Slutwalk, Amber Rose, and the Celebrity Commodification of Grassroots Activism
Amber Rose was by no means the first, and should do more to work with the ones that came before.
In 2011 a group of Toronto activists, angered by a police suggestion that “if women don’t want to be raped they shouldn’t dress like sluts”, created Slutwalk, a counter-protest calling for the end of victim-blaming of sexual assault survivors. Since then, there have been Slutwalks in almost every continent across the world, from Singapore to South Africa, India to Iceland, even related marches like Marchas de la Putas in Spanish-speaking South American countries or an Indonesian protest in response to a local official’s comment about short skirts.
As a sexual assault survivor whose experience tends to rank high on the “you asked for it, you slut” scale (for multiple reasons), I was really heartened by Slutwalk’s existence and aimed to be a part of it since the beginning. In that first year I drummed up support for and spoke at the Brisbane Slutwalk (where I went briefly viral for a remark about “the bastard child of Paris Hilton and Voldemort”), marched in the Sydney Slutwalk, and helped with the organization of the San Francisco Bay Area Slutwalk. I then led the organizing team for the 2012 Brisbane Slutwalk shortly before moving to the United States.
Through my experience with Slutwalk, I have had to deal with a lot of backlash from all corners: feminists, misogynists, White people, People of Color, conservatives, radicals, the whole gamut.
People objected to the use and reclamation of the word “slut” (forgetting the reference to the police officer’s comments). People thought of Slutwalk as a “White Feminism” thing, despite my cultural background further fuelling my desire to speak up. I’ve battled online feuds of people thinking that my specific sexual assault experience was inappropriate to share in a space for survivors. Both feminists and anti-feminists didn’t think “a group of women standing around in skimpy clothing” (which didn’t even make up the majority of the protestors!) was an effective mode of activism.
Even during Slutwalk I’ve had to witness some rather problematic choices, such as a White non-Muslim woman wearing a burqa and being extremely rude when asked not to do so, or losing our major backer in the 2012 Brisbane Slutwalk because they thought our choice to drop a transphobic sponsor was “too idealistic”.
Even so, Slutwalk was extremely healing and gratifying for me personally and in other ways. I was able to channel my pain from the assault, particularly the isolation I felt for not being a Perfect Victim, into something productive. I connected to many people worldwide who also went through similar experiences and shared so much empathy and care. I’m good friends with a lot of Slutwalk organizers, mutually sharing tips and experiences and supporting each other as we put on our rallies. While I am not as directly active as I used to be, I am still a huge supporter of Slutwalk, keeping in touch with fellow organizers and occasionally helping out where I can with similar ventures.
Recently model and artist Amber Rose has decided to take on the Slutwalk mantle and organize a Slutwalk of her own.
While I am generally appreciative that Amber Rose is reviving Slutwalk (since a lot of us organizers have burned out or faded away after the first couple of years), her approach concerns me.
Firstly, as you can see from the above banner, she seems to be making herself the central figure of the movement. While she acknowledges the term’s 2011 Toronto origins on Instagram as well as the front page of the project’s website, the rest of her website’s messaging makes it sound like she is singlehandedly responsible for its revival. For example, she hopes that Los Angeles will be the “first of many cities” for this movement, even though there has been a Slutwalk in Los Angeles for some time:
Some other Slutwalk organizers have expressed their discomfort with the branding, particularly how her name is front and center. Most other Slutwalks were branded as “Slutwalk [City Name]”, and some of the more recent ones have even experimented with dropping “Slut” from the name or visually representing it with an X to respect the wishes of folks who do not want to be associated with that word.
Us organizers are relatively anonymous: even if we take on a more public profile, it’s not going to be recognized as our personal Slutwalk, not like Amber Rose’s project.
It’s unclear whether Amber Rose has been in touch with other Slutwalk organizers. When she first floated the idea in early 2015 I reached out to her as an organizer, but never heard back (granted, she may be using a different email address than the one I found):
Many reblogs of this Tumblr post (calling out “fake feminists” for not speaking up about her initiative) are fawning over Amber Rose, as though she is extra revolutionary for coming up with this effort and people are just unwilling to accept it because of her heritage and sex work career (which becomes extra ironic to me given how hard it was to be visible as a POC Slutwalk organizer and how some people balked at the idea of sex worker participation in Slutwalk, including someone who protested us booking a professional dominatrix as a speaker in Slutwalk Brisbane 2012). A few tried to bring up the fact that Slutwalk isn’t new, including myself, but it’s getting lost in the Amber Rose fangirling.
Someone else being lauded in the reblogs is Nicki Minaj, who donated $5000 to Amber Rose’s campaign. Besides donations, she is also taking in corporate sponsorship and vendors, with language about branding, media placements, and merchandising:
According to the site, the donations will go towards event costs, and also towards Amber Rose’s new foundation for the empowerment of women. It’s not clear what the specific and practical aims of the foundation are, asides from running Amber Rose Slut Walk.
Let me tell you: $5000 is way more money than many Slutwalks combined ever had, spent, or raised. Slutwalk Brisbane 2012 ran on almost zero dollars: about the only thing we had to pay for was last-minute PA costs, and that required two of my volunteers to help out because I was dead broke. Many other Slutwalks raised money for local women’s shelters, rape crisis hotlines, or similar feminist organizations. A few did turn their Slutwalk into a festival, in what seems to be similar to Amber Rose’s idea, but those tended to be very small.
