SWTO speech from the 2012 National Sexual Assault Conference in Chicago (#NSAC2012)




Good morning! To start, we want to say a big thank you to the organizers of the 2012 National Sexual Assault Conference, the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, for having us here today. We’re honoured to be a part of such an amazing conference and such an incredible gathering of people. A number of the people in this room are people we have read, people we have learned from, and inevitably people that have impacted and influenced our lives, in ways we are aware of and in the contributions you all have made in your work.

We’re profoundly moved to have been a part of all of the amazing action and resistance we’ve witnessed in our own Canadian cities and observed from afar in what is still less than two years with SlutWalk.

We’ve often referred to SlutWalk as ‘the little rally that could’. This was something said to me by a friend right before our first rally in Toronto in 2011. We had quickly seen a small action grow into something bigger, much bigger than we were prepared for. As the date for our event drew nearer, we began to anticipate thousands of people at this emerging idea of a rally. By the time that day came, nearly a dozen other cities in Canada and in other countries were already planning SlutWalk events of their own. It was truly unbelievable to see what was happening.

The sentiment of ‘the little rally that could’ has stuck with us and still illustrates the shock, awe and wonder we continue to feel all the time that something that started as a very small, reactive response to a comment and the deep-rooted harmful ideas it represents, caught on nearly instantaneously and spread internationally at what felt like warp speed.

As many of you likely know, on January 24, 2011, a Toronto Police officer told a group of students at York University during a safety forum “I think we’re beating around the bush here. I’ve been told I shouldn’t say this, but women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”

A few weeks later, upon hearing about this incident I was livid but sadly not overly surprised. This was not a new sentiment and not the first time it was coming from the police. I remember sharing my anger and saying that I wanted to bang on the door of the Toronto Police and tell them to do better. My friend, Sonya JF Barnett, said it was a good idea and we should do it. So we did. We were filled with anger and knew an apology was not enough. We had had enough and wanted to do something. We decided this ‘something’ would be marching right on down to Toronto Police Services’ headquarters and demanding better from an institution that is supposed to support victims, not scrutinize them.

SlutWalk was the combining of who we are with what we needed. Sonya and I, and many of the people we loved and lived with in our communities, were already people deemed immoral based on our identities and sexualities, we were already people who re-appropriated language like queer, slut, dyke, and bitch, we already existed in feminist, gutsy, and brazen spaces fighting for more. When we heard that Toronto police officer’s comment, we were filled with anger and it was that anger that got us into this action.Very quickly, we decided to call our ‘something’ SlutWalk. Words like slut had been thrown at us far too often and we wanted to throw them back. We wanted the language used to shame us, degrade us, silence us and blame us – and used once again by this cop – to be a central part of the discussion and to be actively challenged. A Facebook page, a Twitter account and a website were set up – all easy and accessible ways for us to share information. We asked people to come as they were comfortable and participate in ways that worked for them. A prep day, volunteer recruitment, online advocacy, a barrage of unexpected media interviews, a slew of hateful criticisms and threatening comments, growing thicker skin rather quickly, and a mere 6 weeks later, what we thought would be maybe 100 hundred friends and acquaintance if we were lucky, turned into 4,000 people gathering in Toronto on April 3rd, 2011 – enough to close down major intersections in downtown Toronto, garner coverage in just about every media outlet in Toronto and many across Canada, trend on social media networks, and make a lot of people sit up and take notice.


I went to the first SlutWalk in Toronto as an attendee. The fundamental message of SlutWalk was something I felt (clearly, like many, many others) was really absent from mainstream and casual coverage and conversations about sexual violence-almost all of which seemed to be framed around quantifying the degree to which a victim was to blame and why…as though all the rape myths and everything women have been told through centuries of continuous sexual violence somehow ever had the answers.

SlutWalk unfortunately had a built-in audience, and it just so happened that in 2011 in North America, a few public incidences, like Judge DeWar in Manitoba, who called a convicted rapist ‘nothing but a clumsy Don Juan’, or the 11 year old girl who was gang-raped in Texas and the subject of coverage that judged her for ‘wearing makeup and acting older than her age’, the public sexual assault of journalist Lara Logan and her subsequent revictimization in the media, efforts to re-define rape in the United States to exclude certain survivors from recognition or services, and of course Toronto Police Officer Michael Sanguinetti-exemplified the reasons for this building frustration around victim-blaming and sexual violence, and conditioned the environment for widespread action. SlutWalk just lit the spark – or as one person said, held up a mirror, to what was already happening.

