Power to the Sluts

20110911-123453.jpgLast night, Slut Walk Las Vegas made some serious noise on The Strip. With an escort from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department at every turn, approximately 200 people rallied at the Erotic Heritage Museum and walked to The Mirage and back (approximately two miles round-trip). While the crowd was mostly young people, there were women, men, and individuals from all parts of the LGBTQ rainbow as well as people from many different racial and ethnic groups. There were moms, students, homeless people, sex workers, academics, activists, physical and mental health workers, social workers, artists, dancers, unemployed people, employed people… a real constellation of people coming together for a single cause: to defend sexual violence victims and their rights.

The theme for the night was come as you are but come out for justice for victims of sexual violence who are shamed into silence — sometimes by members of the very legal system which is supposed to protect them. The night was a rallying cry that, as one sign put it, “My ass is no excuse for ASSault.”

Chants of “No means no!” And “Hey hey, ho ho, sexual violence has got to go!” Echoed down the packed Saturday night streetscape of the Las Vegas Strip. The mantra for the evening, repeated often was: What happens in Vegas… still requires consent! At times our numbers overwhelmed the sidewalks and tourists were forced to merge with us, enveloped in our chants and signs protesting rape culture. It was a radical intersection of the sexualized playground of The Strip and the message that sex without consent becomes rape.

The rally at the Erotic Heritage Museum kicked things off, with speakers who worked at (but in some cases did not always “officially” represent) the Erotic Heritage Museum, SWOP-LV, Planned Parenthood of Southern Nevada, the Nevada Coalition Against Sexual Violence, the Rape Crisis Center, The Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada and, the event’s organizers Tara Brosnan and Gabrielle Amato.

“When you are raped, you are asked if you are a whore,” Jenny Heinemen sex worker representing SWOP said (I didn’t get her name, if anyone did, please supply it in comments). “When you are a whore, you are asked, what did you expect?”

Indeed, the welcomed presence of sex workers and pro-sex-work advocates may have been a unique Sin City flavor compared to the dozens of other Slut Walks that have happened all over the world since the original event in Toronto (prompted by a police officer’s comment that if college women want to avoid being raped, they should not dress like “sluts”). Considering our city’s storied history with prostitution and other forms of sex work, it may not seem very controversial to local feminists to include sex workers at an event designed to end slut-shaming and speak up for sexual violence victims. But there are those outside our fair city who disagree with their inclusion in Slut Walk, saying that implying that sex work is a choice and furthermore enjoyable, is anathema to feminism.

As The F Word put it:

By framing ‘sex work’* as something enjoyed by women, we change the direction of the conversation entirely. We remove the context of gendered oppression that is inherent to ‘sex work’; we erase survival sex workers who do not ‘choose’ this work in any way that resembles a free and autonomous choice, but rather must do it in order to survive, (so no, these women are not doing this ‘work’ because they ‘enjoy’ it); we perpetuate a male fantasy that says: women enjoy being dominated (because if you think men buying sex from women has nothing to do with power, you are living a fantasy), they enjoy being penetrated (some women do, many women do not, certainly all women do not enjoy being penetrated by strangers), they enjoy servicing men and catering to their every desire; we perpetuate the idea that prostitution is something that is ‘natural’; and we remove financial need and a context of capitalism from the discourse. Women do not exist to service men. ‘Sex work’ is about male pleasure via female bodies. This is not to say there there are not exceptions to this argument, but those exceptions are not the rule. The purpose of prostitution is male pleasure. The mere fact (and this is no mere fact) that women are paid by men removes autonomy and negates an argument for female pleasure as the primary purpose of sex work.

But this is exactly the mindset that SWOP activists and many of the sex workers I spoke with last night were trying to fight.

Here I paraphrase what the above-mentioned sex worker Jenny said at the rally: When we deny sex workers agency, when we say that sex workers do not have choices, we take away their autonomy over their bodies. We take away their power to say no. And without “no,” we are saying that sex workers cannot be raped.

Maybe you don’t like sex work. Maybe you feel that sex work is immoral. That’s your prerogative. But to deny any human being autonomy over their body, to say any person deserves rape (whether overtly by calling someone a slut or covertly by stigmatizing the circumstances of their rape), is far more immoral than any vocation. To me that’s no different from saying that a lesbian deserved to be raped because she needed the gay fucked out of her.

But there was a lot more to Slut Walk Las Vegas than sex workers (although I will say it was a unique experience to walk down The Strip with a woman wearing only pasties and daisy dukes). Annette Magnus, of Planned Parenthood of Southern Nevada, spoke about how slut-shaming hurts women whether they are victims of sexual assault or not.

“We hear all the time the if you get a PAP smear, it makes you a whore,” Magnus told the crowd. “It is so important that we start changing the messages in our society.”

She then shared a story about a client who was told by her mother-in-law that getting a PAP smear means you are a slut and want to step out on your husband. It turns out, that client had advanced HPV and needed to have her condition monitored, by getting regular PAP smears, every year. If she had listened to her mother-in-law’s slut-shaming, she may have greatly endangered her life, or might have even died.

