Badass-Activist Friday presents JESSICA SKOLNIK of SlutWalk Chicago!

It’s Friday, and we all know what that means! Interviews with your favorite badass feminists and activists. Whether social media queens and kings, creative artists, sex educators, or just kick-ass personalities, these people harness righteous anger, instigate movements and inspire culture change. We’re here to honor them and their work, but more importantly, to highlight how we can all get up, plug in, and Just Start Doing.

Feminism is an wide-ranging movement, and we at WIYL feel it’s so important to include activists working to broaden our perspectives and work in negotiating the complexity of intersectional oppressions, making the voices of marginalised groups heard. For this mini-series, we’ll be focusing on men and women who critique the gender hierarchy across all boundaries – cultures, race, age and medium.

So without further ado…

Here’s Jessica Skolnik of SlutWalk Chicago!

Jessica Skolnik is a Chicago activist, community organizer, musician, blogger, zinester, and all-around bad-ass.  Together with Jaime Keiles, Jessica is co-organizing SlutWalk Chicago, an international grassroots response to widespread victim-blaming and rape culture, on Saturday, June 4th at the Thompson Center Plaza.  Jessica is also an enthusiastic member of the Sexual Health Education to End Rape (SHEER) Collective, a new survivor centered, sex-positive coalition in Chicago, and the resident shredder of synth in the post-punk band Population.  Jessica’s spent the last ten years organizing several communities for sexual assault survivors and administering an educational workshop on enthusiastic consent, rape culture and issues of sexual assault within small communities, specifically within punk communities.

What’s your philosophy of anti-violence?

Violence is not just personal but structural. We live in a society that glorifies violence to the point where many of us are inured to it. I see interpersonal violence as often encouraged and exacerbated by a struggle for control and power that stem from structural inequalities (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc). Yes, we need to educate ourselves as to how to deal with specific and personal incidents, but we will not seriously change this society toward nonviolent ends until the entire playing field is leveled.

How did you become involved in anti-violence work and community organizing?

I am a survivor of multiple incidents of sexual assault and relationship violence. Combine that with growing up in DC in the early ‘90s with parents who encouraged my burgeoning interest in the DIY punk scene, and you have a recipe for a young riot grrrl who learned everything she could from the older activists at Positive Force and other activist collectives. I read as much as I could, learned as much as I could, and listened as much as I could.

Eventually I realized that activism would help me heal and allow me to help others. I realized that healing from trauma doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and connecting with other survivors is part of that process. I drew from my academic background in labor history and cultural studies, and I started thinking about how I could use my knowledge of organizing and education to change the dominant culture.

One of the sexual assaults happened when I was barely 13.  I brought the incident to my counselor at school who encouraged me to report it to the police. It was one of the most dehumanizing experiences I’ve ever encountered with bureaucracy — and that’s saying something. They questioned me in a way that implied that I was at fault — I didn’t behave like a “good girl,” I wasn’t dressed “correctly,” I was sexually active at a young age and I had “led them on…” It was as far from the myth of the supportive, understanding police from Law and Order: SVU as possible, and there was no follow-up on my report.

After I digested the pain and dealt with the feeling of being violated all over again by people who were supposed to help me, I realized that traditional structures may not be the answer for everyone. I decided that I would spend the rest of my life involved with alternative community organizing by other survivors and active advocates.

I’m really interested in the strategy and skills behind working within subversive counter cultures to create culturally relevant narratives of sexual violence. What strategies do you use in your workshops to help create punk communities free from rape and sexual violence? What are some obstacles to anti-violence work specific to punk culture?  Are there specific persistent attitudes or beliefs that have helped to normalize rape within punk communities?

The first strategy I use in my workshop model is to systematically debunk myths and narratives specific to punk culture, as well as the ones we’re more familiar with in mainstream culture, and examine how they are all connected. Punk communities are obviously not immune to rape culture, as much as we’d like to think we are.

One of the most pervasive myths about sexual violence in punk communities is that it’s not supposed to happen there, and that myth in and of itself is an enormous obstacle to ending violence. There’s this narrative that just because we’ve created this culture and community where the line between consumer and artist is less demarcated, where we control creativity as much as possible, that we’ve also created a world where oppression doesn’t exist. Anyone who’s spent even a cursory amount of time in the punk scene knows that’s not true. All the -isms and phobias from mainstream culture are still present, they just emerge a little differently – which makes them more difficult to recognize.

