Interview: Maria-Jane Scannell

Chelsey aims to be an inspiring and empowering daily visit for New Zealand women.  Justine Troy challenged us to be ‘brave and discerning’ so when we heard about ‘Slutwalk’ - a rally with the aim of fighting the myths around sexual abuse victims that have gone global, we wanted to jump on board.

There has been some talk about the appropriateness of calling the rally a ‘slut’ walk. Well the police officer in Canada who was so ‘kindly’ sharing his advice with young  women thought it was appropriate to talk about sluts…and appropriate to tell them they shouldn’t dress like sluts or they would risk being victimised.

Chelsey talks to New Zealand’s very own SlutWalk organiser Maria-Jane Scannell

How did you first hear about the rallies and what made you decide to organise one here?
SlutWalk Ottawa

I first heard about SlutWalk on Tumblr, of all places – people were reblogging some of the pictures from the Toronto march, pictures of men and women holding placards that ranged from the humorous: “Sluts say yes!” to the heartbreaking: “I was 10 years old and he was my father. Does it really matter what I was wearing?”

From there, I followed links back to SlutWalk Toronto’s homepage and was able to read their mission statement, read some of the articles that started it all (with Police Constable Michael Sanguinetti’s comments), see some of the videos from the march, and check out some of the comments being left on their Facebook page. It was clear that the response had been far beyond what the organisers had been expecting, and it was also clear that the message of the march had resonated with thousands of people. By the time I saw the website, a dozen or so ‘satellite’ SlutWalks had already sprung up across Canada, the USA, and one in Adelaide, Australia. When I saw how far it was spreading, I decided that New Zealand needed a SlutWalk to happen here – New Zealand has a very prevalent rape culture, and when I as an individual try to address it in any context, I’m being ‘oversensitive’, or I get the good old, ‘but look how far we’ve come!’

What has the response been like so far?

Overwhelming! When I first started organising it, I was expecting a couple of hundred people in Wellington – well, we now have two marches, in Wellington and Auckland, and the Facebook event pages have over 400 people confirmed as attending each event.

Obviously we’ve had our share of detractors. Every once in a while someone feels the need to jump on our Facebook page and ask us, “What’s the point in protesting something a Canadian cop said?” (protip: we’re not), or tell us that marching will have no effect. We’ve had people trolling the page – rape jokes, that kind of thing – and some of the comments on the online news stories have been downright misogynistic. When we started asking for donations to cover our costs, we were accused of trying to make money off the march.

The detractors don’t matter. Most of the nasty comments on Facebook are left up for our supporters to tear down as necessary; only the really offensive or triggering ones are deleted. What does matter is the dozens of people who have emailed, tweeted, or left Facebook messages proclaiming their support, about how the rape culture affects them, about what we can do to change it. People are designing their placards and contacting friends and relatives who work within the media to let them know what’s going on (gotta love NZ’s two degrees of separation!) The support is overwhelming, and it’s a serious indicator of how overdue something like this is.

Have you had any contact with the original Canadian SlutWalk organisers or any of the other organisers around the world?

Absolutely – in order to be considered an ‘official’ satellite SlutWalk, you do have to go through SlutWalk Toronto’s ‘satellite liaison’ and agree to abide by their guidelines. The guidelines are pretty simple (and sensible): SlutWalk is not about hate, and we do not use hateful language; to refer to sexual assault, not solely rape; sexual assault is not something done solely by men to women; all genders can be sluts or allies; to use inclusive and respectful language when referring to survivors and those affected by sexual assault and rape culture; that SlutWalk is a peaceful stance that aims to engage others in dialogue; to aim to reclaim the word ‘slut’ in a positive and empowering manner. If you agree to all this, they in turn will support you by linking to your page, providing the benefit of their experiences with organising their SlutWalks, providing ideas for posters etc to use and (obviously) supporting you to walk under the SlutWalk banner.

