto Police for sexist remarks, but also gave voice to women (men and those who identify as trans), from various walks of life who have been victims of sexual assault and slut shaming. The movement aims to challenge all structures that support oppression and hatred, while re-appropriating words like ‘slut’, ‘whore’, and ‘bitch’ that are too often used in derogatory, misogynistic fashion.
The remark made by the Toronto Police Services representative in 2011 that sparked the initial SlutWalk, highlights the very serious issue of victim blaming and deeper structural dilemmas of how society normalizes patriarchal mainframes around gender, race, and sexual orientation. By not protesting and raising awareness against sexist remarks and sexual violence , we are legitimizing and consenting to current undemocratic, patriarchal mind frames. These mind frames are often reflected in policies created, and affect the way civil society and government examine social justice issues around slut shaming and rape culture.
The issue is not simply binary between greater civil society and government, but it is much ‘messier’ as different cultures, religions, classes, and ethnic communities hold various views and beliefs surrounding feminism and women’s rights. As many feminist and social justice activists also note, the issue is not just about women’s rights; SlutWalk is an event that raises issues about human rights. Framing issues around victim blaming and slut shaming with a human rights perspective creates a more holistic understanding towards our current society that continues to blame and degrade victims of sexual assault, while also ignoring the rights of those who work in the sex industry.
Rape Culture in the context of Hamilton
According to some feminist theorists (Sommers, Hoff, Connell, Wilson) rape culture is the theoretical concept used to describe a culture in which rape and sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, tolerate or even condone sexual violence. According to rape culture theory, acts of sexism are commonly employed to validate and rationalize normative misogynistic practices.
The SlutWalk movement has been credited with (re) popularizing the term rape culture via mass media reports about the initial protests in 2011. The rallies, as stated before, aim to raise awareness of rape culture which SlutWalk defines as a culture where,”Sexual violence is both made to be invisible and inevitable”. SlutWalk raises the importance of issues around victim blaming and slut shaming that occur locally and globally. The context of the movement ( both direct-action oriented and community based) also allows specific geographic localities to address issues of sexism, racism, and classism in proactive ways.
There are many structures of patriarchy and sexism in Hamilton that require specific examination. Hamilton has a long history with the sex industry, for example. It is an industry that has typically ran off of the labour of those deemed to be ‘undesirable’ Hamilton residents; those (predominantly women) living in poverty. In a 2010 workshop at Brock University, Lime Jello of Big Susie’s, a Hamilton-based cooperative centre for sex workers by sex workers, spoke of the changing industry and the many challenges brought forth from the strong anti-prostitution movement in Hamilton. She stated that in some Hamilton neighbourhoods there has been a move to “clean-up the streets,”which she believes is actually a euphemism for getting rid of prostitutes. This public “clean-up” in some ways correlates with the ongoing gentrification process of the downtown core along the areas of James St. North, and Gore Park, where sex workers often reside and do business.
As Lime Jello rose public consciousness around hurtful stereotypes about sex work, the Hamilton creative-class exposed downtown Hamilton sex work with a very different ‘lens’, as highlighted by Sarah Mann (2010). An art exhibit called ‘A Child of God’, for example, exposed women in the Landsdale Neighbourhood linked to the sex industry without consent. In 2009, Hamilton artist Gary Santucci also created an exhibit called, ‘The Hood, the Bad, and the Ugly,’,which was displayed at You Me Gallery. Both art exhibits highlighted the often forceful, exclusionary nature of gentrification processes, that marginalize residents along economic and gendered lines. It also perpetuated harmful stigmatizing stereotypes around Hamilton sex work, and sexual violence.
SlutWalk Hamilton highlighted other important similar issues throughout the rally earlier this month. Protestors walked through the controversial ‘Hess Village’ district, which is known for its dance clubs and rowdy bar scene. While walking through the district chants such as, “Hey Hess! This dress is not a yes!”, roared among the SlutWalk marchers.
Many young women have fallen victim to sexual violence in this specific area of the city. Several activists spoke of a particular misogynistic employer, Denis Vranich, who in 2011 was charged with sexual assault. The local newspaper, the Hamilton Spectator, covered the case in great detail and described its history from a 2006 incident where Vranich cornered a female employee outside of his Hess nightclub, Elixir. Vranich was forced by the court to pay the sexual assault victim $300,000. Although legal justice was gained in this specific case, there are still many issues surrounding the legitimization of acts of sexual violence in Hamilton.
SlutWalk , Solidarity, and Community Strengthening
SlutWalk protestors note how sexual assault cases like the one(s) that happen in Hess continue to perpetuate patriarchal mind frames that discriminate and divide Hamiltonians along gendered lines. SlutWalk organizers also highlighted the inherent connections between SlutWalk and other social justice events critiquing undemocratic, neoliberal policies and agendas that continually marginalize people based on class, age, race, and gender. An important issue that was mentioned at the event on July 8th, was also the fact that no Aboriginal women were at SlutWalk to speak out about domestic violence and sexual assault that happens in their communities. It is important for all residents of the city to work to create an inclusive community, free of victim blaming and slut shaming, as well working to raise greater public consciousness connecting issues around sexism and rape to other structural issues perpetuating poverty and inequality. As aptly noted by critical feminist scholar, bell hooks, rape is part of an overarching “culture of violence”.