A feminist outpost in the desert.
Last night, Slut Walk Las Vegas made some serious noise on The Strip. With an escort from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department at every turn, approximately 200 people rallied at the Erotic Heritage Museum and walked to The Mirage and back (approximately two miles round-trip). While the crowd was mostly young people, there were women, men, and individuals from all parts of the LGBTQ rainbow as well as people from many different racial and ethnic groups. There were moms, students, homeless people, sex workers, academics, activists, physical and mental health workers, social workers, artists, dancers, unemployed people, employed people… a real constellation of people coming together for a single cause: to defend sexual violence victims and their rights.
The theme for the night was come as you are but come out for justice for victims of sexual violence who are shamed into silence — sometimes by members of the very legal system which is supposed to protect them. The night was a rallying cry that, as one sign put it, “My ass is no excuse for ASSault.”
Chants of “No means no!” And “Hey hey, ho ho, sexual violence has got to go!” Echoed down the packed Saturday night streetscape of the Las Vegas Strip. The mantra for the evening, repeated often was: What happens in Vegas… still requires consent! At times our numbers overwhelmed the sidewalks and tourists were forced to merge with us, enveloped in our chants and signs protesting rape culture. It was a radical intersection of the sexualized playground of The Strip and the message that sex without consent becomes rape.
The rally at the Erotic Heritage Museum kicked things off, with speakers who worked at (but in some cases did not always “officially” represent) the Erotic Heritage Museum, SWOP-LV, Planned Parenthood of Southern Nevada, the Nevada Coalition Against Sexual Violence, the Rape Crisis Center, The Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada and, the event’s organizers Tara Brosnan and Gabrielle Amato.
“When you are raped, you are asked if you are a whore,” Jenny Heinemen sex worker representing SWOP said
(I didn’t get her name, if anyone did, please supply it in comments). “When you are a whore, you are asked, what did you expect?”
Indeed, the welcomed presence of sex workers and pro-sex-work advocates may have been a unique Sin City flavor compared to the dozens of other Slut Walks that have happened all over the world since the original event in Toronto (prompted by a police officer’s comment that if college women want to avoid being raped, they should not dress like “sluts”). Considering our city’s storied history with prostitution and other forms of sex work, it may not seem very controversial to local feminists to include sex workers at an event designed to end slut-shaming and speak up for sexual violence victims. But there are those outside our fair city who disagree with their inclusion in Slut Walk, saying that implying that sex work is a choice and furthermore enjoyable, is anathema to feminism.
As The F Word put it:
By framing ‘sex work’* as something enjoyed by women, we change the direction of the conversation entirely. We remove the context of gendered oppression that is inherent to ‘sex work’; we erase survival sex workers who do not ‘choose’ this work in any way that resembles a free and autonomous choice, but rather must do it in order to survive, (so no, these women are not doing this ‘work’ because they ‘enjoy’ it); we perpetuate a male fantasy that says: women enjoy being dominated (because if you think men buying sex from women has nothing to do with power, you are living a fantasy), they enjoy being penetrated (some women do, many women do not, certainly all women do not enjoy being penetrated by strangers), they enjoy servicing men and catering to their every desire; we perpetuate the idea that prostitution is something that is ‘natural’; and we remove financial need and a context of capitalism from the discourse. Women do not exist to service men. ‘Sex work’ is about male pleasure via female bodies. This is not to say there there are not exceptions to this argument, but those exceptions are not the rule. The purpose of prostitution is male pleasure. The mere fact (and this is no mere fact) that women are paid by men removes autonomy and negates an argument for female pleasure as the primary purpose of sex work.
But this is exactly the mindset that SWOP activists and many of the sex workers I spoke with last night were trying to fight.
Here I paraphrase what
the above-mentioned sex worker Jenny said at the rally: When we deny sex workers agency, when we say that sex workers do not have choices, we take away their autonomy over their bodies. We take away their power to say no. And without “no,” we are saying that sex workers cannot be raped.
Maybe you don’t like sex work. Maybe you feel that sex work is immoral. That’s your prerogative. But to deny any human being autonomy over their body, to say any person deserves rape (whether overtly by calling someone a slut or covertly by stigmatizing the circumstances of their rape), is far more immoral than any vocation. To me that’s no different from saying that a lesbian deserved to be raped because she needed the gay fucked out of her.
But there was a lot more to Slut Walk Las Vegas than sex workers (although I will say it was a unique experience to walk down The Strip with a woman wearing only pasties and daisy dukes). Annette Magnus, of Planned Parenthood of Southern Nevada, spoke about how slut-shaming hurts women whether they are victims of sexual assault or not.
“We hear all the time the if you get a PAP smear, it makes you a whore,” Magnus told the crowd. “It is so important that we start changing the messages in our society.”
She then shared a story about a client who was told by her mother-in-law that getting a PAP smear means you are a slut and want to step out on your husband. It turns out, that client had advanced HPV and needed to have her condition monitored, by getting regular PAP smears, every year. If she had listened to her mother-in-law’s slut-shaming, she may have greatly endangered her life, or might have even died.
“If all you tell kids is ‘Don’t have sex. Don’t have sex.’ and then they come down to The Strip and all they see is sex, it’s a messed up message,” Magnus, who grew up in the Clark County School District with its abstinence-only message.
Sundberg rallied the crowd to be ready to fight for comprehensive sex education again in the next legislative session. But more urgently, she spoke about sexual violence victims who need an end to shaming right now.
“There are sexual violence victims here tonight. Some of them spoke out. Some of them didn’t. For those who didn’t, they were silenced by shaming. Look around you, you are not alone. You do not have to feel shame,” she told the crowd.
Perhaps more importantly, Sundberg urged the crowd to take the night’s energy and move it forward by getting involved in lobbying, politics, volunteering and helping non-profits like NCASV. “Tonight is great. But we have to keep it moving. There are so few of us doing this work. We can’t do it alone. We need your help.”
And perhaps that’s the most important message to come out of Slut Walk of all. It’s not about raising consciousness one night but every day. For survivors like me, who have found our voice, we must use it to speak our truth and move the dial forward to help victims everywhere. And survivors can’t find their voice without the help of services, counselors, faith leaders and more from the community. We need each other and we need to work together to bring an end to not only slut-shaming but the true violence that haunts us.
It starts with us. It starts today.