Feminist Karen Pickering
The women in attendance have broken out their summer wear: floral-patterned ’50s dresses flaring at the waist; frayed cutoff jeans; fluoro fishnets. Earl Grey is on offer, in delicate porcelain cups. Platters of home baking crowd the tables. I hand over a fundraising coin, reach for a treat. The carefully piped icing reads SLUT! I peel back the pink cupcake wrapper, swallow the exclamation mark, lick the crumbs from my fingers.
Two women sit behind another table, selling cross-stitched artwork. Slut Lyfe reads one design, a flowery purple flourish underlining the embroidered words. Haters gonna hate, says another, punctuated with adorable green hearts.
Bella Union Bar, in Melbourne’s Trades Hall, is in full swing. On stage Karen Pickering, the founder of the Melbourne SlutWalk chapter, opens proceedings: slightly wavy thick blonde bob tucked behind her ears, red and white half-apron wrapped around her red and black dinosaur sundress. There’s an endearing whateverness about Pickering. An am-who-I-am shruggery that reads as both vulnerably earnest and fiercely uncompromising. “Welcome to the Slut Tea Party!” she grins. The room erupts in a mighty cheer.
The SlutWalk spills down Flinders Street: luminous, loudspeakered, in laddered-stockings. Women of all shapes, sizes and hues walk hand in hand: waving, laughing, crying. Cocktails don’t rape, cocks do! a sign proclaims. I owe you nothing, reads one woman’s Texta-scrawled chest, her nipples modesty-taped with lime-green electrical tape. What was the RAPIST doing out alone at night? reads another handwritten sign. STILL not asking for it, says another, bearer defiant in jeans and bra. Onlookers cheer, stare, double take, smile, join the march, hurry away, avert their eyes. The SlutWalk divides.
There’s a sky blue vintage-style bicycle leaning against the clay-coloured front wall. The small brick house has that all-too-familiar western suburbs lean. There’s Pickering: smile peeping around the door as she wrestles it open, horizontal-striped dress accentuating pregnancy curves. It’s 18 months after my first Slut Tea Party, and I’ve chased down the activist for a chat. I sit at the kitchen bench, as Pickering arranges hot cross buns on a tray: blunt-cut fringe resting just above her eyebrows, calm blue irises fractured with light.
“It electrified the internet,” she says of hearing about Toronto’s first SlutWalk five years back, the start of what would become a worldwide movement against survivor shaming and rape culture. “The name was taken from a police officer who said women should avoid dressing like sluts so they won’t be sexually assaulted. It seemed so gutsy … I’d been called a slut my entire life, and it hurt. It’s a word used against women who are not afraid of their sexuality, to shut them down … But the more we said the word, the less powerful it became.” She gently runs a hand over her enormous eight-month baby bump. “Kind of like Voldemort.” She laughs.
Pickering’s face is a sculptor’s dream. Handsome: all open expressiveness and confident, sweeping contours. “Shit! I burnt them!” she turns suddenly. She sets the blackened buns aside, eases two more from the plastic packet. The record player in the corner of the kitchen gently croons.
“There were people who hated the idea, who didn’t want women to flaunt their sexuality, or thought we were participating in shaming. There was a lot of really constructive criticism ... But we had to say we couldn’t be all things to all people, and we encouraged them to put their rage into something else, which we would also support … There were a large number of women saying: ‘Thank you, I never considered before that it might not have been my fault.’ ”
SlutWalk spread like flame. “In India, they renamed it the Walk without Shame … and in Latin America they called it something like March of the Cunts. It resonated across the world. Women in every country are shamed for the violence done to them. The first Melbourne SlutWalk was the largest march outside Toronto, bigger than London or New York. It’s a testimony to Melbourne feminists’ willingness to take to the streets.”
Pickering takes her hands off the kitchen counter, slaps her forehead. “Oh my god!” She turns to rescues a second tray of burnt buns, starts the toasting ritual again.
Pickering’s voice quietens when she mentions the counselling support needed for SlutWalk Melbourne organisers, on account of frequent disclosures of sexual assault from participants. She takes a deep breath, holds it for a moment, steadies herself. “Producers would call us and say, ‘We want to do a story. Can we talk to a rape victim?’ We’d say, ‘Firstly, they’re survivors, and secondly, we can’t procure them for you.’ There’s a glee with which people approach a woman in distress: a culture of ritual humiliation.”
Pickering’s no stranger, either, to the vitriolic abuse directed against outspoken women. “You wrote for the Guardian for a bit…?” There’s a slight pause. “I got out.” Pickering replies matter-of-factly. “You’d know why.” “Yep.” Our eyes lock knowingly across the table we’re now seated either side of: me scrawling in my notebook, her buttering the perfectly toasted buns. “Those opinion pieces are a lightning rod for abuse. You’re not protected. The public doesn’t see how much it costs you. And the pay is so small…”
Once a month, Pickering takes to the stage, curvy and crimson lipsticked, to host her monthly panel discussion Cherchez la Femme, which started unambitiously six years ago as a casual pub chat and now packs out the Melba Spiegeltent. “Empowering other younger feminists to take up space themselves is incredibly rewarding. I say, ‘It will be fine, you’ll be great. I’ll be with you. It’s just a chat over a glass of wine … only a microphone happens to be there.’ ” Pickering’s head-thrown-back laugh is infectious.
Girls on Film, the annual festival Pickering co-founded in 2014, promotes positive images of women and girls. “They’re films made and chosen by women, to watch with women. But they’re almost all popcorn movies. There’s lots of whooping and hollering. And we have a nail bar and popcorn. It’s girl’s bedroom culture writ large.” Then there’s Doing It, the sex-positive anthology of women’s writing she’s currently editing, and her freelance work collating research for the Victorian Women’s Trust on women’s experiences of menstruation.
Pickering glows, thrives, grows in the company of women. Their energy charges her. Yet in her impossibly rounded belly is curved a small boy, fast running out of growing space. He’ll be Pickering’s first child – her partner’s third. The two young boys from his previous relationship live part-time with the couple. There’s an undeniable irony to this houseful of testosterone.
“I feel as if to be a mother is to accept that mutually opposing realities can be true. You’re signing up for feeling constantly conflicted.” Her cheeks are flushed pink though, hot with excitement about the impending addition.
With the birth impending, Pickering has passed on the organisational baton for SlutWalk Melbourne, but one day there may be no need for slutwalking. The world is thirsting for the kind of men Pickering will surely raise.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 19, 2016 as "Slut tea". Subscribe here.