The Feministing Five: Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis

Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis are the co-founders of SlutWalk, an incredibly badass protest organized against victim-blaming that was spurred by comments made by a Toronto law enforcement officer who said that women who don’t want to be assaulted, raped or otherwise “victimized” should avoid dressing “like sluts.”

It has also been the subject of much discussion over the past few weeks, inspiring awesome and necessary conversations about violence, assault, and victim-blaming in forums both new and old.

On their website, they proclaim that they are “tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result. Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless if we participate in sex for pleasure or work. No one should equate enjoying sex with attracting sexual assault.”

The event in Toronto was so successful that at least 24 more SlutWalks are now in the process of being planned all over the world. I was completely honored to speak with Sonya and Heather about their reasons for starting SlutWalk, their plans for the future, and of course, that whole desert island thing.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis.

Lori Adelman: How did you come to be involved with Slutwalk, and why did you feel it was important to do so?

Heather Jarvis: When the story first broke about a Toronto police officer saying on a York University campus, in a safety forum to the students, that women should avoid dressing like sluts in order  not be victimized, he prefaced it by saying  “I’ve been told I shouldn’t say this” and he said it anyway.

I think many people were incredibly outraged that this happened. And Sonya and I very quickly connected about wanting to do something constructive. That them casually saying an apology was apparently going to come out is not enough, because this was really despicable. So we said ok, let’s do something. Sonya came up with the brilliant name of Slutwalk and set up a Facbeook page, and it just spiraled from there.

And very quickly we joined forces with someone from York named Alyssa Teekah who was organizing there, and Jeanette Janzen, both of our friend, and then later we were joined by Erica Jane Scholz as a volunteer coordinator and it just took off. And it became something to address the broader issue of victim-blaming and sexual profiling, not only in our police services and our protective services, but in society as a whole.

Not only are we still in disbelief about what Slutwalk has turned into, but we are incredibly overjoyed that this has been able to engage so many people, and so many people who keep saying that they don’t usually do this. They don’t usually pick up a card, they don’t usually hit the streets, they don’t usually reach out to their friends and family. But they are saying that this was just something they wanted to get behind, something that they felt was relatable. Because I think everyone can relate to being called some pejorative word that takes you down to some debased idea of who you are. And we are overjoyed and in shock that this is becoming global. Today I looked and we have some confirmed Slutwalks in other cities across Canada, into the states, and into at least one city in Australia.

And we have a lot of other queries and people who contact us for various things who are curious if they can start one up and are trying to get one going. All together, today we have about 24 across the globe. And conversations are still happening. And it blows my mind that people have picked this up and want to do something that is constructive and do something that unifies people, that picks up a cause and says we will not remain silent anymore.


LA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?

Sonya Barnett: For me, I’ve never been one to fantasize about fictional people in that way, but if I do have to pick someone, I would say Sarah Connor from The Terminator. She had to really hit the ground running to protect herself and her kid {I’m the mother of young son and also a big sci-fi movie buff}. She didn’t take any shit and she was completely unapologetic for it. I saw The Terminator when I was very young, and from the first moment I saw her it was just like this huge “a-ha” moment where I thought “she’s awesome”! And the final line of the movie when she said, “You’re terminated, fucker” was so perfect. As a kid I fantasized and hoped there would be a time in my life when I get to say something that abrasive. And I think I’ve gotten pretty close to that now!

As for a real life heroine, I would say my sister, who taught me fairness as a teenager when I had been stumbling around with no guidance for a few years. And lately it’s the women who I’ve been working with for the last 6 weeks, Heather, and the entire crew that she’s just mentioned. I’m going to cry, because they’ve taught me so much, and it’s proven that I’m not the only one who will work my ass off for what we believe in. Their strength is phenomenal.

HJ: My fictional character is Pippi Longstocking. I love her! I didn’t really grow up with her stories, but I always knew that Pippi Longstocking was this character who was an awkward looking redheaded girl, and I’m a redhead, and that’s something that identified with before anything, including gender.

And here was an awkward looking redheaded girl who went on adventures. And it wasn’t until I was about 20 that I first read one of her stories, and it was actually in university because I wrote a paper on her and the woman who wrote about her, a woman named Astrid who’s Swedish. She just is this amazing character of this young girl, who has super human strength, she can lift her horse on the top of her roof, she goes on adventures, she lives alone, she dresses in this awkward way that is lower class, she doesn’t care about what other people think, she speaks up for what is right, she speaks up for justice, and she just lives her life so happily. When adults tell her that she isn’t proper enough, or not respecting them enough, they don’t give her respect either, as she points out. And she doesn’t live in this perfect ideal of what a child is supposed to live in, or what a house is supposed to be, and I love that she’s not only optimistic but incredibly courageous.

When it comes to living heroines, I echo what Heather said. This organizing experience could not have been any better. We have worked ourselves to exhaustion and beyond, in the midst of school, work, and everything else. It’s just been amazing that five of us could bond so much, engage so much, each bring different things to the table, and be able to then connect all of these other voices out there that are fighting all of these horrible blaming ideas.  There times that we would log on to Facebook and see these incredibly articulate responses that people are saying on out behalf. And those are the heroines that don’t get enough recognition that we want to give recognition to.

LA: What recent news story made you want to scream?

SB: We have two stories. One that I read about today was the NYC cop who sexually assaulted a woman who needed police aid because she was so intoxicated after a party and wanted to go home. The cabbie didn’t want to help her up the stairs so he called the police to call for help. Talk about taking advantage of  the weak in the most heinous way possible: the officer assaulted her. And I know this is an “alleged” story, and we have to talk about it as such, but he admitted on tape that he had sex with the woman who was too drunk to consent. When I read that, I just about lost my mind. I’m getting so used to hearing these horrible stories and lifting my jaw off the ground. You think you’ve heard one horrible story and then the next day, something else comes up. This was one of the toppers.