As for corporate sponsorship? Earlier I alluded to a major backer dropping out by disagreeing with our stance on transphobia. Our fiscal sponsor for Slutwalk Brisbane 2012 was the Australian Sex Party, a semi-popular secular/left political party founded by adult entertainment industry professionals that had organized and run the 2011 Australian Slutwalks. We needed them to sign off on City Hall paperwork saying we can use their public liability insurance, but all the rest of the organizing was done by myself as a team of volunteers, spanning age, race, gender, sexuality, ability, and other identity axes through a core tenet of Radical Inclusion.
Part of the 2012 Brisbane Slutwalk was an afterparty for supporters to mingle and celebrate, and one of our team members found a small lingerie store who wanted to host a fashion show and have our volunteers as models. We thought that was a great idea, and had a tryout day at their store, including a lovely supporter who was visibly genderqueer (whose name and presentation I am obscuring for privacy).
Soon before the event, the lingerie store owner wrote back to our team member saying that she was uncomfortable with that supporter being a model, referring to their gender presentation in a very derogatory way. As a team, we discussed the matter, and decided collectively that we would stand in solidarity with our friend, stick to our tenet of Radical Inclusion, and drop them as sponsors.
Next thing I know, I am getting angry Facebook messages from Fiona Patten, head of the ASP, asking why we were discriminating against small businesses. Turns out the lingerie store owner was a friend of hers. When I and a couple of other team members explained our policy and process, she thought we were “too idealistic” and declared that the ASP will pull all support and won’t promote us. The only thing they’ll let us keep was the insurance sponsorship, since it a week before crunchtime; even then, we scrambled as a team to find emergency alternatives.
$5000 would have gone a long way towards paying for our own insurance. It could have paid expenses for some of our volunteers. It could have paid for the PA system, and then some. It could have paid for our speakers and performers. It could have paid for more drinks at the afterparty (the venue was generous with drink tickets).
Amber Rose is pretty successful; she is likely not hurting for money, and could have paid $5000 out of her own pocket if she needed to. When I was organizing Slutwalk, I was working part-time in the first stable job I managed to secure in years, dealing with a potential international move, running low on money. Many other organizers had far less income or cash to work with.
Some of us, including myself, are struggling to find work, maybe because employers balked at the idea of a “Slut”walk: I had volunteers drop out because they didn’t want their job prospects to be diminished. Amber Rose likely won’t have to worry about her reputation or employability — this will pay dividends for her, especially since the money is going back to her foundation.
Should Amber Rose stop hosting Slutwalk?
Slutwalk is decentralized — unlike The Vagina Monologues, where you have to apply to host a production, there’s no central body you need to apply to to host one. (Indeed, some people have used that openness for pranking purposes.) Amber Rose is well within her rights to host a Slutwalk and do whatever she wants with it.
However, Slutwalk organizers are a community, united in fighting victim-blaming and rape culture in their cities. We have had many discussions on intersectionality, racism, whorephobia, working with budgets, the appropriateness of the name, so many issues that may have started from one specific Slutwalk but get applied to the movement as a whole. Amber Rose does not seem to have tapped into that community, which would be more than willing to help: instead, she’s focusing attention on herself and her work, having the profits ultimately benefit her through her charity. In the meantime, past and present Slutwalks are forgotten, because people don’t understand or recall that this concept existed long before Amber Rose was publicly slut-shamed and started her Slut Walk in response.
Why not engage with and hire actual Slutwalk organizers to take the reins? Why not donate Nicki Minaj’s money to currently existing Slutwalks, currently bootstrapping their way through? Why not have that money go directly to women’s support organizations that already exist, rather than starting your own with less-than-clear plans?
I’m also worried that now that Slutwalk’s becoming associated with Amber Rose, regular people — including prior organizers — will not be able to host their own Slutwalks without running into trademark problems. We might run into the same issues that many Latin American communities were in danger of facing when Disney considered trademarking “Dia de los Muertos”. The last thing any of us needs are lawyers swooping down on us because we dared run a Slutwalk without Amber Rose’s permission! (Do the Toronto organizers have a say in controlling the trademark and branding of Amber Rose Slut Walk? Did Amber Rose even check in with Slutwalk Toronto at all?)
What I would like to see is Amber Rose working together with Slutwalk organizers — including the organizers in Los Angeles, since there have been Slutwalks there before — to be better integrated into Slutwalk history. I want to see Amber Rose step back from being the central figure in her Slutwalk, and give space to the tons of people who have worked tirelessly against victim-blaming and rape culture, whether through Slutwalk or otherwise. I want Amber Rose and her supporters to really understand Slutwalk history — young but potent — and find ways to better integrate her work into what we have built. I want Amber Rose’s supporters, like Nicki Minaj and company, to give their money and resources to the people that gave their all to this cause.
We have the expertise and the drive. Amber Rose has the connections, the money, the passion. Let’s not have Slutwalk hijacked for purposes of fame — let’s work together to truly combat victim-blaming and support survivors of sexual assault.
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