For the third year running, the Sluts were back on the streets of New Paltz last Sunday. But any wannabe voyeurs coming out to ogle them would have been disappointed: The most provocatively attired participant in SlutWalk 2018 was a hairy-chested male ally clad in a slinky sequined dress and fishnet stockings, his bushy grey Jerry Garciaesque hair bunched into two thick pigtails, as he endured the half-mile trek down Main Street in spike heels. This year, the usual drunken male hecklers stayed away, perhaps having learned their lesson in years past that women united with the intent to Take Back the Night are not to be trifled with.
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. This campaign of feminist political theater spread quickly to the US and other countries, and an informal organization calling itself SlutPaltz formed in 2016 in reaction to a critical mass of events, both local and national, that included a series of sexual assaults against several SUNY students. The group of New Paltz activists that arose following these events calls itself “a collective of local intersectional feminists dedicated to standing up for human rights, with a focus on the eradication of rape culture. We aim to create proactive social change by asserting a public expression of our beliefs, fostering awareness, discussion and action within the community.”
The first SlutWalk in New Paltz in October 2016 drew an enthusiastic crowd of supporters, and the vixens-on-a-mission came back for another consciousness-raising Walk against Rape Culture on a hot September Saturday in 2017. It was with the memory in mind of last year’s withering heat that SlutPaltz organizer Shanique Alladen set the 2018 protest for a weekend in late October, in hopes of more parade-friendly skies. Alas, it was not to be: A nor’easter forecast for Saturday, October 27 forced a last-minute rescheduling of the event to Sunday, with the sky still overcast and temperatures still a little raw. As a result, participation was lower this year than might have been expected in the wake of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings: Only about 50 marchers showed up. “The rain did it,” Alladen conceded. “There would’ve been a better turnout if we didn’t have to change the date.”
Indeed, the signs of bad weather having recently passed through downtown New Paltz littered the line of march. In front of One Epic Place, many of the “truffula trees” decorating the lawn to announce the venue’s upcoming “Seusstastic Halloween” had been felled, bent or beheaded by Saturday’s gusty wind and pelting rain. Still, the clustered marchers making their way down the sidewalk stepped along smartly to the rhythms set by a drummer and washboard-player from the activist band Tin Horn Uprising. Alladen, dressed as Wonder Woman and carrying a bullhorn, led the marchers in spirited chants such as “Stand up for women’s rights,” “Hey, mister, get off my sister,” “Hey hey, ho ho, the patriarchy has got to go” and “Not the church, not the state, women must control our fate.”
The procession was led by half a dozen somber-visaged women who said nothing at all, clad in red robes representing the oppressed women of Gilead in Margaret Atwood’s popular feminist dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale. “They were here last year as well,” said Layla Cummings, a Rosendale-based graphic designer who created the 2018 SlutWalk flyer and was working as a parade marshal on Sunday, keeping marchers out of traffic while wearing reflective gear donated by the Wallkill Teachers’ Union. “The Handmaids’ role is to be silent and anonymous in front, leading the way.”
Other participants used colorful costuming to make their points as well. Artist/activist Harriet Forman Barrett looked quite fierce in a wine-colored cape with a hem scalloped to suggest bird wings and a headpiece with a raptor’s curved beak. “I represent the Granny Protector of Fellow Sluts,” she explained. “My work is about empowerment. I don’t believe in complaining; I believe in empowerment and working it through.”
Overall, the message of Sunday’s march was that complaining or demonstrating or speaking up are no longer enough, and that — especially following Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the US Supreme Court and the public ridicule of his accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford, by President Trump and other highly placed GOP officials — women are fed up with the normalization of sexual assault and ready to take action. For the SlutWalk’s organizers and supporters, that action crystallizes on Election Day. New Paltz Deputy Mayor KT Tobin handed out free postcards for participants to send to people reminding them to vote. “These are really good for friends who need a nudge,” Tobin said.
Besides carrying out her usual role as SlutPaltz’s resident expert on sexual violence statistics, reminding listeners that rape is America’s most underreported crime, Alladen hammered home the need for women to wield the power of the ballot box in the midterm elections. “Make a voting plan!” she urged. “Make it your responsibility to make sure that at least three other people go with you!”
Her Wonder Woman costume wasn’t doing much to protect Alladen from the cold, but on that bleak Sunday she was plainly among the many American women who are consumed with an inner fire of political activism, “Now that it’s acceptable to touch a woman in a way that she doesn’t want to be touched…because the president said it’s okay.” She was one of the last to leave when the march finally broke up at the Peace Park. “We have to become our own Amazonians,” Alladen said. “We have to defend our sisters.”