Magnus and NCASV Executive Director Andrea Sundberg both spoke about the comprehensive sex education bill that failed in the Nevada Legislature earlier this year.

“If all you tell kids is ‘Don’t have sex. Don’t have sex.’ and then they come down to The Strip and all they see is sex, it’s a messed up message,” Magnus, who grew up in the Clark County School District with its abstinence-only message.

Sundberg rallied the crowd to be ready to fight for comprehensive sex education again in the next legislative session. But more urgently, she spoke about sexual violence victims who need an end to shaming right now.

“There are sexual violence victims here tonight. Some of them spoke out. Some of them didn’t. For those who didn’t, they were silenced by shaming. Look around you, you are not alone. You do not have to feel shame,” she told the crowd.

Perhaps more importantly, Sundberg urged the crowd to take the night’s energy and move it forward by getting involved in lobbying, politics, volunteering and helping non-profits like NCASV. “Tonight is great. But we have to keep it moving. There are so few of us doing this work. We can’t do it alone. We need your help.”

And perhaps that’s the most important message to come out of Slut Walk of all. It’s not about raising consciousness one night but every day. For survivors like me, who have found our voice, we must use it to speak our truth and move the dial forward to help victims everywhere. And survivors can’t find their voice without the help of services, counselors, faith leaders and more from the community. We need each other and we need to work together to bring an end to not only slut-shaming but the true violence that haunts us.

It starts with us. It starts today.

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8 thoughts on “Power to the Sluts

  1. Hi! Jenny Heineman was the SWOP representative. She is their co-director. Also, just a note, the inclusion of sex workers has happened at many of the Slut Walks, which is one refreshing thing about Slut Walks. (in contrast to the sex negative/censorship feminism that founded Take Back the Night, for example.) Identifying the links and parallels between slut shaming and whore stigma is very powerful.

  2. It is sad to see the antifeminist character given to the Slutwalks by some. Opposing rape and the oppression of women in pornography and prostitution is not “censorship” it is an attempt at dissing male power, the one that labels women “sluts”

  3. Good blog entry, Sin City Siren. However, I can’t say the same thing about the author of the “F Word” entry about Slut Walk Las VegasI’m a sex worker who participated in Slut Walk. The “F Word” blogger has the nerve to criticize a flier inclusive of sex workers because it implies we enjoy our work. Yet, saying that we don’t deserve to be raped or sexually assaulted regardless of whether we enjoy sex as a pleasure or work isn’t the same as saying that everybody enjoys being a sex worker. Including the term “whether” includes people who do and don’t enjoy sex for work or pleasure.The way the “F Word” blogger twisted this around is some of the most ignorant, insensitive stuff I’ve ever read.
    Whether we enjoy our work or not has nothing to do with the inclusion of sex workers in Slut Walk. Rather, our inclusion is based on the fact that we don’t deserve to be raped our sexually assaulted no matter how much we like or don’t like our work. That was the message of the flier.

  4. “Maybe you don’t like sex work. Maybe you feel that sex work is immoral.” Wow. What an incredible misrepresentation of any argument EVER made about sex work! Choosing to ignore the actual arguments made sure does make it easier for you to make yours but it completely lacks in integrity. No one has ever made an argument by saying ‘I just don’t LIKE it’ and no feminist has ever argued that sex work is immoral.

  5. In response to Martin, anti-prostitution laws that criminalize sex workers for what we do with our own bodies are oppressive, not prositution in and of itself. Though I work legally, I use the term “we” because I am a sex worker. Sex work isn’t inherently oppressive. Rather oppressive laws that promote persecution and violence; bad working conditions; stigmas; and hatred against sex workers is what can make the situation oppressive.
    Policies that criminalize our clients just for being our clients, such as the Swedish model, are also very patriarchal and paternalistic, treating women sex workers like the consent we give doesn’t matter when we really do consent–thus infantalizing women. Though I know that not only women are sex workers, the language of the legislation largely focuses on women as sex workers as if none of us are capable of making decisions for ourselves. If this isn’t patriarchy, then I don’t know what is.
    Also, when guys hit on me for free when I make it clear that I don’t want to be hit on, that’s degrading. They aren’t respecting my boundaries and my sense of well being. It’s not degrading when my clients compensate me for my time and skills; respect my boundaries; and don’t try to make our relationship into more than what it is.

  6. No one has ever made an argument by saying ‘I just don’t LIKE it’ and no feminist has ever argued that sex work is immoral.

    Well, actually, anti-prostitution feminists do make essentially a moralistic argument. The failure to such feminists to recognize the essentially moralistic nature of their arguments is based on a very impoverished idea of what actually constitutes moralism. Basically, the idea that “moralism” must be religious in nature and based on the idea that sex is dirty. (A stance that most religious moralists no longer even adhere to, BTW.) In fact, most contemporary sexual moralism is based on putting sex on a pedestal, and is often as not based on some kind of secular ideology as it is in religion.

  7. Pingback: Celebrating five years of The Sin City Siren! | The Sin City Siren

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