The chant “Whatever we wear, wherever we go—yes means yes, and no means no!” echoed through the streets of central London last Saturday.
Up to 4,000 people joined a loud, confident march against a culture of blaming women for rape and sexual violence.
The SlutWalk protests were sparked after a policeman told a group of women students in Toronto, Canada, that they could avoid rape by not dressing like sluts.
The protests have exploded across the globe—in Canada, the US, Australia, Europe and South America.
In Britain last Saturday, women and men joined what was one of the biggest marches for women’s rights in years.
Ellie Walsh travelled from Cornwall to join the protest.
“My friend was on the first march in Toronto,” she told Socialist Worker.
“The experiences of women there are the same as ours—at work, at school and on the street we are called ‘sluts’.
“It’s 2011. Women should be equal. We shouldn’t have to think twice about what we wear.”
Her brother Will was also on the march. He told Socialist Worker, “The media tells women to undress but when they do, the same media calls them ‘sluts’.”
Marchers carried home made placards bearing slogans such as, “You know what’s sexy? Consent” and “This is a skirt, not an invitation”.
The message was clear—that women are never to blame for rape, and state institutions such as the police and the courts are failing to protect women.
But there was also a debate about the best way to fight back.
Many protesters had taken part in the student demonstrations last year and were part of the anti-cuts movement.
They spoke about the need to broaden the fight.
Mary-Anne, a masters student at City University in London, told Socialist Worker, “The government wants to target people they think are the weakest. And now they are coming for women’s rights. We have to go on the offensive.”
Some protesters embraced the word “slut”. One home made placard read “slut power” and a number of women had painted the word on their bodies.
But others were uneasy at the idea that “slut” can be reclaimed.
They talked of friends and fellow activists who had chosen not to join the protest because of the use of the word.
Jenna Martin, from north London, said, “I had to fight with myself and some of my friends to come. I don’t like the word slut and don’t use it.
“I think it can undermine our fight if we use the language of abuse. But we came because it’s important to join such a vital demonstration.”
The debate reflects the problem of trying to build a movement around a word that is imbued with misogyny.
Ash Sarkar, a student at University College London, told Socialist Worker, “We need some debate about how to take this movement forward.
“One of the Slutwalk organisers announced a new organisation called ‘Slut means speak out’.
“I shouted, ‘Slut doesn’t mean speak out, isn’t that what the word feminist is for?’”
Speakers who attacked government cuts that will hit women particularly hard were cheered.
Claire, a disabled rights activist, told the protest, “We will be back to begging on the streets and shoplifting if Cameron gets away with what he is doing.”
Journalist and activist Laurie Penny told the crowd, “We are here to say no! Be afraid of us—we are coming for you.
“The uprisings from London to Libya and Tahrir Square in Egypt are saying we are not putting up with your attacks. Women are part of that.”
The day reflected deep anger at how women are treated in society, and a desire to fight back.
It also showed the need to debate how best to challenge sexism and inequality.