Where Art Meets Abuse: Terry Richardson and #AbuserDynamics

Content Warning: This post features graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

In my first year of university, I took an introductory theatre course. Having recently found my niche on the stage after four years of high-school drama classes, I was thrilled to be learning new acting techniques, to be dedicating myself to scene study, and to be collaborating with new actors. We worked in admittedly less-than-ideal conditions: the “temporary” spaces we were working in were more than 40 years old, trailers and buildings which had issues with mold, poor heating, and the occasional sounds of raccoons scurrying beneath the floorboards. But to us, to young actors who were keen to develop our craft, it was heaven. The small black-box theatre, in particular, was a place where countless generations of students had created original pieces of theatre, and had spent hours upon hours learning everything from mask work to Brechtian theories of theatrical “estrangement.”

A-Streetcar-Named-Desire-Poster.jpgOne of the major assignments of that first term was to perform a small scene with a partner. I was, admittedly, quite nervous. While I was (and still am) an avid performer, the type of person whose introversion and shyness is quelled only by the thrill of the stage, this was my first big scene with a new actor. My male acting partner and I had been given a scene from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. If you’re not familiar with the play, the climax occurs when the character of Blanche DuBois is raped by her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski, an event which prompts Blanche’s psychotic break and her subsequent institutionalization. My partner and I were given a piece of the script that ends just before the actual rape, which, in Williams’ script, is not actually depicted onstage. It was difficult to perform, admittedly, as any high-tension piece of drama is, but it was not an actual rape scene. “Thank goodness,” I had thought.

At the final performance, as our scene was ending, my male acting partner scooped me up in his arms, as directed by the script. Unfortunately, he had lifted me up in a terribly awkward way, and the weight imbalance soon ended up with us falling to the floor, with him lying on top of me. That’s where the scene was supposed to end. We hadn’t rehearsed anything past that. At that point, I could only think about how mortified I was. All of that hard work, just for our final performance to end with a deeply embarrassing fall. The first thought going through my head in that instant was “oh my God, I must weigh a bajillion pounds if he can’t even lift me up without falling.”

But then, in a split second, everything changed.

Something happened that we hadn’t rehearsed, something that I wasn’t prepared for.

“Keep going as if you were raping her.”

I froze. There I was, lying on the floor of a theatre trailer, with my classmates looking on, with my scene partner lying on top of me (still in character, still angry, a vein starting to protrude from his heated forehead) and my acting professor was telling him to keep going, as though he were raping me. 

I struggled beneath him. At one point, I remember saying “those aren’t the lines,” not that I knew what the lines were. That’s the thing, there weren’t any lines. Remember – Williams does not feature the rape onstage. I remember feeling absolutely powerless, knowing that I wanted to get up and walk away, I wanted the scene to stop, I wanted to say “Cut! Scene over!” But I couldn’t. As an acting student, as a 17 year-old girl, I honestly didn’t think that I was able to say or do anything. Why?

I didn’t want to “ruin the artistic moment.” I didn’t want to be seen as not “tough enough” of an actor to improvise, to go to “dark places,” to test my boundaries and to push my limits.  Eventually, the professor put an end to the scene, and the next team took to the stage to perform their work. Nobody said anything to me. 

Needless to say, I was very rattled by this incident. But more than anything, I would say that I was pissed. I was livid that nobody had bothered to check in – with either of us – to see if we were okay with improvising a violent rape scene. I was fuming mad that it was merely assumed that I’d be fine with it, and that I hadn’t been given an option to opt-out. I was especially angry at my scene partner for not snapping the fuck out of character to ask me if I was okay before he grabbed at my clothes and pinned my arms over my head. 

To be honest, I hadn’t thought about that incident in a long time. I realize, looking back, that my professor was terribly misguided and out of line, but very likely not intentionally abusive. It was, however, incredibly unsafe. It was dangerous. 

I was prompted to think about that that day, and about the very precarious and blurry line between danger and safety when it comes to art and performance, when I read New York Magazine’s recently profile of Terry Richardson, entitled “Is Terry Richardson an Artist or a Predator?” The article, which has been written in the light of numerous women coming forward to disclose their stories of sexual harassment and abuse at Richardson’s hands (including the phenomenal model’s-rights advocate Sara Ziff), takes a long look at Richardson’s career, his upbringing, as well as the numerous allegations against “Uncle Terry.”

As Jezebel’s Callie Beusman has cogently pointed out, the major problem with NYMag’s cover story is precisely the title’s implication that one is either an artist or a predator, that abuse and artistic production simply cannot co-exist in the same space. Beusman writes:

Phrasing the proposition in that way — as an either-or binary — is not only insultingly reductive, it’s also wildly misleading: as though it’s possible that the end product justifies the sexual coercion that created it, or that a respected photographer isn’t capable of preying on the women who pose for him.”

Many of the comments on the NYMag article, however, continue to suggest that Richardson’s models should have “known what they were getting into,” that they should have been able to put a stop to things when, for instance, Richardson whipped out his penis and pressed it to models’ mouths, or, with his penis already exposed, asked the models for hand-jobs.

