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SlutWalks aim to take blame off victims of sexual assault

Miranda Nichols is an organizer of SlutWalk KC.

SlutWalk KC

When: The event is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 17 after permit issues forced organizers to reschedule from their original July 30 event date

Where: Gather at the J.C. Nichols fountain on the Plaza before marching to Theis Park

What to wear: Whatever you feel comfortable wearing

More information: facebook.com/slutwalkKC

Ink

Miranda Nichols did not ask her friend to sexually assault her.

She did not give him permission to climb on top of her as she slept, and she did not tell him to try to fight his way into her jeans.

But he did, she says.

“You wanted this,” she remembers him telling her as she struggled.

She kicked. She fought him off. But with one simple sentence, he neutralized any mental courage or strength she had left. What had she done to invite this?

In the days that followed, her friends would ask her, had she been drinking? What was she wearing?

Unintentionally but effectively they asked, “What did you do to allow yourself to be assaulted?”

And for a long time, Nichols asked herself the same questions.

Yes, she had been drinking. But they were in a friend’s apartment, not on a dark and lonely street corner. She was wearing a T-shirt and jeans. She had thought it was safe.

Nichols, a Kansas City resident who was 19 at the time, decided not to file a police report — a decision she still regrets at times — because she knew the officer would ask about the alcohol.

Yes, she was drinking underage.

Would ask if he had succeeded in raping her.

No, he hadn’t.

She was fearful of having her character put on trial through the legal system. Of being labeled a victim. Damaged goods. A slut.

She had not wanted this.

And with that realization, that acceptance that this was not her fault, Nichols got angry.

She got angry at her attacker, and she got angry at the culture that asks not “Why did you rape?” but instead “Why did you let yourself get raped?”

And then she realized something else: Other women were angry, too.

In April, women and men gathered in Toronto to organize the world’s first ever SlutWalk, after a police officer told a group of students that women should avoid dressing like “sluts” to protect themselves from rape and sexual assault.

Thousands took to the streets in April to protest the officer’s sentiment and the underlying cultural problems it implied. No matter what a woman is wearing, they said, she does not deserve to be raped.

It was not a quiet, solemn protest. Women, men and transgendered people marched in solidarity, wearing everything from lingerie with the word “slut” plastered across their bodies to T-shirts and jeans. They carried signs with slogans such as “Ask me what I’m asking for” and “Don’t tell us how to dress. Tell men not to rape.” It was loud, it was shocking, it was intentionally scandalous, and, more than anything, it was angry.

And it spread.

SlutWalks began to pop up all over the world: Boston, St. Louis, New Delhi, Seattle, London, Montreal, Seoul and Edinburgh.

Now, two years after her assault, Miranda Nichols, along with four other Kansas City residents, has decided to bring the movement to Kansas City. They are planning a march tentatively scheduled for Sept. 17 after permit issues forced them to reschedule from their original July 30 event date. They say they hope to see more than 800 people gather at the J.C. Nichols Fountain on the Country Club Plaza to march to Theis Park for SlutWalk KC.

“An article about SlutWalk really hit home for me especially because of all the victim-blaming comments I got,” Nichols says. “I know so many men and women and trans-men and women … who have been affected by sexual violence. I thought ‘this is something that is not Toronto’s problem. This is a problem collectively in Western society.’ ”

They are encouraging participants to wear whatever they feel comfortable in — whether it be a sexy dress, underwear or sweatpants — to make it known that rape is unacceptable and cannot be excused by calling the victim a slut.

Jaclyn Friedman, a writer, educator and feminist activist who spoke at the Boston SlutWalk, which drew about 2,000 people, says labeling women as sluts marks them as easy targets for violence. Sluts are never you or me, she says. Sluts are those “other women” who get themselves into trouble. Sluts — by wearing revealing clothing or drinking too much alcohol — entice male attention and invite sexual advances. If a slut gets raped, it was her own fault. If a slut gets raped, it’s not society’s problem.

Friedman has a term for this phenomenon. She calls it “social license to operate.”

“We know from research that many rapes are perpetrated by guys who do it again and again and again,” she says. “And the reason they can do it so many times is because we let them. We say, ‘well, she was leading him on’ or ‘it was just a misunderstanding,’ and we excuse it in some way or another. … Unless it’s a stranger jumping out of the bushes with a weapon and unless the victim is unimpeachably innocent, we make excuses. We give the rapists a social license to operate.”

Angie Blumel, director of community services with the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault, Kansas City’s sexual violence crisis center, says it’s important to note that slut-shaming language is especially harmful to public discourse because it contradicts research that shows rapists, more often than not, choose their targets based on how vulnerable they are, not how physically attractive they are.

“What we know based on research is that people rape for reasons related to wanting power and control and to harm others,” she says. “There’s a myth in society that it’s about wanting sex or wanting to engage in sexual activity with others when really it’s about power.”

But, she says, for people who don’t understand sexual violence, it’s much easier to explain the situation by finding something the victim did wrong than to explain why somebody would choose to rape.

Friedman says another reason people engage in victim-blaming is to help themselves feel safer.

“I think a lot of people do engage in victim-blaming for reasons that I empathize with,” she says. “Women are totally guilty of slut-shaming each other. They think there is a set of ways to behave that’s right, and if you don’t behave that way you make yourself a target. The whole reason that’s appealing is it makes you believe you can stay safe. ‘If I behave this way I’ll be OK, and if I don’t, that’s when I’m in trouble.’ ”

However, she says that mindset lures people into a false sense of security and propagates the problem by ignoring what’s really going on — by ensuring that rapists continue to have a social license to operate.

SlutWalk attempts to put an end to that social license by reclaiming the word slut so that it can’t be used as justification for sexual violence. By marching together under the banner of sluthood, these women say that if you dare to call one of them sluts, you must call all of them sluts, thereby showing the ridiculousness and ambiguity of the term.

“It’s kind of an ‘I am Spartacus’ moment,” Friedman says. “It’s a movement of mass solidarity.”

Nichols says she thinks language can shape realities and the way people perceive problems, and it’s important to take a minute to stop and think about what message you convey by the words you use. She says she frequently stops conversations to point out when friends use victim-blaming or slut-shaming language.

“If you ask 10 different people for a definition of ‘slut,’ you’ll get 10 different answers,” she says. “For a word that doesn’t even have a concrete meaning, it sure has a lot of effect to it.”

However, some women aren’t ready to reclaim the word “slut.” For them, it’s an unredeemable word that should be banished, not reclaimed. But organizers hope that won’t prevent those women from joining the march.

“Maybe this isn’t the movement for a lot of people,” Nichols says. “I just think that even if you don’t want to reclaim it, you can still walk with us in solidarity as targeting that aspect of rape culture.”

Others, women and men alike, don’t want to have anything to do with SlutWalks. The organizers of SlutWalk KC say they have to pay especially close attention to their Facebook page to remove vulgar images and disturbing comments; one user recently posted an image of a vagina filled with worms.

“We have a lot of trolling on our site,” says Alexandra Aldridge, one of the organizers. “And the sad thing is, you’d expect it from males, but it’s a lot of women. For me, getting it from women is more upsetting. … Recently, we had a woman go off and tell us how ridiculous and extreme this is and how we’re just asking for it and how women who dress like this should be preyed upon.”

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, infamous for picketing soldiers’ funerals, are expected to be on hand to protest the protest.

“My stomach dropped completely (when I first heard they were attending),” Aldridge says. “But my other reaction is that we must be doing something right if we’re getting their attention.”

Nichols says she hopes the march gets the attention of someone else as well: her attacker

“I hope he squirms,” she says.

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