On Sunday morning, I showed up to Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles with a friend wearing a bargain-bin negligee set and a black leather puffball choker, ready to strut my stuff.
Some eight or so months after writing on the Women’s March, in which I described myself as a “nontypical attendee of a march or protest,” I returned Sunday for the Amber Rose SlutWalk, another display of free speech designed to promote female empowerment.
Rose has popularized the SlutWalk by organizing marches for the last three year and capitalizing on her celebrity status to attract sponsors and media attention. But SlutWalks originated in 2011 in response to an incident where a Toronto police officer said women shouldn’t “dress like sluts” in order to avoid being sexually assaulted.
SlutWalks began as a form of protest against the then-reintroduced second-wave feminist idea of rape culture. Rape culture proposes that mainstream society normalizes sexual violence and teaches people to avoid getting sexually assaulted and abused. This fosters a culture of victim-blaming rather than teaching perpetrators not to commit such acts.
Ever critical of the growing commercialization of grassroots efforts in the age of President Donald Trump, I cast a doubtful side-eye when I realized a few days prior to the event that I needed to buy tickets to attend ARSW. Although Reebok later sponsored the event and offered the promo code “ThankYouReebok” to make admission free, the admission fee itself is a testament to the necessity of commercialization and brand sponsorships to pay for organizational fees and equipment, such as an event permit for Pershing Square, microphones, other audiovisual electronics and the heightened police presence. A growing dependency on brand name companies to support protests and marches may be problematic for some, but from my point of view, it’s simply a pragmatic way of addressing the costs of organizing any large scale event regardless of whether said event is political or not.
Rose herself took the stage to say a few quick words after the emcees encouraged the crowd to shout, “Walk!” in response to each time they said, “Slut!” amid other more colorful back-and-forth chants. Although official numbers were not released at the time of writing, the crowd was visibly significantly smaller than the 350,000 reported that attended the Women’s March in January. In the square, a lively festival featuring art installations, food trucks and, as always, significant police presence ran from noon to 5 p.m.
“I think (Amber Rose’s Slutwalk) is the ultimate radical statement of reclaiming your body, especially in 2017. It’s very important, anti-sexual violence, anti-rape culture and anti-shame,” said Britt Hew, a fourth-year global studies student who attended the event. “Everyone is just coming together, wearing their best or not wearing anything at all, reclaiming the space and reclaiming ourselves.”
The march was peaceful, with signs including one that displayed text from contemporary poet Rupi Kaur’s quote, “The rape will / Tear you / In half / But it / Will not / End you” and others simply stating “Black Lives Matter.”
Attendees held black balloons sponsored by LELO, a sex toy company, which carried a message advocating for enthusiastic, affirmative consent. A few Christian fundamentalists spoke with megaphones outside the Pershing Square Station. I shouted, “No one cares!” and “Go to hell” in response while other people alongside me flipped the bird. There’s nothing like the sound of the healthy exercise of the First Amendment on a Sunday morning.
Recent communications alumna and ARSW attendee Marlina Mossberg said she chose to attend ARSW after missing the Women’s March in January.
“I regretted missing out on such a safe space where everyone is here for the same reason,” Mossberg said. “I like how literally anything goes (here at ARSW).”
The large crowds at the main entrance to Pershing Square prevented me from readily accessing the festival portion of ARSW, so I left soon after the end of the march itself to grab a bite nearby. As with the Women’s March, ARSW supported local businesses by bringing people to the downtown Los Angeles area, as evidenced by the few restaurantgoers here and there holding stray white posters.
As I left the vicinity of the festival, I felt mostly male onlookers turn and stare at my outfit, which did not include pants. In response, I held my sign up for all to see. “Not Asking For It,” it said, weaving my way through the pedestrian traffic of the Sunday downtown farmers’ market.
A woman in a minivan rolled down her window when I walked by.
“I’m glad that my grandson can see this. Thank you for coming out today,” she said, waving her hand toward the boy in the backseat. Aside from one stray sexual remark by one man, I did not hear a single threatening catcall as I ate lunch and walked back to my car.
On a campus with discussions on consent during orientation, a quarterly Campus Assault Resources and Education training focused on how to discuss sexual assault with friends and offer resources, and sex-positive and consent-focused committees within the UCLA Undergraduate Students Association Council’s Student Wellness Commission, the ideas of sexuality promoted by SlutWalk may seem like a no-brainer to the typical student. However, largely liberal campus politics among UCLA students do not reflect the reality that slut-shaming and victim-blaming are still issues in other parts of society.
In the realm of gender violence, all is not well in the policy sphere. Recently, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos formally withdrew Obama-era Title IX guidance on how to handle sexual assault allegations on campus. Although feminist Harvard Law School professor Janet Halley has stated that Title IX reform is necessary to conserve precious campus resources and avoid the trying of arbitrary cases, it is necessary to keep in mind the fragility of legal infrastructure that rejects a system and a society that blames victims and perpetuates rape culture. As with nearly everything we hold near and dear on a liberal campus in a country run by Trump, the freedoms and protections we have normalized are at risk.
Even the First Lady of the United States, often seen as a paragon of feminine poise and grace, cannot escape criticism surrounding expression of sexuality. After the 2016 presidential election and the beginning of the Trump presidency, First Lady Melania Trump was subject to criticism for her previous modeling career. One male New York Times writer reportedly called Mrs. Trump a “hooker,” only to apologize afterwards on Twitter.
Even among more left-leaning Americans, slut-shaming is clearly alive and well. It is for this reason that ARSW strives to continue six years down the line from the Toronto police officer’s comment – no matter how far we have come in terms of tackling sexual assault and gender violence, gender inequality and sexism continues to run deep in society’s veins.
In the months since the beginning of Trump’s presidency and my first report on the Women’s March, people have been galvanized into marching, protesting and grassroots organizing both across the country and on campus. Unlike the Women’s March, ARSW strives to focus on publicly condemning rape culture and end blame on victims of sexual assault and women for their wardrobe choices. In post-Trump progressive America, this is a dialogue that can get lost among the other worthy causes worth fighting for, ranging from a reinstatement of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to the continued fight to expand and maintain equal access to safe and affordable contraception.
By limiting the scope of the spirit and maintaining focus on rape culture, SlutWalk accomplished its mission of holding an event to raise awareness about sexual injustice and gender inequality while providing a space to “entertain, educate and empower.” The festival fanfare and the celebrity appearances of Blac Chyna and 21 Savage may not be the stuff of concrete political change, but there is still something magical about thousands of individuals descending on downtown Los Angeles to celebrate and uphold bodily autonomy from shame and sexual violence.
I’m not asking for it – “it” being harassment, assault, rape, abuse and violence. No one is, and in 2017, feminists such as myself and other progressive-minded individuals should continue to keep that message close at hand.