On the one hand, the inability to see Richardson as a predator is partially due to a continued failure to understand the dynamics of abuse. As the very recent Twitter hashtag #AbuserDynamics so painfully illustrates, abuse (whether physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological) isn’t a simple case of suddenly being raped, beaten, or emotionally terrorized. Abuse works best, as abusers themselves know, when victims are either groomed to introduce abuse bit by bit, and/or in situations where victims are made to feel that their refusal or their protests will be seen as uncooperative, as the target for blame, or as damaging to their careers.

Marina Abramović performing "Rhythm 0". 1974.
Marina Abramović performing “Rhythm 0”. 1974.

On the other hand, the inability to see Richardson as a predator is due to the ongoing belief that art (especially “edgy” art) is that which has to push through, even violate the boundaries of actors and spectators. Certainly, art, whether theatre, performance art, or modelling, have long histories of using the body as a vehicle for unsettlement. Depicting the body in vulnerable or violent settings is not inherently antithetical to artistic expression, whether it be Caravaggio’s painting “Judith Beheading Holofernes” or the performance art of Marina Abramović, especially her 1970 piece “Rhythm 0,” in which Abramović allowed audience members to use 72 different objects on her body, including scissors, a scalpel, a gun, and a single bullet. Depicting the body as sexual, even explicitly, is also not necessarily antithetical to artistic expression. [Of course, there are important and necessary discussions to be had about the line between erotic depiction and exploitation, the line between attempting to represent rape/other violence, and the aestheticization or fetishization of violence (especially against women).]

Artists, whether they be actors, performance artists, or models, are well aware of the precarious balance between adequate preparation for a scene/shoot, and the need for improvisation and spontaneity to emerge as a means of accessing emotion, even when these performances or shoots involve vulnerability – especially nudity and scenes of violence. Even those performers who are part of scenes of extreme violence, such as rape scenes, describe the need for plenty of rehearsal, a safe environment, trust, as well as space for figuring things out in the moment. Each performer or model, too, has individual levels of comfort, and varying needs of the amount of time that they require to rehearse/prepare.

As Monica Bellucci stated in a 2003 interview with Film Monthly’s Paul Fischer about her performance in Irreversible, which features an incredibly brutal rape scene,

“I rehearsed the scene one day before so I knew very well all the positions because after the rape scene, there are all these violent moments. Those moments are really difficult because if you take something on your head, you’re going to die. So, I had to rehearse everything, but how I would shoot the scene, the feelings, I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know what I would have done five minutes before shooting, because it’s something, I think you have everything inside you. You just have to find it.”

Echoing Bellucci’s statements, Descent director Talia Lugacy notes with regards to the film’s rape scene featuring Rosario Dawson, that

“It was harrowing. You try to prepare yourself for something you know is going to be harrowing, but how can you? None of us really knew what this was going to feel like. We had four days to rehearse the whole movie. Rosario, Chad [Faust] and Marcus [Patrick] are brave, to their guts. […] You know, you don’t understand fully the risk you’re taking until on the day you do something of this nature and the question stares each of you in the face: how far out of your body will your honesty go, right now?”

I acknowledge that preparation is not always possible, especially when you are on a shoot with folks that you have only just met, or have only had one interview. It’s for that very reason that artists need to trust that their fellow artists, their directors, and their photographers will not use the context of performers’ vulnerability, especially physical vulnerability, as a means of abusing or assaulting them.

As Bellucci and Lugacy’s statements demonstrate, the factor of vulnerability, the descent into the unknown, is a big part of artistic production. While it may not involve such extreme levels of violence, all artists know how much trust collaborative processes require. It’s within – and only within – that context that art can be produced. When an actor signs on to do a rape scene in a movie, they need to trust that their fellow actor isn’t actually going to start raping them. When a model signs on to do any shoot – a nude art shoot, a bathing suit shoot, or a lingerie shoot, even an erotic shoot – that the photographer is not going to put his dick in their face unless that’s something they’ve talked about first.

Which brings me back, of course, to Terry Richardson.

What distresses me precisely about Richardson’s story, and the numerous stories of his sexual harassment and abuse that have emerged in the past few years, are the ways in which the discourse of “taking risks” and “being spontaneous” are being so carefully exploited, not only by Richardson himself, but by his assistants. And, more disturbingly, the allegations that abuse can’t occur on a set – within plain sight of others – is what allows people such as Richardson to do what he does without a care in the world, and, moreover, get accolades and millions of dollars for it. It doesn’t matter that Richardson has taken consensual images of other models and celebrities. It doesn’t matter that some models have, in their words, happily consented to graphic photographs of sex acts with him. It doesn’t matter that he has some work that we could call “art” (depending on what your opinion of art is, I suppose).

It matters that young women (especially women who are not protected by labour laws) are being abused. It matters that they are being coerced, manipulated, and assaulted, and that the language of “artistic expression” is being thrown in their faces as a means of victim-blaming.

Not only do Richardson’s actions affect his victims, but it is also horrendously damaging to artists who work hard to create safe spaces, and I think that photographers, directors, and artists themselves need to take a strong stand against these abusers within their communities, as Sara Ziff, Sena Cech, and so many other brave models have done.

Carré Otis has spoken extensively about the abuses she faced within the industry. Image via The Model Alliance.
Carré Otis has spoken extensively about the abuses she faced within the industry. Image via The Model Alliance.

