The Language of Sluts, Street Harassment and Sexual Violence

Language is powerful. Sometimes I don’t know what I think until I talk about it, y’know? No? Well, I can’t say I blame you. I’m hoping the process of writing this blog post will help me sort out some thoughts I have on a couple of really awesome, kick-ass feminism happening in Ottawa.

I’m planning to participate in Ottawa’s version of SlutWalk this weekend. For those of you unfamiliar with it, SlutWalk invites people to walk in support of taking back the word “slut”. The word slut has traditionally been a negative way to describe a woman who has sex with what is perceived to be (too) many partners, either for pleasure of for money. What SlutWalk does is crystallize the sentiment that women’s sexuality is a positive thing and says ‘no, thank you’ to those who would presume to dictate just how much sexuality is too much for women.

This is an important front in the battle to end rape culture. We all know (OK, only some of us know) how slut-shaming and victim-blaming is used across the spectrum of sexual abuse and assault, permitting and/or making excuses for everything from child molestation and statutory rape to failing to stop the rampage of one Robert William Pickton, who chose his sex worker victims on the basis of how little worth was placed on their lives. Let’s not forget so-called “corrective rape” and female genital mutilation: two practices that also rest on the premise that women’s sexuality is something to be monitored, judged and ultimately, controlled.

Before I continue, let me state for the record that I am fully aware that not only women and girls are victims of sexual violence. As a mother of two boys, I know too well that they could be victimized at any time and I am ever-vigilant. That being said, sexual violence remains a highly gendered phenomenon, with females bearing the overwhelming proportion of its burden.

Another front in this battle is the Hollaback movement to end street harassment for both women and LGBTTQ folks. Most people, women included, may not realize the level of victimization that comes with cat-calls, whistling and unabashed stares. Remember what I said about sexuality as something to be monitored? Street harassment falls squarely into that category. Those who indulge in this behaviour stand on the slippery slope that tips quickly into slut-shaming and all the gender-based violence slinking insidiously behind it.

I’ll say it again: Robert Fucking Pickton.

Ottawa Hollaback allows people to document their experience of street harassment by uploading it to the Hollaback website. You can enter the actual place where the harassment happened. And if you happen to take a photo of the jerk that harassed you, you can upload it to the website.

How many times have I seethed over being harassed because of my gender and have had no recourse? How much of my stomach lining has been eaten away as I obsessed over what I would have liked to say to the jerk all those times, had I only been given a chance? How often have I felt genuinely frightened because I knew the real danger that lurked behind the comments? Most frustratingly, how much have I mourned the ultimate loss of control and personal agency that each incidence of street harassment represented for me? All those times I’ve mourned the (temporary) loss of my voice.

The people behind Hollaback understand this. They give voice to me and to all who endure or have endured street harassment. I love that Hollaback exists. I love even more that it has officially come to Ottawa. As a mechanism to raise awareness and begin to end street harassment, it is da bomb.


Ending rape culture for once and for all will rely heavily on the need for men to understand the issue. As we move forward with our messaging we cannot afford to alienate men. My fear is that by posting photos of street harassers, we are not doing much to educate them. I also fear that we risk making all men feel that we see them all as perpetrators. It feels a little like we become judge, jury and executioner. I’m not comfortable with that.

At the same time, all men who fall on the rape culture spectrum need to be made aware of the monster they have been  feeding.

Damn it. I’m still not sure what to think.

But I’d love to hear what you think.

Is language powerful enough to stop street harassment or do we need more? Does posting photos of harassers qualify as “shaming”? And if so, are you OK with that? Am I over-thinking this? Does my ass look fat in these pants?


2 thoughts on “The Language of Sluts, Street Harassment and Sexual Violence

  1. I find myself deeply concerned by this.

    As a man, and one who is VERY conscious of the effects my looks or comments can have on women, I honestly don’t know what to do.

    Let me put it into context. I see a woman on the street. I want to tell her that she looks good, (since she’s obviously put some effort into her appearance, and I just want to let her know that she did a good job) and hopefully add a little bit of cheer to her day. I don’t expect anything from her, I’m not being suggestive, I’m just wanting to tell her that she looks good. My instinct is to do just that, go up to her, and say something like: “You look good! Keep it up!” But I worry that she will be upset by this or think of me as creepy / stalkerish. So what do I end up doing? Nothing. I look away, I avoid eye contact, and I don’t approach her at all, all because I’m afraid of how she will view someone who genuinely feels that she is attractive and is bold enough to tell her so.

    I feel very strongly about this issue, as I don’t want ANY woman to ever feel threatened, but since there are so many men out there who do perpetuate the culture that I’m forced to NOT tell someone something nice.

    I’m honestly at my wits end on this. I hate the way this works and I don’t know what I can do to fix it. Suggestions?

    PS I’m glad that someone out there is talking about this though. Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks, @Abcus.

      I think we should all be able to tell others that we like the way they look. Sadly, in the current culture, this isn’t possible.

      As a woman, if I tell a stranger who’s a man that he looks good, he has no reason to believe that he’s in danger. I cannot overpower him. If a strange man says the same thing to me, I simply cannot trust that there isn’t a violent intent behind it. I know- and history, at least my history- has taught me that I need to be hyper-vigilant.

      In situations where there is trust (between friends, co-workers, etc.) there can possibly be a place for comments. Indeed, for compliments (because I sense that’s what your intent is). But tread carefully.

      Between strangers, especially from a man directed to a woman (read power imbalance), there is no safety. Not for the woman for reasons cited above, nor for the man no matter how innocuous he may feel the comment is, since he risks being perceived as a potential (stress the word potential) hurter (I made that word up). Since women have much more to lose from a violent encounter, potential is more than enough for a woman to put up her guard.

      It is a sad reality, but no less true, that in these situations, the medium is the message.

      When in doubt, say nothing. Women do it every day.

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