The SlutWalk movement started this April in Toronto, when a cop said: “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” In response, more than 3000 people took to the streets to demonstrate that being assaulted isn’t about what you wear.
Thousands more have followed suit around the world. A tiny negative transformed into a huge positive as people stood up for human rights.
Brennan Peters is leading St. Louis’s SlutWalk, which takes place this Saturday, July 16, at noon. Workshops will follow the march and culminate with an evening performance.
Kendra Holliday: What inspired you to take on SlutWalk and lead the event in St. Louis?
Brennan Peters: My involvement with SlutWalk was accidental. Robyn from TransHaven sent out a group Facebook message with a link to a news story about SlutWalk Toronto. It looked like a really fun time. I’ve organized other things in the past as an LGBT activist over in Illinois—benefits for scholarships, art shows, sexual health education events, discussion panels. It didn’t seem like too big of a deal, but at the time I thought a couple hundred people would show up—not a couple thousand.
I’m more of an educator, as opposed to a director, by nature; I like to think of my role with SlutWalk as one of facilitation. I assessed some needs in the community—a strong desire for empowerment and change, a lack of education and advocacy—and I reached out to some folks who could help address those needs in a variety of different ways. I’m not really a leader, though… I’m more of a people wrangler.
KH: Have you ever had experience with sexual assault or being taunted on the streets?
BP: I’ve encountered the most ridiculous things. A fellow customer in a gas station informing me that I had a “sweet ass” stands out in my mind. Given the context of the interaction (me walking past him to exit the gas station) and the fact that this guy was a complete stranger, I have no clue where he got the idea that I was seeking sexual attention.
I think about what he said and how he said it, and while it’s possible that he was so moved by the sheer beauty of my derriere that he simply couldn’t contain himself, I find that scenario unlikely. He humiliated me in front of a bunch of complete strangers, either because it didn’t occur to him that what he was saying was objectifying and inappropriate, or because he knew that it was rude and degrading but felt entitled to speak to me like that anyway.
Not that it matters, but I was sans makeup, sloppily coifed, and wearing a pair of sweatpants and a tee shirt at the time for anyone who might have been wondering.
I’ve had numerous experiences like this throughout my life, and I have yet to meet a woman who hasn’t.
I also have a pretty extensive history of sexual abuse myself. When I was about three or four years old, I was assaulted by a neighbor. I was also sexually abused by a member of my household throughout most of my childhood and adolescence. After that, I dated abusive, exploitative men. I was also a sex worker—a five-year, on-again, off-again career that began and ended when I was a teenager. (Do the math on that one.)
I’ve mostly healed, though, and sharing my experiences as a guest speaker over the past few years has definitely helped me along that path in some pretty unexpected ways. I think that SlutWalk has a tremendous potential to benefit sexual assault survivors by giving them a chance to step out of the isolation that victimization often creates and interact with others who are on that same journey.
KH: Have you ever been called a slut?
BP: I’ve been reflecting on this recently. The first time I was called a slut, I was in fifth grade. I had never engaged in any sort of sexual contact with a peer. I dressed like a tomboy. My nose was always stuck in a book. I didn’t really meet any of the criteria that go along with the social construct of “slut.”
But I was new to the school, and my family was poor. I was gangly and awkward-looking, and I had a really poor sense of self-worth. I was an ideal target for bullying, so I endured relentless taunting every single day, but when a little boy from the classroom next to mine called me a slut when we were in the lunch line—everyone went silent. I didn’t have much of an idea of what the word meant at the time, but I knew that it was bad—probably one of the worst things you could call a person—and that it was a word for girls, not boys.
I went to a different school for sixth grade, and for a school play, I had to kiss a boy. Technically, he was supposed to kiss me—just a peck—but both of us were way too bashful, so the kiss never actually happened. He just hovered about two inches away from the left corner of my mouth. A group of guys in my grade started calling me a slut the next day, at first in jest, but then rumors started going around, and the label stuck.
I was a slut throughout high school, too, only by then, I was working my hardest to earn the reputation. I was an archetype: tight shirts and short skirts (or sometimes short shirts and tight skirts), too much makeup, an impressive collection of notches on my bedpost. I was also an incredibly broken and misguided child. I had boyfriends old enough to buy me beer, a substance abuse problem, and a burgeoning career as a prostitute before I was old enough to drive legally. I hid my recreational activities from most everyone at my school, but it was like they could smell the sluttiness on me. Either that, or the fact that I could say the words “anal sex” without blushing tipped them off.