Whether we are artists or activists, abuse that occurs within the context (or under the cover of) the spaces and the discourses that we treasure and defend (the theatre, the modelling industry, the social justice movement, just to name a few) is a double-betrayal. We trust that the people we are working with, creatively, will keep us safe. We trust that those in positions of power within those creative spaces will keep us safe. We need it all the more when we are challenging beliefs, when we are depicting violence, when we are modelling clothes – we need it at any point when our bodies are on the line.

At this point, I’m not sure what will happen to Terry Richardson. Like many other abusers within artistic spheres, his career continues to flourish, and he continues to receive accolades. As with the Roman Polanskis of the world, there will be people who continue to say things like “but he made such great films/photographs/whatever.” And that’s even if you think that Richardson’s highly overexposed images are “artistic.” Abusers are not lacking support in our world, whether they be photographers, directors, athletes, or politicians.

At the end of the day, what this latest story about Terry Richardson has reminded me is that in my view, art is much like sex. If it’s not consensual, if it’s not produced within conditions of safety, then we shouldn’t call it art, but rather, we ought to call it what it is: abuse.

———————–

Relating Reading/Resources (Content Warnings For All Of These):

Summer School on #AbuserDynamics, hosted by Suey Park and Lauren Chief Elk, featuring @bad_dominicana

Anonymous article via Black Girl Dangerous about abuse by feminist “allies.”

A Timeline of Allegations Against Terry Richardson, by Hannah Ongley at Stylite

Your Words are Not Victimless: Rape Culture and David Choe’s “Bad Storytelling”

Trigger Warning: This article contains graphic discussions of sexual assault.

BooksIn my line of work, I read about a lot of horrible things, some of which actually happened.

As a doctoral student in English literature, whose research focuses on representations of sexualized violence, I study both fictional (novels, plays) and non-fictional (memoirs, auto-biographies) accounts of these crimes. Ultimately, my goal is to understand how writers and readers, and how survivors and witnesses, all make sense of the experience of sexual violation. At best, my job allows me to see the ways in which language, even language that is disturbing, raw, and graphic, allows the reality of sexualized violence to be made visible, to break free from the shackles of silence and stigma. At worst, my job forces me to think about the stories and the languages of sexualized violence that are used as weapons, that are turned back against survivors. Whether they come in the form of humour, in the form of gleeful boasting, or in the form of callous indifference, these stories always manage to hurt. 

One such story, one such incidence of the absolute violence of words, is one that was recently told by graffiti artist David Choe, on a podcast that aired in March of 2014.

I will be brief, and, I hope, not too graphic in my recapitulation of what Choe said. Over the course nearly half an hour, Choe recalled having repeatedly forced a massage therapist to perform sexual acts on him. Along with denigrating and fetishizing this woman, whom he calls “Rose,” on the basis of her racial background and her profession, Choe expressed both nonchalance and absolute merriment at having carried out these assaults. His co-hosts, who, while they called Choe’s behaviour out for being the actions of a rapist, nevertheless engaged in banter and joking about it. Choe showed absolutely no remorse, and seemed to take only mild offense at being termed a sexual predator. According to Choe, what he did was “rapey,” but he is not a rapist.

As if this apparent admission of rape were not horrifying enough, Choe took a somewhat predictable, if no less disturbing tactic in response to his critics.

According to Choe, none of this actually happened.

Choe, the one-time protagonist in his seemingly heroic tale of raping a woman, claimed that it was simply “bad storytelling,” and an extension of his art practice. More specifically, Choe wrote, in a response on his podcast’s website: “I never thought I’d wake up one late afternoon and hear myself called a rapist. It sucks. Especially because I am not one. I am not a rapist. I hate rapists, I think rapists should be raped and murdered.”

Now, can’t say that I’m surprised. Choe’s further defense of rape as a mere subject for his dark humour,is one that has been trotted out by comedians such as Daniel Tosh, in a now-famous controversy. [For an excellent discussion of ways in which Tosh’s joke in no way performs the often-recuperative function of humour, see Elissa Bassist’s article from The Daily Beast here.]

To be very clear: I am not suggesting that violence and humour are utterly incompatible, nor am I suggesting that violence and art are utterly incompatible. Obviously. I study violence that is featured in works of art every single day. I have often used humour in order to deal with my own trauma. There are some jokes about rape culture that are so spot-on and scathing in their critiques of  the problems in society. What I am suggesting, however, is that if one’s humour or one’s art are virtually indistinguishable from actual practices of violence and exploitation, especially when one is placing oneself in the position of the perpetrator, there’s a big problem.

The thing it, it’s all too easy to just shrug off these problematic positions with any number of excuses, which is precisely what Choe does.

It’s JUST art.

It’s JUST a story.

It’s JUST harmless fun.

I’m JUST kidding.