HJ: I also came across this story today: So far I haven’t been able to see any more formal or official news reports about this, but this is something one of our organizers, Alyssa, shared. One of her friends had an incident at York University campus, where the police officer made the original comment, and which has a violent history of sexual assault, and of their campus police and institution really not backing up their policy with protection for marginalized communities.  

So the story came out about a queer employee of one of the pubs, who was at a different pub on campus hanging out with coworkers and who presented as androgynous. When she went to go to the bathroom, three men stopped her and questioned her about which bathroom she was going to go into, and when she exited the washroom, they beat her up.

York security took their time to arrive. When they did, they didn’t ask any questions of her and didn’t investigate the surrounding area very much, and then they said had to leave to investigate a fire alarm. It was a disrespect to this person, and it’s not shocking on York’s campus with their history.

I’m queer, and I’m a student. I’m lucky in that I kind of pass, people don’t normally see me as queer. But my partners usually are big lesbian dykes, and I’m constantly fearful of them getting harassed walking into a washroom, while they’re in a washroom, or walking out of a washroom. People sometimes don’t think they deserve much protection, because they say, you look a certain way, you’re putting yourself at risk. Which falls right into a lot of what we’re doing at Slutwalk, which is “you look a certain way, let me violate you”. And it’s just infuriating that this happens when someone has to go to the washroom. It’s so basic, and so infuriating, and I feel for this woman who was attacked on York campus.

LA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?

HJ: For me it’s twofold. The first is that there is an association that feminism is dead, and we don’t need it anymore, and we’ve made it. But that also comes along with the idea that people think feminism is about our mothers, our grandmothers, our aunts, and what they did. People still think it’s about burning bras (which is absurd and a myth), and not shaving your legs, and fighting for abortion, the right to vote. People go there and that’s what people talk about, time and again. And because people have these ideas, they don’t engage with feminism, they don’t know how to look at feminism in a modern context. A lot of people don’t acknowledge things going on around them as feminist. We’ve gained a lot of support, with Feministing and things like SlutWalk, which are getting younger audiences, are getting younger voices, because they are modern and  they are using online media, which is great, but so many people engage with them and think they’re wonderful, particularly Slutwalk, but at the same time so many people will say they don’t think feminism has a place anymore, when they don’t even know that what they’re doing is a feminist initiative and a feminist cause. I think it comes from a misinformation that feminism is dead and hasn’t moved into its later waves about intersectionality and identity and moved into a modern context, and so they don’t know how to engage with it anymore.

SB: For me, it’s dealing with those that are working so hard to oppress feminism. It’s hard enough trying to propel equal rights forward, but there are so many that are trying to drag us down, or trying to persuade people without learning all the facts or use alarmist tactics, it’s mindboggling to me.

We’ve had so many media outlets that have been incredibly supportive of SlutWalk — people like Feministing, other feminist blogs, educators, and people writing their own personal stories, and that’s just been phenomenal. But on the other end of the spectrum, there’s a small percentage, {even though small, they have such a large voice these days to make enough noise} that, for whatever reason — either to make bigger headlines or get better ratings or just to be heard and play the devil’s advocate — they’ve been working hard to push the idea that we ourselves are hypocrites or have no idea what we’re doing; are shameful ourselves or should be embarrassed about what we’re doing; that we have no right to reclaim language, or have no experience with feminist issues.

We’re not coming from enormous feminist backgrounds, or even activist backgrounds. I’ve never been in a protest or done any kind of activist work. But we’re learning, and it’s been such an amazing education for me in all this. I admit that I started at ground zero on this, but those people who sit behind their laptops have no idea what we’re doing or the hardwork that has gone into it all. It’s infuriating because they have the comfort of anonymity, saying that we shouldn’t be doing this, or should be doing something else, when they themselves are doing nothing but using loud words, and not working towards any of the causes that we feel are important.

I don’t understand people that support norms that are harmful to so many. It’s so easy to maintain the status quo, or insult those who don’t.  It’s making our work extremely difficult.

HJ: That’s why I love Pippi Longstocking! Optimism achieves more than pessimism!

LA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?

HJ: Strawberry rhubarb pie, because I love pie even more than cupcakes. Water. And I think I would have to choose Madonna. I think she would have lots of amazing stories, and I could learn a lot from her, and she’s such a sex positive amazing badass. I would love it!

SB: I would pick bbq spare ribs, champagne, and — I’m not sucking up here; I watched her TED Talk a couple weeks ago in the midst of SlutWalk planning and it kept  me going —  I would say Courtney Martin. I’m so inspired by her that I could sit and chat with her all night.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman started blogging with Feministing in 2008, and now runs partnerships and strategy as a co-Executive Director. She is also the Director of Youth Engagement at Women Deliver, where she promotes meaningful youth engagement in international development efforts, including through running the award-winning Women Deliver Young Leaders Program. Lori was formerly the Director of Global Communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and has also worked at the United Nations Foundation on the Secretary-General's flagship Every Woman Every Child initiative, and at the International Women’s Health Coalition and Human Rights Watch. As a leading voice on women’s rights issues, Lori frequently consults, speaks and publishes on feminism, activism and movement-building. A graduate of Harvard University, Lori has been named to The Root 100 list of the most influential African Americans in the United States, and to Forbes Magazine‘s list of the “30 Under 30” successful mediamakers. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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