St. John's SlutWalk restarts the conversation on victim-blaming

·3 min read
The 2022 SlutWalk event in St. John's on Saturday was organized by the Safe Harbour Outreach Project and held in Bannerman Park. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC - image credit)
The 2022 SlutWalk event in St. John's on Saturday was organized by the Safe Harbour Outreach Project and held in Bannerman Park. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC - image credit)
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

About 50 people rallied in Bannerman Park in St. John's on Saturday to remind people that the fight to end victim-blaming is not over.

The 2022 St. John's SlutWalk — held as a gathering rather than an actual march as in previous years — was organized by the Safe Harbour Outreach Project and demanded more institutional support for survivors of sexual violence.

Heather Jarvis, who spoke at the event, has advocated for the rights of sexual assault survivors and sex workers for years.

"It's really incredible and heartwarming to see SlutWalk still having a life and still resonating with people," said Jarvis. "But simultaneously, it's so deeply sad that we are still having these conversations."

Jarvis co-organized the very first SlutWalk event in Toronto in 2011 in response to public remarks by a Toronto police officer who said, "Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized."

The event quickly spread to other Canadian cities and across the globe, including to St. John's in 2015, and participants are encouraged to wear whatever makes them feel comfortable.

Jarvis says she would have never expected the movement to continue on for over a decade.

"We thought it would be a one-time, one-day event in one city," said Jarvis. "We had no idea this messaging would resonate with others."

While there has been social change, Jarvis said, institutional change is lagging behind, including St. John's, where several Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officers have been accused of sexual assault.

"Of course, we have no trust in these systems," said Jarvis. "They have hundreds of years in the making of proving that they do not work. And we need something different. And we're creating it already on the ground and we're just waiting for the institutions to catch up."

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

Community activist Melissandra Groza, one of the speakers at the event, advocates on behalf of survivors of sexual assault, like herself.

"I'm here to speak up for others … just to be the voice for the voiceless. Because a lot of women, when they get assaulted, they're scared to come forward," she told CBC News.

"The system we have here is very broken.… It doesn't give justice to the survivors. It instead enables the abusers, the people who think they're entitled to do whatever they want.… The system just enables them to get away with it."

For SHOP volunteer Shawna McIntyre, 11 years after the first slut walk, a lot of things have gotten worse.

"There's more people in powerful positions committing sexual assault. With social media, it's really bad with people victim-blaming and slut-shaming," said McIntyre. "These are still important issues that we have to talk about."

Susan Smith, SHOP's project co-ordinator with SHOP, agrees but also sees positive changes in society.

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

"The positive things are organizing events like this and having this many people turn out, having the news here and having people interested in and getting together and talk about these issues," said Smith.

While Jarvis has also seen progress since that first SlutWalk in 2011, one thing has remained the same — the purpose of the event.

"To challenge the very idea of what is this idea of a slut, that you can recognize one, that there's some sort of dress code," said Jarvis.

"It has always been about showing up as you are, as you're comfortable and no matter what, whether you are completely covered or whether you're showing some skin, you are still worthy of respect and you are still deserving of safety."

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