I remember trying to be “good” a few times, but it was like no one would let me. If girls were too nice to me, they became sluts by proxy. If boys were nice to me, it was because they were trying to fuck me; if not, they risked ridicule at the hands of their peers. It was a no-win situation for me, so I just stayed “bad” for a while.
I’m 29 now. People still call me a slut. I get called a slut at least once a day because of my involvement in this event. I just don’t care any more.
KH: What’s your definition of the word slut?
BP: In my life, it’s a term of endearment used among other like-minded sexually liberated women, but I don’t think that how most folks wield it.
As far as society at large goes, I don’t think the word “slut” really has a set definition. I’ve heard it used to refer to a woman who has sex outside of committed relationships. I’ve heard it used to refer to a woman who is dressed in revealing clothing. I’ve heard it used to refer to single mothers. It’s used almost constantly to refer to sex workers, dancers, and other women in the commercial sex industry. The meaning of the word varies from individual to individual, across cultures and time, but in every instance, it is used to denigrate and devalue other human beings.
It’s a slur. It’s a term that can be assigned many derogatory meanings or connotations, but they all have the same function—to relegate the “slut” to a second-class citizen status.
KH: Is this an event for women?
BP: Sure, it’s an event for women. It’s also an event for trans individuals and men and genderqueer people and anyone else who wants to participate. That’s one of the things I love about this movement, its inclusiveness.
KH: What’s the dress code?
BP: One of the biggest misconceptions about this event is that we are “encouraging” people to dress like sluts. We’re not encouraging anyone to dress any certain way. One of the tag lines for the event is, “Come as you are.” As long as it’s legal, you can rock it and feel welcome within our fold.
KH: There are a lot of people who are anti-SlutWalk for various reasons. Have you heard any criticism that surprised you?
BP: I get a lot of extremely misguided criticism from people who haven’t bothered to read the event description. Apparently things like literacy and critical thinking skills are fucking superpowers or something.
The number of women who have chimed in with comments to the effect of, “Well, if you don’t want to get treated like a slut, don’t act like a slut,” has been really upsetting for me. The person saying it is almost always a very young woman, and I wish I had the time and patience to address each and every one of them, fully explaining the concepts of slut as a slur, sexual repression, masculine privilege, internalized oppression—alas, there are only so many hours in the day, but damn, it just breaks my heart to read and hear that kind of stuff. I feel like I’m somehow failing them.
I have had many, many people say something along the lines of, “I bet a bunch of women get raped that day.” That just blows my mind. As one of our supporters aptly pointed out, that’s a pretty cavalier attitude to have about such a devastating event. What’s even more unsettling is that the people who make comments of this nature seem to have no clue why these remarks are so disturbing. I think that says a lot about our attitude toward rape and sexual assault in this culture.
The name garners a lot of criticism, which I honestly expected. There’s always backlash when a group decides to attempt to reclaim a term that’s been used the way “slut” has been; as an LGBT activist I encounter a lot of this with efforts to reclaim the word queer, which is actually how I identify. It can be really frustrating—first society wants to tell us who to fuck or how to conduct ourselves, and then they also want to chime in with what we’re supposed to call ourselves while we’re being what they want us to be and fucking who they want us to fuck. Most people understand once I explain some of the rationale behind the name. (It’s a tongue-in-cheek use of the exact word used by the police officer that tipped off this entire movement, or as I like to call him, The Cop That Launched A Thousand Sluts.)
I’ve also been surprised by the incredibly personal nature of the criticism, too. Over the past month I’ve been called slut (of course), ho, whore, cunt, bitch, dyke, fat, stupid—pretty much every name in the book. I’ve been called “sexless” (and here I was thinking sexless and slut were mutually exclusive ideas), a man (which didn’t bother me in the least but was confusing as the comment came from a man), “the most obnoxious person on the planet” (possibly), and a “feminist pitbull” (which I rather liked, honestly). I’ve also been told that God hates me and I’m going to hell, but as previously mentioned, I’m queer, so that’s nothing new.
KH: Why did you choose Manchester Grove as the area for SlutWalk?
BP: I didn’t really choose The Grove. The Grove chose SlutWalk. Most aldermen and business owners didn’t want to be in any way associated with this event. We literally had one option, and it would have been a somewhat hostile environment. Then Chip Schloss (owner of Atomic Cowboy) reached out to me.