Regarding other organisers around the world, a lot of the SlutWalk Twitter accounts follow each other – we have a lot of contact that way, which is amazing.

Boston Slutwalk 2011What do you think the best outcome of SlutWalk could be? For New Zealand and globally?

Obviously, the desired outcome would be for victim blaming and rape culture to be eradicated (well, no, the desired outcome would be for rape to not exist at all, but hey). Realistically speaking, that isn’t going to happen overnight. What I would like to see in the short term is a change in law say that there is NEVER any merit in bringing up a victim’s sexual history, as it is NEVER a mitigating factor in sexual assault [currently, defence lawyers have to ‘prove its merit’ in order to bring up, or interrogate a victim about, a victim’s sexual history]. I would like to see journalism standards state that when talking about sexual assault, they should  refer to the details of the assault as ‘the alleged assault’ or ‘the alleged rape’, NOT ‘the victim had sex with’ or ‘engaged in sexual acts with’ the perpetrator, as the latter phrasing is heavily slanted towards the assumption of active consent. And we need to see more compassion and delicacy in the way victims are treated when first reporting their attack – no more interrogations where the victim is accused of lying/being drunk/changing their mind after the fact.

What is your response to Family First's, Bob McCoskrie saying that the shock value of the rally (i.e. using the word slut) is taking away from the real issue? (Link here to article in case you haven’t seen it )

Wow, I hadn’t read this one! I would put to Bob McCoskrie: How, precisely, does one protest a prevalent rape culture and a serious blame the victim attitude in a ‘family-friendly’ manner? Newsflash: Rape is not ‘family-friendly’. Sexual assault is not ‘family-friendly’. The comments the Toronto police officer made were not ‘family-friendly’. And we will march in a decidedly not ‘family-friendly’ manner in the hopes that the next generation is not made to feel that it is their fault when they are sexually assaulted.

To be honest, I took more exception to Christine Rankin’s comments that she “I understand[s] the common sense of the police man who has experience in that area.” How about the victims of rape and sexual assault? We have “experience in that area” as well, and we can tell you the blame and the shame and the stigma that is par for the course when you are a survivor of sexual assault. 

How many rallies are you doing and how many people do you expect?
There are two rallies this year, one in Wellington and one in Auckland. Depending on the response to the marches this year, we would consider annual marches, in which case SlutWalk Aotearoa would definitely expand out to other centres.

According to the Facebook event pages, we have over 400 people confirmed as attending each event. To be honest, I have no idea how many people to expect – the more, the better, but we won’t really know until the day!

What is your background? What do you do when not rallying the troops against sexual abuse myths?

My background? I don’t have a history of activism, or anything like that. I’ve recently started blogging at Kiwiana – but mostly, I’m just a queer girl, a survivor, and a choice feminist who is sick to the back teeth of rape apologism, rape culture, and systematic victim blaming.

When I’m not rallying the troops, I’m working in customer services in the public health sector. (It sounds a lot less exciting than ‘political activism’, doesn’t it? If I could afford it, I would do this full-time. Sadly, activism doesn’t tend to pay the bills...)

I think it’s a really important thing to note – as this seems to be getting glossed over quite a lot – is that SlutWalk is ‘come as you are’. If you want to throw on your short shorts, your fishnets, your corsets, or any other clothing that could be seen as stereotypically ‘slutty’, you are more than welcome to (I know I’ll be rocking my corset dress!). But by the same measure, the idea of the march is that NO ONE is to blame for sexual assault. Not to mention, these marches are being held in the middle of June!! So wearing jeans, merino or a jacket makes you no more or less a SlutWalker than miniskirts do.

I’d also probably point out that there has been a lot of misunderstanding around the SlutWalk and what it is all about. We are not encouraging all women to be sluts, and we do not believe that you have to reclaim the word slut in order to empower yourself. The SlutWalk is for everyone – whether you can, or want to, identify as a ‘slut’ or not – who believes that there is nothing we can do that will cause someone to rape us.

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