All of these “justs,” all of these excuses that people make, whether it’s for assault or rape or harassment or whatever, these are precisely the hallmark of rape culture. They’re used by bystanders who wish to shame, blame, or silence victims, and they’re used by perpetrators themselves. Here’s the thing: David Choe didn’t merely engage in a brief, off-hand joke, that could be possibly construed as thoughtless. This was nearly a half-hour of consistent, un-ending descriptions of sexual assault, that placed him at the centre of it all. That’s a lot of effort to put into “just” a story.

from RAINN.org
from RAINN.org

Men’s Rights Activists, who trumpet endlessly about the numerous false allegations made by rape victims against innocent men every year, point to the ways in which “it was just a story” or “I made it up” gets in the way of the pursuit of justice. Now, it’s important to remember that victims sometimes recant their testimonies precisely because they are terrified of any number of consequences: of not being believed; of retaliation on the part of the perpetrator; under pressure from families, communities, or institutions. Not all claims of “it was just a story” are made equal. So, too, does a lack of a conviction not mean that an assault did not happen: a case may not be brought to trial, or a defendant may be acquitted because of a sufficient lack of evidence. Assault cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute, but this is NOT because assaults are not, in fact, occurring.

The fact that actual false assault allegations constitute a small percentage of reports aside, why would anyone in their right mind want to further muddy the waters of justice by pretending to have committed a rape when they hadn’t? Why would you want to place any doubt in someone’s mind as to whether or not you condone rape, find it funny, or heaven forbid, may have actually committed a rape yourself? 

I think one of the things that bothers me most deeply about this incident is that as a researcher, I think it is vitally important to hear perpetrator narratives. If we want to understand how and why perpetrators rationalize their actions, or groom their victims, if we want to see them not as outliers, not as monsters in the night, but as human beings who do horrendous things, these are stories we need to listen to, as fundamentally disturbing and horrifying as they are. I have listened to perpetrators speak in some fairly eye-opening documentaries, and while it is confronting, it is a source of valuable information.

Whether or not “Rose” exists, and whether or not David Choe committed a rape is still unclear. I have my own hunches and beliefs about this, and I am suspicious of his feigned innocence. Regardless, this story has given us at least two pieces of valuable information: 1) that rape culture and rape as a source of humour (in which victims are the target) is still well and alive; 2) that even if this story was a mere piece of fiction, a mere fantasy, a mere figment of the imagination, that there will always be doubt in many people’s minds as to whether or not Choe committed a crime, and he alone is to blame for that. I have no pity for Choe, and no sense of sympathy for his pleas of understanding and to not be labeled as a potential rapist. He alone is responsible for the trust he has broken, for the survivors he has triggered, and for the contributions he has made to rape culture. And, if he has committed a crime, he alone is responsible for it: not the victim.

Many words and stories, like so many crimes, are not victimless. They hurt. They have a tangible impact on people’s lives. As Denise Riley so eloquently states in her book Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect (Durham: Duke UP, 2005), “in its violently emotional materiality, the word is indeed made flesh and dwells amongst us—often long outstaying its welcome” (9).

Thanks to David Choe, every survivor out there has just received one more unwelcome blow, yet one more hurdle to face in their attempts to be heard and to seek justice.

“Bad storytelling,” like assault itself, can have a lasting, if not a lifelong, impact.

Running the Gauntlet: Thoughts on the Legacy of the Montréal Massacre

Marker of Change Women's Monument. Thornton Park, Unceded Coast Salish Territories (Vancouver, B.C.)
Marker of Change Women’s Monument. Thornton Park, Unceded Coast Salish Territories (Vancouver, B.C.)

Today, Canadians mark the 24th anniversary of the day that a gunman walked into the campus of the École Polytechnique in Montréal and carried out a brutal massacre that left 14 women dead, and another 10 injured. Like the numerous school shootings that have followed in the intervening years, both in Canada and in the United States, the gunman’s actions demonstrated a shocking level of violence and callous indifference to life, though what made the École Polytechnique massacre unique was the gunman’s explicit hatred of the gender of his victims. His suicide note, which was only released to the press months after the incident, clearly revealed the anti-feminist reasoning behind the attack: “Would you note that if I commit suicide today it is not for economic reasons…but for political ones. […] Because I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker […] I have decided to put an end to those viragos.” It was revealed, too, that the perpetrator had been previously rejected from the École Polytechnique, and especially resented women who occupied fields that had been traditionally dominated by men, such as the numerous young female engineering students who were the casualties of his assault.

The Montréal Massacre left an indelible mark on Canadian history, and sparked national conversations about gender violence. The national day of commemoration—known as the Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women—recalls the tragic deaths of these 14 women in order to bring attention to a variety of forms of gender violence, from domestic violence to sexual assault, from workplace harassment to the murders of sex workers.

images

As a scholar who studies sexualized and gendered violence, the École Polytechnique massacre has always held a particular professional interest for me. As a young female academic, however—now around the same age as many of the victims were at the time of their deaths—I find myself inevitably reflecting on the legacy of gender violence that still haunts post-secondary institutions in Canada, a legacy that directly impacts the lived experiences, as well as the professional pursuits, of both myself and my female colleagues. While this is a subject that should merit reflection at any given time in discussions of post-secondary education, literary production, or intellectual life, this particular historical and cultural moment has been saturated with incidents that have renewed and intensified the discussions around gendered oppression, unequal representation, sexism, and misogyny. This September, at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, and at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, undergraduate students at frosh week events participated in chants that made light of the rape of underage girls. Weeks later, Canadian writer and instructor David Gilmour stirred up controversy when he declared that he “[doesn’t] love women writers enough to teach them, that if [students] want women writers, [they can] go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys.” And, perhaps that which is most unsettling and representative of the legacy of December 6th, over the past six months, a series of sexual assaults on female students at The University of British Columbia has served as a reminder that aside from the intellectual or social forms of oppression, there are ongoing violent physical assaults perpetrated against students on the basis of their gender.

december6_DSC_2918And so, on this day of remembrance and action, I sit with the following questions: what are the ways in which female students and scholars still face gendered violences or oppressions? In which spaces, and by which means are these violences enacted? How are women made to feel unsafe, unwelcome, or devalued? 