For the first year of the event, I thought it was really important for it to be a positive experience for all involved, and I think The Grove can offer that. It’s a thriving neighborhood with a vibrant and diverse culture, and the businesses have been very supportive of this event, particularly Novak’s and Atomic Cowboy. Chip is a really great guy. He genuinely cares about this cause and about the populations represented by this movement. He’s gone above and beyond to help me get this together.
KH: Do you have children? What do you think kids should be taught about interacting with the opposite gender?
BP: I have one child, an 8-year-old son. I don’t really teach him how to relate to people based on gender. I teach him to get to know them as individuals, interact with them appropriately based on whatever characteristics they possess, and always treat people with kindness and respect. I’ve gotten some criticism for this in the past because some people seem to think that it’s an awfully complicated way to raise a child, but the way I figure, if folks are sending their kids off to fancy preschools where they learn three different languages by the time they’re five, then surely my son has the aptitude to learn how to treat people like the individuals they are.
So far, so good. When he meets someone who presents a somewhat ambiguous gender identity, he doesn’t use a pronoun until that person has established how they identify. He says things like, “Some day, when I have a girlfriend, I want to be friends with her before I try to kiss her,” which tells me that a) he respects women as human beings, and b) he’s most likely heterosexual. However, he doesn’t assume everyone in the entire world is heterosexual. He corrects his peers when they use “gay” in place of “stupid.” He cannot wrap his mind around the concept of judging someone by the color of their skin. He personally doesn’t believe in God, but he doesn’t belittle other people’s religious beliefs or spiritual needs.
His teacher tells me he’s always the first to volunteer to help in the classroom and that students in the class who struggle—a little girl who doesn’t speak a word of English, a boy who is having trouble adapting to his new foster home, another little girl who has some behavioral issues—all know that they can sit next to him at lunch or play with him on the playground and that he will show them kindness and treat them with dignity.
It’s amazing what our kids have the ability to learn when we take the time to teach them.
KH: Who inspires you?
BP: I am really fortunate to be surrounded by truly inspiring people. The hands-down biggest source of inspiration in my life is my son. He’s honestly what motivates me to engage in a lot of my activism. There have been days where I’d rather shove a rusty screwdriver through my eye socket than call the people I need to or respond to emails or deal with idiots on the Facebook page— because as much as I love what this event is accomplishing, I’m more of a behind-the-scenes person. I don’t like being the go-to gal, and I don’t like being in the spotlight, but I want my son to have a better quality of life than I did, and that means positively shaping the world he will inherit. That ideology really pushes me to be my best and do my best.
I also recently engaged in a mutual respect-a-thon with a former college instructor of mine, Cassie Westfall. She taught a sociology course my first year back at school, and it opened my eyes to a lot of social problems that I had seen in action but didn’t have names for. I have a great adviser, Barb Hunter, who encouraged me to succeed in school and as an activist simply by having faith in my abilities, which was fairly new to me at the time. Now she’s like a second mom to me. She even occasionally nags me about appropriate professional attire, a concept the trailer park girl in me is still struggling to grasp. Both of these women have been instrumental in helping me articulate what I had experienced and continue to experience. It has been really empowering for me.
The people I’ve met and worked with throughout the process of organizing this event inspire me as well. I’ve met so many survivors, and they all have such unique experiences and perspectives. I feel like I’m learning from all of them, all of the time. And Robyn Montague and Claire Swinford, Kendra and David and the rest of the SEX+STL folks, Lindsay and Andie and Maddie and all the fashion show people, Michelle Mynx, and the AlphaWom ladies, and the people at Atomic Cowboy—it’s mind-blowing to me that so many people have come out to support this event, and I definitely couldn’t have done it without each and every person. I really think it’s an experience I’ll take with me going forward.
Oh, my boyfriend is pretty inspirational, too, but I’m not going to get publicly sappy about it or anything. As a couple, we just don’t do that sort of thing, but I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge him.
KH: What time is the march? Anything else going on that day?
BP: The march is at noon. The nice folks at AlphaWom will be there a little earlier to help people make signs, though we do recommend you bring your own. There will be workshops following, beginning at 3:00pm at the Fox Hole (inside Atomic Cowboy). Those should wrap up by 7:00pm, which is just in time for the Body Positive Fashion Show over at Novak’s (hosted by Miss Ohio Vintage and Missfits Magazine). We also have a burlesque showcase kicking off at 8:30pm, again at the Fox Hole.
KH: What are your future plans?
BP: I’m actually moving to New Orleans in August to finish my psych degree. After that, it’s off to grad school. I want to study Social Psychology—masculinity studies, interestingly enough.