The annual worldwide SlutWalk originated in 2011, in response to the comments of Toronto Police Constable Michael Sanguinetti, after he told a York University audience, “Women should avoid dressing like sluts” in order to prevent sexual assault. The response to the nature of Sanguinetti’s statement was immediate, massive, and international.
“Everyone got so angry,” said Sunna Ben Guðrúnardóttir—Reykjavík native, DJ, artist, photo editor, activist and an organiser of this and prior years’ SlutWalk—when we discussed the event’s history, and the details of this summer’s upcoming fifth iteration. “There was this amazing solidarity that sprang out of it.”
In the months following Sanguinetti’s statement, SlutWalks appeared transnationally—in Asia, North and Latin America, and in Europe. Their purpose: to call attention to social, cultural, and legal issues surrounding rape, and rape culture—notably the fallaciousness of victim-blaming and slut-shaming. Iceland’s first SlutWalk occurred on July 23, 2011.
The path of little resistance
Despite such an overwhelming response, there were sure to be those against the idea of SlutWalk. With such a sensitive topic, and with such controversial word choice, it is not unreasonable to anticipate resistance. One can imagine the varying criticisms, concerns, and perspectives that could hinder the development of such a movement.
Initially, there was some evident wariness on the part of some citizens of Iceland. “The first year it was hard to get people to come because of the stigma of the word,” Sunna Ben says. “I was at a party with my very feminist family, and I said, ‘Hey, I’m going to SlutWalk.’ No one wanted to come with me.”
The most notable source of criticism has come from internet and social media sources, she says. “There’ll be commentators online who will say, ‘Arrrrgh! Awful Feminists!’ But nothing that’s touched us personally.”
Despite the initial hesitance, Sunna Ben says that in Reykjavík they’ve been very lucky. “People are on our side,” she says. “They know that it’s important. They know it’s not about ‘sluttiness.’ It’s about your right not to be sexually violated.”
It seems that any problem with the verbiage has faded into the background, and has made room for an open discourse on the issues of sexual assault and violence—with the citizens and government decidedly on board. “It’s really just part of the summer schedule here,” she says. “Pride is a couple of weekends after, and the culture night a few before.”
But what of change
One striking feature of the SlutWalk in Reykjavík is that it is characteristically an all-ages, family-friendly event. “I haven’t been to it in any other country,” Sunna Ben says. “I’ve only seen pictures… maybe they’re not taking pictures of all the people with the prams. But here it’s really a family event.” In this way, it seems evident that any personal or cultural reservation—to the chosen words of the event, or the topic of sexuality—has taken a backseat to starting discussion and raising awareness.
Last year’s SlutWalk drew around 11,000 attendees—the largest showing yet in Reykjavík. Sunna Ben hopes that the numbers will continue to grow. “We’re aiming to double it,” she says, clearly excited by the prospect of nearly six percent of the nation’s population walking together. “We really want 20,000— that’s what we’re going for now… That would be the dream.” If the numbers of Facebook event attendees are any indication—with 4.2k already confirmed at time of writing, and more RSVPing daily—this dream goal seems plausible.
What would it mean to have such numbers in attendance? And how, if even possible, could one measure the long-term effects of such an event? Sunna Ben believes that evidence of change, along with a new openness on the topic of sexual assault in Iceland, can already be found online.
Sunna Ben sees the opening up of so many Icelandic women about their stories of sexual abuse in the Beauty Tips group, the trending of hashtags #outloud, #konurtala (women speak) and #þöggun (silenced), and the resulting Facebook profile picture activism, as indications of positive change and concrete examples of progress. “I think part of the reason why people know how to discuss this now is because we’ve been pushing it. You don’t have to hide it: We can talk about this kind of stuff now if you want to, if you’re ready. I think the SlutWalk has done a lot for making space for people to talk.”
Further, real parliamentary progress has already been made due in part to the marches. In 2014, MPs from every political party signed a proposal that cited a need for change in the treatment and litigation of sexual assault cases.
And as the numbers of attendees has grown, so has the schema and scope of the walk.
Spotlight on the internet revolution
SlutWalk Reykjavík is also notable for having a selected theme. Each year’s walk hopes to highlight a certain issue or subset within the broader scope of sexual assault, violence, and sexual politics.
Themes of previous years have covered a broad range of topics. The theme in 2012 was a play on words—the “Alleged Slut” Walk. It was a pointed critique of the verbiage surrounding sexual assault court cases. “It was a nice jab,” says Sunna Ben, “at this insufferable use of language.” The following year saw a shift in the spotlight: “We tried to put the focus on violence against men, and getting men to speak out—because in a lot of ways it’s harder.”
Other years have seen SlutWalk working alongside other rights organisations. In 2014, SlutWalk worked with Tabú, an organization that works with disabled people, and W.O.M.E.N. – Samtök Kvenna af Erlendum Uppruna (“Women of foreign origin”), to highlight issues of sexual assault and violence in those communities. With these themes, Sunna Ben hopes to have widened the scope of what SlutWalk means.
“It’s not only about how girls dress that’s the discussion now,” she says. Though victim blaming and dress was the initial impetus for the walk, and important as an entrance into discussion and prospects for change, Sunna Ben points out that the victims of sexual assault and violence “can be anyone. Everyone deserves understanding and support.” It seems the goal of SlutWalk Reykjavik is to illuminate the great diversity and variety of those affected by sexual assault—to show that no one is left unaffected, and thus that it is an issue that requires immediate attention, discussion, and action.
This year’s SlutWalk takes place on July 25. As in past years, marchers will meet at Hallgrímskírkja at 14:00, and walk to Austurvöllur, in front of Parliament.
And the theme for 2015? “This year’s theme is to encourage people who have been stepping up [online] to come and take part. This internet revolution that caught us off guard—it’s amazing. We are so impressed. We kind of just want it to be their day.”