I have had the strange feeling, at times, that because women are not currently being murdered on our campuses, and certainly not targeted in mass murders, that it is easy to believe that they are safe and welcomed into institutional spaces. It is easy to believe that if women comprise 50-60% of the post-secondary student population, if they are occupying spaces in classrooms, in offices, in workshops, at conferences, presidential positions, and on athletic teams, that they are not under siege. But perhaps the greatest disservice of the legacy of the December 6th massacre is precisely to ignore the myriad ways in which women’s safety or welcome in academia continues to be compromised, not only physically, but emotionally, mentally, intellectually, and spiritually. Too often, I have spoken with students and colleagues who have a spectrum of stories to share, whether they are about being silenced in the classroom, being made to feel uncomfortable in social spaces, or being subjected to outright sexual harassment and belittlement. Whether it is a pregnant faculty member whose body has been appropriated for public commentary at a conference, where fellow scholars elide her intellectual contributions, a graduate student who is assaulted by her classmate, an instructor who is sexually harassed and objectified by her student, students who are subjected to hearing rape chants, or any number of female scholars who are called “passionate” instead of “compellingly argumentative”, who are patronized, patted on the head, and shrugged off. Queer women, trans* women, and racialized women face further marginalization and oppression within these spaces. The stories of violence, of dehumanization, of humiliation, of frustration, of belittlement are seemingly endless.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: some of the most egregious acts of oppression occur within the institutional and social spaces we have often considered to be the most sacred, the least likely to be sites of violence. We cannot continue to be surprised that such incidents occur in academia, as if somehow our educational spaces are immune from the problems that plague the rest of society. We cannot continue to label inequity, casual misogyny, and violence as “isolated incidents” on our campuses.

I have to break my composure here to admit that at times, I am very frightened. I am frightened about the state of higher education and its social and institutional policies and practices regarding gender. I’m frightened that our sisters in the United States, who are filing Title IX complaints, are having to fight tooth and nail against administrations that covered up numerous sexual assaults and rapes. I’m frightened that sisters like Malala Yousufzai are under threat of death for even pursuing education. I’m frightened for many of my colleagues, with whom I have conversations about the incredible frustrations they have faced on the basis of their gender. I hear the stress, the sleepless nights. I hear the righteous anger. I’m also frightened for my students. I want them to go through their educational careers unscathed. I want to them to maintain some of that idealism, to pursue their goals, to thrive. I want them to feel as though they have voices in their classrooms, and that their ideas will be judged on their own merit alone, rather than on the gendered (and sexualized and racialized) bodies from which they spring. I’m frightened for myself. I have days where I am incredibly skittish and fearful on my campus. I sometimes sit in the common room where I was assaulted, and I feel unbearably sad that a place where I now experience so much joy and connection with colleagues is also a place where I once felt utterly petrified and helpless.

But I believe that change is possible. I see it happening. There are so many absolutely incredible acts of activism that are being undertaken for women’s rights in academia and in intellectual life.

Following the rape chants at SMU and UBC, numerous campus activists, with support from the community, and from many faculty members, have organized rallies and and community events to address sexual violence on campuses, to petition school administrations, to call for more safety initiatives. At Carleton University in Ottawa, a team of activists have finally secured support and funding (after a nearly seven-year fight) for a sexual assault centre on campus. And these initiatives are not limited to oppression on the basis of physical violence. For instance, for the past two years, CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) has undertaken a count that documents gendered representation in literary arts and literary publications; their timely work seeks to address the gender gap in Canadian review culture, and to create strong critical communities and alliances for female scholars, critics, and writers working in Canada.

And beyond these larger acts of solidarity, I am grateful, each day, for the sisterhood and solidarity that I have found. Brave women, phenomenal women (as Maya Angelou might say!), women who remind me not only of how hard-won our places in the ivory tower have been, but also of the contributions that we are making. These are the women with whom I collaborate, who I learn from, whose shoulders I cry on, whose laughter I share, whose sorrows I share, whose words I treasure.

1441307_10151724417901829_1385872681_nBut ultimately, today, I am thinking of the fourteen women who were murdered on that day in 1989. I think of Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte and Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz. I think of how, in their memory, I must never take for granted what it means to be a woman, a student, a feminist. I sit with sorrow for their lives cut short by cold-blooded violence, with sorrow for the knowledge that for so many, the threat of violence is always present, by virtue of the bodies we inhabit. I think of their families. I think of their classmates, those who survived.

Much has changed in the past 24 years, but much has yet to be done. We must ensure that the deaths of these fourteen women was not in vain, and that each day we bring their legacies alive again through our desire to make our places of education also become places of refuge and revolution.

“She Asked For It”: Why Campus Safety at UBC Isn’t Just About Security Guards

Buchanan Tower, UBC.
Buchanan Tower, UBC.

