Galvanized by recent events both locally and nationally that point up the persistence of a “rape culture” in America and elsewhere, about 100 Paltzonian feminists assembled last Saturday afternoon for a high-energy protest march through the streets of town dubbed “March against Rape Culture: SlutWalk New Paltz.” College students and other residents converged at the middle school and then walked in a long column down the sidewalk on the south side of Main Street to Plattekill Avenue. After a brief rally in the Peace Park, the group moved on to a gathering at the Unframed Artists’ Gallery on Huguenot Street to view a pop-up show of political artworks by SUNY New Paltz BFA and MFA candidates titled “Counter Stories.”
The marchers — mostly women and mostly young, but including a strong showing of male allies, some parents with children and some graying veterans of other activist campaigns — carried signs as they walked along, with “Don’t tell me how to dress — Tell them not to rape” being a typical message. One mother bore a placard saying, “My daughter is the boss of her body. My son is the boss of his body.” A young man nattily attired in a bowler hat and an American flag bowtie flourished a sign that said, “Real men take no for an answer.”
Led by organizers with bullhorns, the protesters chanted slogans such as: “However we dress, wherever we go/Yes means yes and no means no!” “Join together, free our lives/No one will be victimized!” “Say it once, say it again/No excuse for violent men!” Many passing motorists honked and waved at the marchers as they drove past; tourists visiting Historic Huguenot Street and students emerging from the New Paltz Karate Academy applauded as the line of march went by. One heckler taunted the marchers in front of Shea O’Brien’s, and another chanted “Trump! Trump!” in front of P&G’s. A New Paltz police car cruised slowly past the procession at intervals, and one officer was assigned to direct traffic at the point where the marchers crossed North Chestnut Street.
The SlutWalk movement began in Canada in 2011, following widespread media coverage of a Toronto police constable advising a group of York University students that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” Thousands of women took to the streets, many deliberately dressed in so-called “provocative” clothing, expressing outrage over a series of incidents in which law enforcement officers and judges had resorted to victim-blaming and “slut-shaming,” instead of placing responsibility squarely upon the perpetrators of sex crimes. The campaign of feminist political theater spread quickly to other countries, including India, where the incidence of rape has spiked in recent years regardless of the fact that traditional women’s dress in that culture is not at all “revealing.”
In New Paltz, a few of the marchers were costumed in “slut” gear like fishnet stockings, but most wore everyday street clothes. A very obviously male supporter with heavy five o’clock shadow sported a skirt to express solidarity with his female peers. One of the bullhorn-wielding organizers wore a denim jacket over a bikini top with painted-on nipples. All participants were prepared for some serious walking, however: Not a single pair of stiletto heels was in evidence.
A few local dignitaries, including village mayor Tim Rogers and town supervisor Neil Bettez, accompanied the march, but were not featured as speakers. “We’re just here as supporters,” Bettez said. “They don’t need to hear from another old white guy!” In fact, many of the participants who spoke up at the gathering points identified themselves as survivors of rape or other forms of sexual assault, including incidents of being groped in public places in downtown New Paltz. At Peace Park, resident Shanique Alladen recited a sobering list of statistics: “One in four women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. One in seven children will be sexually assaulted. One in five women will be sexually assaulted while in college, and only 42 percent of them will report it. It’s the most underreported crime on campus.”
One of the organizers of the New Paltz event, Rebecca Hunter, recalled the female students being segregated from the males for a cautionary talk during freshman orientation at SUNY New Paltz in 2011: “They sat us down and told us how to dress. They treated us as being the ones who need to prepare ourselves, rather being ourselves.” Hunter raised the idea of organizing a local SlutWalk among a group of friends last winter, said fellow activist Alex Wojcik. But the project picked up momentum from a series of events in quick succession: several sexual attacks on SUNY students at the beginning of the fall 2016 semester; “girls at the middle school being singled out for wearing spaghetti straps during the first week of school, when it was 100 degrees,” according to Wojcik; the release of rapist Brock Turner from prison after serving only half of his six-month sentence; and a succession of offensive statements about women’s bodies by presidential candidate Donald Trump. Wojcik characterized the string of incidents as “damaging to everybody.”
The New Paltz SlutWalk was designed as a first step to create visibility and raise awareness, said the organizers, but it won’t be the last. Wojcik said that “a set of demands” would be prepared for public release in the near future, aimed at redirecting blame for sexual abuse from the victim to the perpetrator. “Voting on Tuesday and grabbing certain candidates by the ballot helps, too.”
“We’d also like to get a support group going for survivors,” Alladen added. “Women should know that they are not alone.” To be added to the SlutWalk organizing group’s listserv and be kept informed about upcoming activities, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.