SlutWalk Success Despite Portland City Permit Refusal

CW: sexual assault, rape

When the organizers of SlutWalk 2018 — a transnational annual demonstration against rape culture and sexual violence — tried to obtain the insurance policy required by Portland for all such events, the insurance company had a question: “What are people wearing at your event?”

Questions like these are why SlutWalk exists in the first place. They are reminiscent of the words of a Toronto police officer who, on January 24, 2011, suggested that “women should avoid dressing like sluts” in order to avoid sexual assault. A few months later, 3,000 people of all genders gathered at the first SlutWalk to protest victim blaming and slut shaming. Cities across the globe hosted their own SlutWalks and demanded an end to rape culture.

On Sunday, September 9, around 400 self-identified sluts and supporters in Portland continued the tradition. Wearing everything from jeans and T-shirts to nearly nothing, participants drifted into the plaza at SW Park and Salmon beneath a cheerful sun. On either side of the plaza, groups such as the Q Center and SPEEC (Sex-Positive Education and Event Center) handed out leaflets, condoms, stickers, and buttons. At one table, attendees registered to vote.

As the plaza filled up, demonstrators listened to speakers talk about subjects ranging from serious political issues to the joy of consensual sex. Two speakers denounced SESTA/FOSTA—an amalgam of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA)—a recent bill that conflates consensual sex work with forced sex trafficking, putting the most vulnerable members of the sex worker community at far greater risk. Others spoke about rape culture, assault, journeys of survival, and resources.

Other speakers focused on ways to make consensual sex more fun and more safe, giving talks about the importance of sex education, the hilarious hazards of copying moves from pornography, and good kinky fun. Organizer Elle Stanger gave away gift bags filled with sex toys and certificates donated by local sponsors.

For the past six years, attendees followed the speaking portion of the event with a march through the streets of Portland. This year, however, the street parade part of SlutWalk did not happen.

As in past years, organizers negotiated a parade route with the city six months in advance. They paid for insurance — more expensive than ever before — and a marching permit. Despite this, the City of Portland revoked this year’s parade permit just two weeks before the event on the grounds that there weren’t going to be enough people at the event.

“We had over 800 RSVP’d as ‘going’ on our invite,” longtime SlutWalk organizer Sterling Clark explained. “The city claimed that didn’t matter.” According to the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), only 200 people participated in SlutWalk 2017 — too few for a police escort. Not only is this unrelated to the number of participants for this year, it’s simply not true: SlutWalk organizers have a video of last year’s march that shows over 250 participants in attendance. Nevertheless, PBOT refused to budge. Without police presence, there could be no street closures. Without street closure, there could be no march.

SlutWalk required police for more than just traffic control. Several large men with shirts emblazoned with slogans such as “Women Belong in the Kitchen” used a megaphone to hurl abuse at the peaceful demonstrators. Because no police showed up to the event, volunteer peacekeepers blocked these threatening counter-protesters to keep them away from the event itself. The situation escalated until one of the counter-protesters punched a peacekeeper. “We had to call the police, and about eight officers showed up,” Clark stated, “but only after something violent occurred.”

Despite these setbacks, this year’s SlutWalk achieved its purpose in bringing people together in a celebration of bodily autonomy, resilience, and strength. After the truncated march, dance music played while demonstration-goers snapped pictures of their favorite outfits (with consent, of course). People met old friends or made new ones.

Beneath the awning where speakers had spoken an hour before, people took turns writing on an enormous paper banner emblazoned with the words: “Why did you go to SlutWalk?” The answers were heartbreaking and hopeful in turns. “Because my rapist only got three days in jail.” “Because my body is art.” “Because sex work is work.” “Because I was raised to love and respect others.”

Will there be a SlutWalk 2019? As of now, the answer is unclear. Both Stanger and Clark are stepping down as organizers, in part because of how difficult the City of Portland made the demonstration this year. “I honestly think if our demonstration didn’t have the word ‘slut’ in it, this would not be nearly as difficult,” Clark observed.

“I think it’s weird that people are more offended by the word slut than they are by the word rape.”

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