The University of British Columbia has been in the local and national headlines a great deal this fall. At the beginning of this term, controversy arose when a group of frosh week leaders were found to have led incoming students in a chant that minimized the impact of sexual assault.

Now, as students are facing the frenzy of mid-term exams, UBC is in the headlines once more for issues regarding sexual violence. In the past three weeks, three separate incidents of sexual assault have been reported on campus. As the RCMP have now declared, it is believed that all three stranger-attacks, which took place on the weekends between midnight and 3 am, were perpetrated by the same individual.

When news of these assaults emerged, I reflected back to the seeming indifference of many of the rape-chant leaders, thinking that if there had been any lingering doubt in our campus community that sexual violence was  not a subject to be minimized, joked about, or taken lightly, that these heinous attacks on women, on members of our university community, would make it very clear that sexual assault is a serious issue.

Yet, while the outrage against the attacker and expressions of fear about campus safety have been clearly expressed, so too have contempt, mockery, and disdain for the three victims.

While the Tweets in question have now been deleted, there have been at least two publicly-visible incidents of victim-blaming stemming from members of our own campus community. Both alluded to the fact that women at UBC’s campus should be smarter (well, more specifically, that they shouldn’t be “dumb”), and one asserted, very bluntly, that the victims were “asking for it.”

It’s horrendous enough to know that our campus is currently in a state of fear because of the actions of one depraved individual, and even more horrifying to know that in 2013, even after the discussions we’ve had on campus and in the news about why sexual assault is not the fault of the victim, that we’re seeing these kinds of statements being made.

But don’t listen to my criticism alone: listen to the woman who was the 2nd survivor in the recent string of assaults. She published a piece in the campus newspaper, which clearly articulated both the frustration of being spoken about like a news story, and the callous indifference with which people still talk about assaults that take place when an woman is walking home late at night. She writes:

Imagine sitting in class and having the professor bring up your sexual assault. I wanted to stand up at say, “Yo, this is my story. Who are you to talk about how I could have prevented this? Don’t I have the right to walk home alone?”

Imagine having to read about this on Twitter. Or in the comments section of a news story. Imagine having to hear your professors or your peers analyzing and scrutinizing your actions, speculating on what you could have and should have done differently. That’s not an indignity that any sexual assault survivor deserves.

Here’s the thing: people who have been affected by sexual violence are all around us. Whether we know it or not, we all likely know at least one survivor of sexual violence. They may be our professors. They may be fellow staff members. They may be peers in our classrooms. They are of all genders, all sexual orientations, all ages, all ethnic backgrounds, all socio-economic backgrounds, all professions. We never know who has been affected by it, and, as such, we never know who is hearing our words or reading them on the Internet.

Campus safety is not merely a question of how many security guards and police officers are on patrol, or of how many streetlights are installed to create visibility. It is also a question of how our campus community chooses to respond to survivors. If we take seriously the assertion that the University of British Columbia is a community of fellow students, faculty members, and staff members, ones who look out for and are concerned with the well-being of others, then it is simply unconscionable that we have members of the community who are actively seeking to blame and shame the victims of what are clearly horrendous and terrifying experiences. 

We can still have conversations about campus safety and precautions, but we can do this without blaming the women who were attacked.

We can still have conversations about our own fears about safety, without suggesting that if only the women had been “smarter,” they wouldn’t have been assaulted.

So long as there are individuals who are blaming women for their own assaults, no place, even a well-respected university campus, is a safe place for survivors.

An Open Letter To Mars, Incorporated: Why Using Rape Culture to Sell M&Ms Isn’t Okay

Dear Mars, Incorporated, and, specifically, those involved in creating advertisements for M&M chocolates,

There’s this thing that happens sometimes, when you’re a survivor of sexual violence, or if you study it for a living, or if you’re simply attuned to and interested in how sexual violence continues to permeate our society. You start to see sexual violence everywhere. You hear it referenced in songs, like Rick Ross’s “U.O.E.N.O.” that casually mention using date rape drugs. You notice it in rape chants sung on Canadian university campuses. You may start to find out that a large number of your friends, family members, and acquaintances (of all genders and sexualities) have experienced some kind of unwanted sexual contact. And, most notably, you see sexual violence in numerous advertisements, especially in the fashion, alcohol, and luxury goods industries. In fact, once you look around, you tend to find it in more places than you might have previously liked to believe. You might even ask yourself: “How has this become a socially acceptable thing? Why is rape the punchline of a joke, the casual lyric of a song, or a popular image used to sell anything from handbags to shoes?”

Of course, once you start to notice this, people will probably tell you that you’re overreacting. They might tell you that the critiques of rape chants on university campuses are proof that “feminist ideologues” are just pushing their “pro-consent propaganda” on everyone, and that anti-oppression activists are always just looking for a way to ruin people’s fun. Because they’ll say, as you might have previously believed, that rape culture is just something that can “build community and bring people out of their bubbles,” like when they chant about it at a frosh week event. Or they might tell you that you’re totally missing the point, and that images of a woman’s bruised and battered face are just a creative choice and that you’re clearly not appreciating what constitutes art.

I was actually eating M&Ms while doing my research on sexual violence yesterday. An unhappy coincidence.
I was actually eating M&Ms while doing my research on sexual violence yesterday. An unhappy coincidence.

