Slutwalk entered my life exactly when I needed it.
I had just returned to Kingston, ON from a foreign internship feeling completely deflated. My initial foray into graduate studies in a Master’s of Health Promotion had amounted to nothing concrete. Sure, I had gained international experience, top grades in my courses and some lifelong friends. But I had also endured a lengthy immersion in a toxic work environment — one from which none of my colleagues would emerge unscathed — let alone with degrees.
After two years,
two dysfunctional co-supervisors,
three trips to South Africa
and one imploded thesis proposal defence,
I was at an impasse.
My scholarship money dried up. I wasn’t eligible for further funding or teaching assistantships.
I was broke and broken. Damaged goods.
I was ready to quit and walk away until one of my mentors from undergrad took me on as her student. I switched into my department’s socio-cultural studies stream and felt a weight lifted. I was relieved, knowing I would finally be able to pursue a feminist project of my own making. We would have walking meetings with her dog in the park — far away from campus and all the reminders of my failure. She helped mend my spirit and rebuild my confidence. Still, after several months into “Lauren gets her Master’s, Take 2”, a new topic eluded me.
My advisor encouraged me to find a topic by paying attention to what troubles me. What made me curious? Or frustrated? What did I want to “unpack” about the world around me? (Academics are always unpacking things). Her tone was reassuring. Her advice was practical: a good thesis was a done thesis. And there it was. My thesis topic in a Facebook event.
A group of activists led by co-founders Heather Jarvis and Sonja Barnett had just announced the first ever SlutWalk, a response to the slut-shaming, rape-myth-perpetuating comments of a Toronto Police Officer at a York University Campus Safety briefing (namely, that women could avoid sexual assault by not dressing like sluts.) The march was scheduled for April 2011. Since its inception, SlutWalk received a flurry of press coverage and think pieces about its controversial premise. Sister marches were being announced all over Canada and worldwide.
I felt resistance bubbling up in response to a problem that I had been researching for years and experiencing forever. People were talking about rape culture — a term I had only ever encountered in feminist texts and zines. This was a watershed moment for many.
For the countless young girls and women exerting untold energy trying to “avoid risk”, because they’d heard years of victim-blaming messaging — your inevitable rape is your problem.
For survivors who reported sexual assault hoping for support and justice, but instead were interrogated, shamed or even sued for defamation — while their rapists enjoyed impunity.
For campus activists trying to redirect scant resources away from “blue safety lights” and campaigns about “stranger danger” towards evaluating the patriarchal culture that makes rape an utterly normal extension of heteronormative relations.
For every woman ever called a slut because she put out, didn't put out, wore a skirt, wore a uniform, insisted on a condom, walked down the street, walked home alone, didn't smile, smiled, rode a bike, won an award, ran for elected office, disagreed with a man, had an opinion.
SlutWalk was ripe for analysis. And on a practical note, it was somewhat related to my previous thesis topic (I'd been studying masculinity and rape myth acceptance in the context of HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence prevention in South Africa).
But I resisted at first, convinced I was an academic and feminist fraud.
What if I wasn’t a good enough feminist? If I put this burgeoning social movement under my academic lens, would I ruin it?
What if I didn't do it justice? How could I ever possibly claim to speak to issues of sexual assault prevention and the “feminist agenda”, when I occupied such a position of privilege as a white, hetero, able-bodied, English-speaking woman?
In short: who the hell did I think I was?
I was cancelling my thoughts before they happened. Writer’s block? Naw, that's a cake-walk compared to the self-sabotage I put myself through.
The double-edged sword of academia is that you need a topic you're passionate enough about that you can maintain the energy to study it for years. But on this deep dive, you also risk coming to truly hate your topic. It becomes “work” for you (and others around you, who come to tolerate your incessant chatter, late dinners and cancelled plans).
Your writing becomes an extension of yourself. A written symbol of your self worth. It's all very dramatic, really.
“Here’s my draft. (And my soul.) Let me know what you think. (Please validate me!!!)”
“A rewrite? Great! I'll get that to you in two weeks. (Real quick though, gonna crawl into a ball and drown in this pint because I have nothing good to write about anything ever.)”
But with SlutWalk came an undeniable opportunity to write about many things that mattered to me — effective sexual violence prevention, solidarity and support for survivors, female sexuality and the changing landscape of feminist activism.
I decided to focus on popular (mis)representations of feminist anti-rape activism in media coverage, with SlutWalk as the case study. If someone picks up a newspaper or scrolls past a headline about SlutWalk, what might they come to learn about feminism? Or rape culture? I wanted to know!
I was tired of treading water, so I dove in headfirst. And I felt the stars align. As I sifted through media coverage of SlutWalk, I leaned heavily on historical and modern feminist texts. I was coming into my own and deepening my feminist worldview.
I joined the board of a local women’s shelter. I went to a therapist to comb through the aftermath of an emotionally abusive relationship with my first co-supervisors. I paid for my tuition with multiple research assistant contracts and admin jobs. I even served as a crisis counsellor for graduate and professional students on campus. I no longer apologized for my dissenting views in academic and social spheres — I voiced them proudly.
I completed my thesis and earned my Master of Arts in 2012. My thesis defense wasn’t really a “defense” so much as an engaging discussion with some of my feminist mentors, to whom I am still indebted. I'm quite proud to declare that a google search of “slut + Lauren McNicol” yields my thesis and my published chapter in a feminist anthology entitled “Feminist Erasures: Challenging Backlash Culture” (Eds. Silva and Mendes, 2015).
I wish I could say the rest is history and the white capitalist heteropatriarchy is dead, but alas we've morphed from the proud sluts of 2011 to the nasty women and pussies that grab back in 2017. Victim-blaming and rape culture are alive and well, but so too are SlutWalk and other grassroots movements like Hollaback!. Although I turned off my google alerts for SlutWalk after defending my thesis, I've kept it in my peripheral vision.
In today’s 7th Annual Toronto SlutWalk, the theme is “Sex worker rights are human rights”. This year’s event will center the expertise of local Black, Indigenous, and migrant sex workers. This constitutes a crucial step towards a more intersectional movement and a vast improvement from the earliest iterations of SlutWalk, which suffered a bit from what I’ll call a white-washed, depoliticized, post-feminist vibe (hint hint read my chapter). Nonetheless, progress in the intervening years has come in the form of the public’s improved vocabulary for calling out victim-blaming and slut-shaming, more nuanced coverage of sexual assault cases, and the continued engagement of a generation of new feminists who are pissed off and fighting back.
SlutWalk 2017 is happening today in Toronto. Meet at Barbara Hall Park at 2 PM. March from there. Route tbd. "Surprise event" at final stop from 4 - 6 PM.
Lauren McNicol is a recovering academic who has published work on mainstream depictions of feminist activism and the bullshit MRA movement. After escaping the ivory tower, she's paid the bills working as a research coordinator, live-in nanny, grant writer, jewelry store clerk, and census enumerator. These days, she's finding her passion as a visual merchandiser, cocktail ambassador and occasional recipe tester. She lives happily with her partner and plants in a one bedroom rental.
Follow her on Instagram and bug her to finally start her blog so she can stop relying on Facebook status rants.