This is a guest post by Echo Zen. Echo is a feminist filmmaker and women’s health advocate who works to educate communities and families about health, sexuality and respect. His goal is to someday honour his peers by becoming a champion for reproductive justice, through his work as an educator and filmmaker. In his spare time he bakes pasta, reads children’s books and designs puppets from household objects.
I work in reproductive health advocacy. It wasn’t a career path I’d expected when I first started university – most of my professors thought I’d be directing TV commercials by the time I graduated. Instead I got sidetracked. Some years ago my mates and I began volunteering with the campus chapter of Planned Parenthood at UC San Diego. In the aftermath of the 2010 midterm elections – after we’d worked with FemMajority to help reelect Senator Boxer of California – I suddenly found myself in a position of responsibility as acting co-president of UCSD Voices for Planned Parenthood. Bailing out wasn’t an option. What anti-choice leaders had proudly dubbed “the most pro-life Congress” since 1973 was now in power.
Six months later, in between fighting anti-choice legislation as an advocate and helping undergrads with final projects, I learned SlutWalk was being organised in San Diego for the first time. When I contacted the organisers to see if they needed a speaker for their first rally in June, I hadn’t expected to hear “yes!” back so quickly – and consequently I wasn’t sure what to speak about either. I knew most of the attendees would know how rape culture and victim-blaming have been used since time immemorial to smear women who exercise their sexuality. I didn’t want to regurgitate what most folks already knew.
Trying to think of a fresh angle from which to approach the issue of slut-shaming, I remembered the last time I debated an anti-choice, anti-rights activist who wanted to see women stripped of access to family planning services. Naturally the argument he ultimately resorted to after all his others had been debunked was: “If girls don’t want to get pregnant, they shouldn’t be opening their legs to everyone.”
“Wow,” I’d chuckled to myself, “he didn’t even wait 5 minutes before falling back on old-fashioned slut-shaming. Most anti-choicers at least pretend it’s about the fetus for a little while longer.” Suddenly I realised what I needed to talk about at SlutWalk – the intersection between rape culture and the anti-choice movement.
I went to a computer and pounded out my SlutWalk remarks. Said remarks are as follows:
My friends and I, who came out here today, work in women’s health advocacy. Most of us have heard appalling personal stories about sexual violence. But we have also heard inspiring ones.
I want to start with a story of a young woman who isn’t here today, but has had experiences similar to what many of you may have experienced.
Like many of us, she was raised to believe that behaving demurely and dressing modestly would help her avoid catcalls, harassment, and sexual assault. After all, everyone knew dressing like a slut meant you deserved to be treated like one.
In college, she was raped – by someone she’d thought was a friend.
After years rebuilding her confidence and trust in others, she began wearing boob tubes for the first time in her life. When I asked why, she said she realised the way she dressed had nothing to do with why she was assaulted.
Her path to this realisation may be very different from yours, or mine. But all of us here today are united in our conviction that, however a woman exercises her sexuality, it is repulsive to use it as an excuse to rationalise rape, or to shame survivors of assault.
As women’s health advocates, my friends and I work to ensure all women have access to the services they need to protect their health and exercise their sexuality, safely and responsibly. When we tell others we work in reproductive health advocacy, we often see the same attitude of slut-shaming that underlies rape culture in America. “Why do you want to help girls who can’t keep their legs shut?” they ask me.
This is what rape culture looks like. These people – many of them men who obviously have no problem having sex with the women in their lives – scoff at the notion of women having control over their own sexuality, over their own bodies.
This is not an attitude limited to date rapists or Yale frat boys. This is the same attitude espoused by hundreds who occupy seats of institutional power in America.
Most you have heard about ongoing attacks by Congress – and by dozens of state legislatures – against a certain reproductive health organisation in America. In many ways, it is fitting that SlutWalk is taking place amidst these unprecedented attacks on women’s health. Make no mistake, the misogynist politicians behind these attacks, and the rape apologists who seek to blame victims for their own rapes, share the same goal – punishing women who dare to exercise their sexuality, and stripping them of the means of controlling their sexual autonomy.