But, you see, there’s this problem. Rape chanting-students, Rick Ross, and Dolce & Gabbana aren’t the only ones who are using sexual violence as a means of having fun or selling products. You are too.

Last night, after unwinding from a long day of feeling sick and doing work, I decided to watch some television. Rather coincidentally, I had just spent the afternoon eating most of a bag of M&Ms. And that’s when I saw one of the commercials that you released earlier this year. You’re obviously familiar with it, since you created it, but for those who aren’t, here it is. I’m going to put a TRIGGER WARNING on this.

Now, here’s the thing. I wonder that you think your ad is kind of funny, I mean, these cute little M&Ms are about to be devoured by this big bad red-haired lady who totally just can’t help herself around chocolate! That’s not like rape at all, right? I mean, first of all, they’re animated chocolate characters. Plus, the “big bad devourer” who is unwittingly going to attack the little anthropomorphized M&M is a woman, so, obviously that’s way more funny, and way less rape-like than if it had been a man, right? And it’s an advertisement for chocolate, not for alcohol, so that totally has nothing to do with sexual violence, right?

I’m sorry. But I’m going to have to tell you that you’re wrong. 

The entire premise of this advertisement is a classic reflection of real-life scenarios of sexual violence, and it’s being used, just like so many other companies, to try and sell products. An anthropomorphized M&M is “warned” about the predatory nature of a woman who “just cannot help herself,” then sets up her M&M friend to be taken away from the party by this predatory woman, who then leads that M&M away to her car, locks the doors, and attacks him. The last frame of the advert is the a shot of the parked car, with the poor little red M&M screaming.

The advertisement does not merely “imply,” “gesture towards,” or “hint” at what has happened to so many victims of sexual violence, it actually mirrors it and reproduces it, line by line, word by word, action by action.

  • People setting up their friends to be assaulted? Definitely happens.
  • People having to be warned of the predatory nature of certain partygoers? Definitely happens.
  • Perpetrators being justified in their actions because they or others say that they “just couldn’t help themselves?” Definitely happens.
  • Individuals being isolated, especially in cars, by their perpetrators? Definitely happens.
  • Women being the perpetrators of sexual assault? Definitely happens, even though society keeps treating male victims and female perpetrators as a source of comedy. [Just read, if you can stomach it, the absolutely abhorrent article that Star columnist Rosie DiManno wrote following the gang assault of a young man in Toronto.]

M&M has a long history of being a successful and well-known product, and the Mars Chocolate company has a long history of being a successful and profitable corporation. You certainly don’t need to stoop to shock-tactic advertising in order to garner more sales.

Corporate responsibility goes far beyond product safety and health standards about how many calories are in M&Ms and are there peanut-free facilities, etc. Your responsibility extends into social responsibility. As a consumer, especially one who has bought your products, I do not need to be reminded that rape is taken so lightly in this culture that it is being used to sell candy. I do not need to hear the lock of a car door and a scream, to be reminded of what once happened to me in a car. Male victims, especially, do not need to be reminded that they face an uphill battle in being taken seriously.

You don’t have to sell out rape victims in order to maintain a hefty profit margin, or or in order to keep your consumers amused. Your website says that you “take [your] responsibility for marketing brands appropriately very seriously.” As a well-known global brand, it is your duty to live up to that statement.

In the meantime, consider me a lost customer. Not surprisingly, I’ve lost my appetite.

“To Speak is Never Neutral”: A Photo & Audio Journal Entry

There’s a kind of nervousness, I think that goes along with speaking out about anything. Is this the right time? Am I saying the right things? And what will people think of me? What happens if they know my deepest secrets, and I can’t take them back? 

And I think that initially there’s a kind of pride that goes along with telling. With the sadness, there’s a bit of adrenaline, like you did this thing you thought you could never do. And you have your family and friends supporting you, and it’s really powerful.

But then, once the telling is over, when the news cameras or the reporters leave, or even when you’re just walking out of your therapist’s office and going home, or after you hang up the phone after talking to a friend, a strange sense of quiet comes over you. And you ask yourself: what the hell did I just do? 

Then all that confidence just kind of melts away, and it’s as if you know that you never, ever want to talk about it again, that price you pay for talking about it – the price of remembering it all, of feeling vulnerable and exposed, is just too much. So you go quiet again. 

But that doesn’t last very long, because you start to just feel so fucking angry, so incredibly consumed with rage, all stuff that you started to let out when you spoke for that first time is coming out, but now you’re alone and you’re expected to deal with this deluge of emotions yourself. It’s a total Pandora’s Box.

Once the anger passes you might feel sad. And that brave face you wore for the cameras is swollen from crying and you can barely breathe through the tears and you there’s sinking feeling that you almost wish that THIS is what they’d seen, because this is the real shit that you have to deal with, this is what happens in the middle of the night when people aren’t around to listen.

But you do what you can. Maybe you make art, or go for a run, maybe you play music, and you get lost for while in something else. Maybe you speak about something that’s completely unrelated – you express yourself in different ways.