One thing that always baffled me is that, inevitably, when you bring up an allegation of sexual assault within the punk community, you’ll get an echo of voices asking why the person making the allegation didn’t call the cops. There’s a long history of punks resisting police brutality and police culture — it speaks volumes to me that the only time you’ll ever find punks trust the word of the police over the word of a fellow community member is when someone makes an allegation of sexual assault.

Nobody wants to believe that a member of a small, close community could perpetrate such a horrible act. There’s an immediate defensiveness that arises because the allegations are so serious. But violence happens at fests, within collectives, between activists and musicians… It’s hard to talk about rape when many of us don’t feel as if we have the right vocabulary for it. Regardless of our cultural participation in it, we still live in a world without adequate training about what consent looks like, what crossing that line looks like, and we need to trust the word of survivors. Yes, false accusations happen, unfortunately, but very rarely. The more we learn about consent and how to talk about it, the more equipped we are to support one another without immediately assuming that a survivor isn’t telling the truth.

How did you end up co-organizing SlutWalk Chicago?  What do you have planned for SlutWalk in Chicago, and what do you hope the event will accomplish?

I first read about SlutWalk on Tumblr through various feminist blogs as the Toronto organizers were putting together their event. I was outraged and frustrated by the persistence of this institutional attitude that I’d encountered when I reported to the police in 1992, the attitude that a survivor is responsible for an assault if she or he doesn‘t act in certain socially prescribed ways. I was inspired by all the photos and reportage from the Toronto event, and when Jamie Keiles (my co-organizer) posted on her blog that she was going to take on the challenge of organizing a satellite SlutWalk here in Chicago, I didn’t even think twice about emailing her to offer my organizing help.

We’re planning a really wonderful event here in Chicago — not just a march but a rally with live music, speakers, tabling by some of our ally organizations, and possibly other forms of entertainment. We’re looking into burlesque and comedy at the moment. We want this to be a chance to meet up with likeminded folks similarly interested in dismantling the culture of shame. SlutWalk will be a celebration of the work the sex-positive rape crisis and survivors’ community has done to change that victim-blaming dynamic and a celebration of our future potential as a united movement going forward.

We also have two after-parties planned, as we’d like to keep the momentum going from the event through the day. We’ve organized a patio party for directly after the walk at Zella. My band happens to be playing a show that night with two other great bands, Martial Canterel and Anatomy of Habit, and that’s our official after-after-party. There’s more information on our website as our plans unfold!

Has the reception for SlutWalk Chicago been pretty positive?  I’ve heard a lot of anti-violence activists question the use of the pejorative word “slut” for an event that’s supposed to be empowering… How do you respond to that?

I’m actually amazed by how positive most of the feedback has been — I was expecting a few more trolls, to be honest! Maybe they just haven’t come out of the woodwork yet, who knows. I credit the original SlutWalk in Toronto for paving the way and opening a dialogue.

The response from the anti-violence activist community has been roughly what I expected: positive but cautious. I was actually dubious about the use of the word “slut” when I read about the initial event and started organizing this one. At one point in my life, I was very much invested in reclaiming the word for myself, since I had been labeled a slut by others and found that reclaiming my enjoyment of sex was personally enormously healing. But that’s a goal I’ve found less personally profound over the years.

SlutWalk Chicago’s stance is that whether you find it personally empowering to reclaim the word “slut” or not, we stand with you. Using the SlutWalk name doesn’t just ally and align us with the work done by the amazing organizers in Toronto and all of the other satellites around the world, it really gives us a unique opportunity to talk about how sexual double standards and slut-shaming are cornerstones of rape culture and how a sex-positive attitude ties into the dialogue about consent, and I think that is enormously valuable.

What can our readers do to get involved with SlutWalk?  And do you have any advice for starry-eyed activists in-the-making?

Email us at slutwalkchicago@gmail.com to get on our volunteers’ mailing list. Ally your organization, business or blog with us! Print out the posters we have available and hang ’em everywhere. Invite your friends and post all over your social media about SlutWalk, connect with us on any number of social networking sites (all linked from our main website).  Enter our DIY SlutWalk poster contest!  We’re organizing a poster-making session before the walk, details are on our website.

Show up on Saturday, June 4th at the Thompson Center plaza (100 W. Randolph) for the SlutWalk step-off at noon! And if you are so moved, organize your own SlutWalk satellite in your city!