To those who doubt that politicians are determined to legislate victim-blaming into law, you need only look at ongoing efforts – spearheaded by one notorious Congressman from New Jersey – to redefine rape in order to deny insurance coverage to rape survivors. Known as the forcible rape provision, this was an attempt by Congress to deny abortion funding for impregnated rape victims unless “violent force” was involved.
These efforts reflect a transparent belief – shared by hundreds of Congressmen – that only certain kinds of rape survivors deserve help. Their message to survivors of “non-forcible rape” is clear: “If you get impregnated through date-rape, you brought it on yourself. If you get impregnated through incest, you did something to deserve it.” One representative from South Dakota said it best a few years ago, stating he would only support abortion access for an impregnated rape survivor if she were a religious, unmarried, and brutally sodomised virgin.
This is what rape culture looks like – the belief that what women do between their legs should have some bearing on what legal, medical and emergency services are available to them.
It is a reflection of a society where girls are taught in abstinence-only classes that men are such slaves to their hormones that girls are the ones who must take responsibility for keeping men out of their pants. It is a reflection of a society where a woman can be denied emergency contraception by her doctor, before being told, “Well, you should have kept your legs shut.”
But it was Representative Pete DeGraaf of Kansas who said it best last month, after helping to pass a ban on insurance companies offering abortion coverage for impregnated rape survivors. Asked why he supported forcing survivors to pay for their own abortions, DeGraaf replied, “We do need to plan ahead, don’t we, in life? I have a spare tire on my car.”
To rape apologists and to misogynist politicians who seek to strip women of control over their bodies and their sexuality, rape is an inevitable and natural part of life. Thus, women should be expected to plan ahead for violent and deliberate acts of assault on their bodies, just as one would plan ahead for flat tires, natural disasters, and other… accidents in life.
This, more than anything, is what rape culture looks like. The fact that not one of Representative DeGraaf’s colleagues demanded he apologise for his insulting, demeaning remarks to rape survivors makes me ashamed to think that this man, and hundreds of others, claim to represent this country and its values.
That is why we need SlutWalk. That is why people across the world have rallied together, united in our conviction that freedom from sexual violence is more than a women’s issue – it is a human right. We stand united in our conviction that people have a right to exercise their sexuality, without fear that it will be used against them if they are ever assaulted.
I stand here today and I see high school students, first-generation immigrants, children of immigrants. I see members of the disabled community, the LGBT community, the veteran community. In the months leading up to this SlutWalk, many have called us naïve, even dangerous and immoral, for believing we can build a future where people are judged not by what we do between our legs but by our goals, our dreams, our achievements. They regard us with contempt – to which I say we did nothing to earn that contempt, not when we are the ones working to build a safer world, free from arbitrary standards of “proper behaviour” for women and men – standards used to justify sexual violence, antigay violence, and transphobic violence against those who dare to deviate from those standards.
I see SlutWalk as a continuation of a decades-long movement toward a future where sexuality is not only respected, but celebrated as a basic right, an integral aspect of our health and wellbeing. SlutWalk will grow and change over the coming years and decades – someday it may even become unnecessary. Seeing so many of you here today gives me hope that, through our collaboration and perseverance, this future will come to pass – so that we may someday deliver the gift of equality and respect to future generations.
When I wrote these remarks, I had few precedents to go by – I’d read articles on the anti-choice movement and on rape culture, but almost none on how the former is a manifestation of the latter. In a way, SlutWalk was a way to test my ideas – to see if people thought I was making sense or totally off my rocker. As it turned out, so many attendees spoke to me afterward about how they appreciated what I had to say that maybe I’m on the right track here. The anti-choice movement is violence against women at its core – we need to call out the anti-choicers for being the unabashed rape apologists they are.
-Echo Zen | Co-President
Voices for Planned Parenthood