I didn’t know what to expect that day, on April 3rd 2011, it’s fair to say that nobody really did. But what I walked into was a community of people who took over and shut down the streets of Toronto, and in an unmistakably vocal, fierce and proud way, were able to challenge being shamed as survivors, to demand better from society, from our communities and institutions, to turn anger into action, and to-even if temporarily-relinquish the frustration, trauma and silencing of victim-blaming in a supportive space. The emotional charge and the catharsis was almost palpable, and truly something I will never forget.

I joined the team as an organizer soon after, to do what I could to continue these actions, however imperfect they may have been, and may continue to be as we learn and evolve.

As someone pointed out on our Facebook page once, victim-blaming validates the actions of perpetrators of violence because of the inherent assumption that anyone is deserving of sexual violence. It still floors me when people start sentences by saying something to the effect of ‘we can all agree that rape is wrong…BUT’ and follow this with conditions that explain why any rape, which truly becomes every rape, is ‘the exception’. There are no ‘illegitimate’ rapes and rape is ALWAYS forcible.

We must always listen to the voices and truths of survivors and their experiences.

We don’t know the exact number of SlutWalks that have happened the world over, but we do know that SlutWalks have happened in over 200 cities around the world, across six continents, and more are always being planned. The events are locally organized by volunteers in every city they occur. Events and efforts have been in Toronto, Buenos Aires, Kolkutta, Sydney, London, Johannesburg, Seattle, Tel Aviv, Kuala Lumpur, Sao Paulo, Yellowknife, Mumbai, Amsterdam, Mexico City, Berlin, Morocco, Houston, Melbourne, Hong Kong, Bogota, Bucharest, Chicago and many many other cities.

Some of these have been SlutWalks, some have happened in different names and ways that have worked for those localities, but all have taken a public stand as part of internationally collective action against victim-blaming.

In the last 18 months, we’ve had many people in Canada and elsewhere tell us online and in person that participating in SlutWalk and the presence of a fresh public dialogue about victim-blaming and rape culture provided a point of entry for them to join these conversations, or helped them to move past internalized blame, or to repair relationships with people in their lives who didn’t understand sexual violence and what it really is. We’ve had youth in high school, sex workers, and others tell us that before SlutWalk, it never occurred to them that being raped wasn’t their fault; or that SlutWalk was the first time they were able to believe it. We’ve been told that SlutWalk has brought sexual violence more into casual conversation – present in living rooms and at dinner tables, getting though some of the silence and stigma. People have related that knowing we exist has made them feel supported to speak out in their own lives and in the spaces they live in. For us, this is one of the most rewarding elements, and a big part of what keeps us going.

SlutWalk Toronto has never been resource-heavy. This was an action spread and shared, in person and online, by people who could relate. People who understood, if maybe not terms like ‘patriarchy’, ‘misogyny’,‘anti-oppression’, or even how they may have identified with or related to the complexity of feminism; What sexual violence feels like. What it feels like to be asked to take responsibility for something that is not your choice, and BY DEFINITION against your will. What it feels like to be shamed for your sexuality and treated as though you are deserving of less than full respect all the time for reasons that other people unfairly make about you, your actions or your identities. What it feels like to be immersed in social messages that reinforce this and devalue your gender, sexual orientation, ability, ethnicity, and so on.

Simple messages make it possible for people who haven’t had these conversations to start to, for people who haven’t paid attention to these issues to begin to. Approximately 1 in 4 women will experience sexual violence in her lifetime, and 1 in 6 boys. We know these figures are underreported and that isn’t news to anyone here. People shouldn’t need University degrees to be free to share their stories and talk about their experiences with sexual violence.When we talk about feminism, sometimes educational and academic privilege plays a part in these conversations and who gets to have and understand them. The less of a ‘bar for entry’ we have, the more potential there is to further these connections, conversations and communities of support, and the stronger we are to continue to find ways to work together in organizing and addressing oppression.

In addition to connecting with survivors and activists internationally, another advantage of our ‘headquarters’ being online has been participating in some of the incredible actions that have happened recently. In the last year all of us online in these anti-violence and feminist spheres have seen plenty of important, long overdue conversations happen in online spaces.

Like the #Ididnotreport hashtag – where hundreds of thousands of people the world over confirmed unreported sexual violence and the many reasons why they did not report. And the people who tagged their replies to these survivors with a #webelieve you hashtag, validating what many said was the first time they disclosed, and generating a massive outpouring of support.

There was the recent incident with comedian Daniel Tosh ‘jokingly’ threatening an audience member with gang rape, that catalyzed the digital sphere into a flurry of exchanges and thorough, insightful pieces of writing that furthered the social consciousness of understanding that (guess what?!) rape is NOT funny – and that the concept of ‘free speech’ does not immunize anyone from committing hate speech with real consequences for others.