There are, of course, moments of irritation. When you see comments on articles, or people seem dismissive, and you’re really fucking tired of speaking out because why is this still happening? Why do we still live in a world where violence continues to perpetrated? And sometimes people are just so ridiculous in their attempts to legitimize it,  and you’re just tired of rhetoric, and the dismissal, and the blatant disregard.

But, you know, you can have joy, too. And that joy can be a result of speaking out, or it might not be. You can be happy at the same time as you’re sad, you can have mixed feelings about it. There’s not one single way to feel about having spoken out. And those who wish to mandate your joy, or tell you that because you seem happy are therefore you must be totally over it, they need to just shut the fuck up.

I think ultimately after speaking out, there’s a need for momentum, after that initial moment of catching your breath. That if you can just keep creating, singing, dancing, running, being, going on with your life, that maybe speaking out wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Maybe what happened doesn’t feel like it is going to consume every single moment forever.  And maybe, just maybe, you helped somebody. Even if (especially if) that person was yourself. 

Spelling Lessons: A Spoken Word Response to the UBC & SMU Rape Chants (Trigger Warning)

This spoken word piece is a way of responding creatively to the various voices that I’ve heard in the past week since the news about the rape chants on two Canadian campuses broke. I have been fortunate to be able to speak with many news outlets about this issue, but I felt that I also wanted to craft a longer and more nuanced response. I speak back not just to the justifications by those who participated, but to the other voices that still condone, excuse, or rationalize this type of behaviour. I speak as way of contextualizing why these chants are not merely innocuous, and as a way of situating them in a broader culture of violence. 

You say that Y is for your sister but it’s always somebody else’s sister, isn’t it? It’s always the sister of the friend or the family down the street or the sisters of colour who face disproportionate violence, or the fact that so many of them have been slaughtered for the colour of their skin, or the fact that so many are missing, are absences in the family tree. Or perhaps they are sisters that you don’t recognize as yours because they say that a sister is determined by her biological sex and not by the knowledge that she was born into the wrong body. Because heaven forbid that you have to say “yes, this is my sister,” mine, a person for whom I am responsible, a person with whom I share relation, if not through blood or name or shared appearance but through the social fabric that binds each of us together. No man or woman is an island.

You say that O is for oh so tight but it’s always about how tight a woman’s pussy is, isn’t it? It’s always about the value that we place on the vagina and virginity, about how much you hate a loose woman. Because you want it tight like that first time. Tight like a woman who hasn’t opened her legs wide because you believe the myth, of course, that every man that a woman allows to penetrate her is taking up space, stretching her out, reducing her value like the time that you called that woman a “slut” for having too many sexual partners, that time you said that girl was a “whore” for sleeping with half the football team, like that time you said a friend was devaluing herself and that she shouldn’t just “give it away.” But her body does not belong to you, or to anyone else. It is hers to share, to enjoy, to take pleasure in and from.

You say that U is for underage but then again aren’t kids just having sex younger and younger these days anyway? Can’t we blame this on Miley Cyrus somehow? Because Cherice Moralez, a fourteen-year-old girl who was raped by her fifty-year-old teacher was “as much in control of the situation” as her perpetrator, was “older than her chronological age.” At least that’s what the judge in Montana said anyway. At least that’s what was said by the people who make excuses for a culture in which many adults have consistently abused their power and tried to paint their victims as mutually consenting parties. At least that’s what said by the perpetrators of sexual abuse. Tell me again how a child asked for it. Tell me that statutory rape isn’t as “real” as “rape-rape.” Tell me again how funny that is.

You say that that N is for no consent. It’s almost as if you know that it’s wrong. It’s almost as if you realize that you should have stopped chanting by now. But you weren’t really listening to the lyrics, were you? I mean, it’s hard to keep the rhyme and the meaning in your head at the same time, isn’t it? You know what’s hard to keep in your head? The constant memories kept by those who have known intimate violence, the ways that you try to keep the nightmares from disrupting your sleep, the way that you try not to flinch when someone walks to close to you, the way the word “rape” or “sexual assault” always catches your ear on the news because it is happening again, it is always happening again, it is happening right now. Someone is not giving consent. Someone is being held down. Someone is unconscious. Someone is screaming “no, please stop, don’t, please stop.” Someone is being silenced.

You say that G is for “grab that ass,” but it’s always that street harassment isn’t such a big deal, right? As if women should just ignore the constant deluge of comments about their bodies when they are getting groceries, crossing the street, or going to work. As if a woman should simply not pay attention to the man who decides to sidle up to her, real easy, on public transit, and grope her repeatedly. As if her body does not belong to her, but is a public commodity, placed on the meat market with a high turnover and a low rate of exchange. Or maybe you say that G is for “go to jail,” but what you need to know is that the legal system is not perfect, and that even with forensic evidence, few perpetrators ever serve time. Do not buy into the fantasy that the perpetrators of sexual violence do not walk among us.

Maybe you say I’m too sensitive.

Maybe you say that I’m a feminist bitch.

Maybe you say that I should just learn to take a joke.

But I say to you that the language you speak and the words that you spell have meanings far beyond the spaces in which you say them, that the breath of your words is not a declaration of neutrality. Words and phrases are not benign, not drummed into everyday existence simply because they have been repeated over and over by generations of students. You have been given the gift of freedom of speech: use it wisely, and know  that the seemingly innocent syllables you speak may just be the word-weapons that wound others.