To activists-in-the-making: whatever cause and perspective you align yourself with, there is an enormous wealth of community resources and a world of movements to connect with, both locally and globally.  Before you strike out on your own trying to build a movement from the ground up, check out the work other folks are doing and see how you can get involved or build off of it. Listen and learn, as well as contributing your energy and ideas!

Remember to take care of yourself at every step of the process. Personal healing and growth are as much a part of an activist’s journey as larger community and cultural change. Everything is connected.

The Line Campaign is proud to ally with SlutWalk Chicago. We support SlutWalk’s mission to promote education about sexual assault and to make it known loud and clear that victims of violence are never the ones at fault and no one asks to be raped.

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2 Comments on “Badass-Activist Friday presents JESSICA SKOLNIK of SlutWalk Chicago!”

  1. 1 Garp said at 8:03 pm on May 10th, 2011:

    I think the issue is more complicated than that:
    http://garplives.blogspot.com/2011/05/why-slutwalk-is-exercise-in-stupidity.html

  2. 2 T.S. Garp said at 6:35 pm on May 22nd, 2011:

    Miranda, thanks for engaging me in this complex debate. I thought I’d respond point by point to the comment you left (and then deleted?) on my post.

    “Firstly, it’s hilariously ironic that you’re shunning the SlutWalk protest movement for using “attention-grabbing” strategies while the title of this entry essentially fumbles at the bra straps of the same rhetorical device. So thanks for the chuckle.”

    I’m criticizing the movement for immaturely using attention-grabbing tactics that are perpetuating a half-baked idea.
    I can of course see why you might think my title is unintentionally ironic. But my piece pinpoints exactly why the movement is based on an illogical — hence, “stupid” — premise. Feel free to disagree but my choice of word was not so much attention-seeking as precise. Unlike the use of the word ‘slut’, it does not take focus away from anything.

    “Although you incorrectly assumed otherwise in writing this, reclaiming “slut” is not a priority for every SlutWalk satellite. Within the Chicago satellite, for instance, we have placed a higher priority on establishing solidarity with sex workers, who are widely targeted for both institutional and interpersonal violence. That said, I think you could benefit from reading a bit more about the cultural history of reappropriating language, particularly in the queer movement.”

    Reaching out to sex workers is of course critical, and my compliments to your organization. But my piece criticizes the misguided motives driving sections of the movement. It is not my intention to cast aspersion on the style of functioning of individual satellites.
    Nothing I have read so far about the politics of re-appropriating language dissuades me from arguing (as I did in the essay) that the term ‘slut’ is loaded with connotations of selfish, id-driven opportunism and as such carries far less gravitas than other words re-appropriated through various civil rights movements.
    As a philosophical aside, I hope you recognize that outlawing hateful words and allowing them to be used only by the relevant minority, while cleansing the words of their horrid colonizing context, leaves us on a slippery slope.
    It goes without saying that people should be educated to be more sensitive. Perhaps this argument ought not to be made in the present political climate, but we must be responsible enough to recognize that over the course of history every reclamation has inadvertently led us right to an autocratic state in which the oppressed becomes the new oppressor.
    No minority, however antagonistic to our values, must ever be wiped out.

    I also think you’re deliberately overlooking the nebulous meaning of the word “slut” and the entirely subjective manner with which it’s hurled as an insult and a threat. Read this piece for more insight: http://bigthink.com/ideas/38362.”

    I read this piece recently. I agree that ‘slut’ connotes different meanings and is often hurled as an insult. There is no justification for that kind of vitriol, but that much is obvious. That said, if someone brands you an “idiot”, would you fight to overturn the meaning of the word, and then proudly use that same word — as in, “I’m an idiot and I’m proud of it” — as a badge of honor?
    I can fully sympathize with the impulse to lash out, but in the long run disrespectful language must be rooted out by ignoring the user of such abusive language. When you demonstrate that words, unaccompanied by violence, cannot hurt us.

    Finally, I don’t agree that biology ever justifies social stigmatization leading to systematic violence. That argument is deeply problematic, not least of all because you’ve placed the onus for responsible sex solely with women. You should give the human race (and the male sex) more credit for having evolved beyond clubbing your victim over the head and dragging her into the nearest cave.

    I agree with you entirely — biology is not a good enough reason to justify stigmatization. In fact I explicitly clarify, “…this is not to say that women should be denied sexual freedom; this freedom will, however, be purchased inexorably at the price of social disapproval.

    As far as giving props is concerned, I think nice, understanding men find it difficult to pose enough of a challenge to the women they are attracted to. An alpha male aka Caveman 5.0 deserves way more credit.


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