There was the uproar against Komen defunding Planned Parenthood, the numerous advertisers who dropped Rush Limbaugh’s show after he called Sandra Fluke a ‘slut’ and a prostitute on the air after the widespread public response, groups like Unite Against The War on Women and the many campaigns against sexism and violence that are sparking conversation as well as making measurable gains and changes that are powerful tools in convincing people that caring and speaking up CAN and DOES make a difference.

Let’s not forget the emergence of Project Unbreakable, a powerful photo Tumblr of survivors holding up signs of what their assailants said to them while sexually assaulting them, and the Who Needs Feminism project, with photos of people telling us why they need feminism. One of my favourites is: ‘I need feminism because I’m sick of people telling me that I’m overreacting to the normalization of sexual violence.’

Recently, there has been a coalescing of pieces and conversations about online harassment and what it means to be out as a feminist, or even just a woman, online. Following gaming researcher Anita Sarkeesian’s experience with many death and rape threats after she dared to investigate gender stereotypes in gaming, major publications, websites and online platforms have begun to take online sexual harassment and threats seriously. FINALLY.

The rape apologism, sexism and rape jokes comments that have been spread virally over the internet to mass outrage recently are far from the first of their kind. The difference now is that we have more resources to challenge people publicly, directly and hold them accountable-with the fantastic peripheral result that the rest of the world is learning and listening.

At SlutWalk Toronto, we aspire to continue participating in action, in resistance, in conversations, that erode rape culture, that bring everyone around to understanding a common baseline that there is no ‘grey rape’, and no place for victim-blaming, if’s, and’s or ’but’s or words like ‘illegitimate’ or ‘legitimate’ when we are talking about violence and victimization. That there is no room for opinions in conversations about rape. These are our basic human rights.

And while we talk about the things that all too simple and common, such as that no one is safe from survivorship and violence, that everyone knows and cares about someone who has been sexually assaulted, that rapists and nobody but rapists are responsible for rape—we also commit to continuing our activism in the spirit of openness, with the understanding, in the words of Anais Nin, that “we do not see things as they are, we see things as we are”- the willingness to admit our own ignorance, to acknowledge privilege in a non-finite way, and to learn and connect in solidarity to address the many different ways and compounding social factors that affect how individuals and groups of people experience sexual violence.


SlutWalks have received a lot of support and a lot of criticism in the last year. And we are thankful for both. We are thankful to the people who have taken time, challenged us and engaged in dialogues with all of the different people carrying these messages. Thank you to Black Women’s Blueprint, the Brooklyn based organization that wrote an Open Letter From Black Women to SlutWalk, outlining their support for our passion and concerns around the ways many women of colour can be left out of this fight and these conversations. Thank you to the varied feminist voices that have questioned us and challenged us. Through these criticisms we have been able to do some necessary reflection, be accountable when we have very sadly alienated and excluded certain communities, and grow into something with stronger roots, wiser voices and hopefully, a lengthened future. We are also thankful for the criticisms SlutWalks have faced, as at times they have strengthened our resolve and a voice to our survivor experiences, even when we stand in disagreement with others.

Within Toronto, we’ve been involved in ongoing efforts to build bridges in our community, to connect with activists, organizers and organizations to broaden dialogue, strengthen the base from which we organize, and continue to learn how to do better. These learning curves have been some of the most rewarding parts of being involved in organizing for our team.

We have also been thankful to have been invited to other rallies, to schools, to universities, to conferences and to have exchanges in different spaces towards greater understanding about how SlutWalk has been taken up elsewhere, what issues are being fought in other cities, how actions are being challenged and changed, as well as other approaches to addressing and resisting sexual violence and victim-blaming. We’re continually inspired by the conversations and actions we see happening in other cities.

Different words are used in different countries, in different languages: from slut to puta, from salope to vadia, from rundi to slampa, from slapper to sharmuta, from schlampe to slet. More than different words, different issues have been rooted in SlutWalk efforts in different political climates like femicide in Mexico, breastfeeding stigmas, machismo and development conferences in Brazil, corrective rape of lesbians in South Africa, dowry traditions and widespread eve teasing on public transit in Delhi and Mumbai, re-defining rape, censorship of language, restrictions to reproductive health care and the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case in the US, legislative officials trying to outlaw miniskirts in Indonesia, sports events taking priority over anti-sexual violence events in Scotland, the Minister of Justice suggesting some rapes are “less serious” in England, the suicide of a young girl forced by traditional law to marry her rapist in Morocco, homophobia and stigma towards LGBTQ survivors in Honduras, street harassment, slut-shaming and institutional silencing in Israel, judges and police blaming victims and the government not investigating hundreds of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. SlutWalks have somehow been able to hold on to the simple message against victim-blaming and slut-shaming, but embrace the complexity of violence in people’s lives.

The photos you’ve seen playing behind us are photos captured at SlutWalk events around the world. These photos, along with the many stories they often come with, have fed our souls. Unlike the common mainstream media depictions of SlutWalks as women-only spaces where attendees wear only bras, fishnets, nipple tassels and write ‘slut’ across their bodies, SlutWalks have involved people of all ages, gender expressions, have included families, different outfits and aesthetics, and have brought many people together.

As a friend and incredible activist named Kim Crosby says, “Hurt people hurt people.” We all have complex individual lives and bodies with layered and different identities and experiences. We exist in bodies that simultaneously face privilege and oppression. We make mistakes and we learn and grow, but we all have a responsibility to consider how we can make this world a place that we all want to live in and a place where we are all entitled to live a life filled with respect and safety. We must build communities of care. Communities that support each other, that fight for each other, that speak out when others cannot, that stay silent when we must listen, that stand with each other, and that really care about each other. And this takes work.

We must care about people who look differently and live differently than ourselves. [Heather]

We must care about survivors if we have never experienced sexual violence. [Colleen]

We must care about racism when we experience white or light skinned privilege. [Heather]

We must care about queer people when we are straight. [Colleen]

We must care about transgender, intersex and two-spirited people when our own sex and gender align with what’s expected of us. [Heather]

We must care about migrants, refugees and undocumented workers when we have citizenship within our nation. [Colleen]

We must care about people with disabilities when our own bodies are able. [Heather]

We must care about classism when we do not live in poverty or have more financial privilege. [Colleen]

We must care about sex workers when we have never worked in the sex industry. [Heather]

We must care about indigenous peoples and indigenous solidarity when we are settlers and do not fully understand the colonial history of our nations. [Colleen]

We must care about people living with HIV/AIDS when live without these illnesses. [Heather]

We must care about people who are young and people who are old. [Colleen]

We have to care about people of all genders, as we can all be survivors. [Heather]

We must care about people who experience and understand police and justice systems as places of violence and discrimination, and who avoid them and even fight them, even when * we access the police for support. [Colleen]

We must care about people who experience liberation through showing their bodies when we cover ours, and we must care about people who experience their freedom and identity through covering their bodies when we expose more of ours. [Heather]

We must care about and recognize people who cannot claim words like “slut”, when violence, discrimination and oppression make this a privilege they cannot access. [Colleen]

We must care about people who are sexually assaulted when they were drinking, wearing a short skirt, who looked older, who flirted, who said yes before, who have had more sex, who let someone into their home, who couldn’t say no and who happened to be in any position where they are seen as at fault. [Heather]


It can at times seem overwhelming to think of so many people and so many issues but it can be thought of simply in caring for those who’s struggles are different than ours. We must care about people, be willing to listen and hear the differences of our lives because these things are all interconnected and sexual violence stops at none of them. We must care about one another with intent and action. We need to build communities that will allow people to love and have sex how they want to, with consent, with education, with who they want to. SlutWalk follows in the fierce footsteps of those who have fought the people with power – because there are actual people with far more power who uphold and perpetuate systems that keep us down, that put us at risk, that tell us what we can and cannot do with our own bodies, that blame us no matter what we do with our bodies, that give us so little that we fight each other, and there are people that work within systems responsible for these messes – we fight these people and institutions of power that hurt us and hurt others. We do this because it does not get better unless we make it better. These are all the things we’ve learned and the things we are committed to doing to reclaim our bodies, to reclaim our streets and to keep fighting for our safety.

SlutWalk does not have one voice. It has many. Survivors do not have one voice, we have many. And we need many voices to fight this battle. We are not a monolith, we are fiercely and fantastically different. SlutWalk is what people make of it and we are trying to make it a collection of efforts, voices, connections, lessons and experiences. You are here today and we are here today fighting and standing with each other – in pain, in anger, in trust, in belief and in solidarity. The people here, the people who we’ve learned from, the people who inspire us, the people who are not yet known to us are all a part of the revolution that is long overdue.

We are here fighting back. Demanding better. Supporting each other. And saying hell no to the status quo. This is an incredible action in and of itself and should be recognized as it’s own form of survival and resistance. People of all genders face life scarring sexual violence, rape, harassment and exploitation at staggering numbers everyday. This is not just social justice work but a matter of life and death. We are here today fighting for our bodies, fighting for respect and fighting to live without expectations of violence. Thank you.