Rape is Rape: An Action to Upset Rape Culture
Rape is Rape: An Action to Upset Rape Culture
Warning: this article contains brief stories of rape told by survivors, and may be triggering. The stories describe the situations leading to or resulting from rape, but do not describe the assaults in graphic detail.
“A lot in our culture needs to change. In this very crazy way, like no other crime, the burden [of rape] is put on the victim of the crime. If my car gets robbed—it’s not my fault that my car got robbed. But if I get sexually assaulted, well... maybe-kind-of it’s my fault and maybe I didn’t really get sexually assaulted. Maybe I was just accusing them; I mean, all of these things that are put onto rape that are unfair. So, I think the reason that consent is so important is because it takes all that burden of proof and that burden of speculation off of the survivors of rape and puts it onto the perpetrator. And it also takes the responsibility off. Because as women it’s not our job to not walk alone at night or [to] carry a rape pistol. It’s actually all people’s jobs to practice consent. And to make sure that when they’re interacting with someone sexually—that that person feels safe and feels comfortable with what’s happening. And if you haven’t checked in about that—then, you need to.” — Rebecca Nagle
On the eve of the last presidential debate, Sunday October 21, 2012, four Baltimore-based activists, along with a small media team, set out to the nation’s capital. They project the words “Rape is Rape” across a wall of the Capitol Building. In a looping slideshow, stories from survivors of sexual assault were also projected onto the Capitol. One of the primary statements behind this action is that even while rape is finally working its way into our national political dialogue, the actual experience of survivors is often completely invisible.
Another vital aspect of the message is to show how recent political rhetoric only gives legitimacy to what is called “forcible rape.” The stories of rape survivors highlight ignored realities that show that rape is often far more complicated than is believed and involves the survivor’s loss of consent and agency within the situation. The projection of these stories was a way to aide in giving agency to these survivors within a context of national discourse that silences them and their experiences.
The activists were a medley of the team FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture and the activist collective Luminous Intervention. FORCE is comprised of the artists/activists Rebecca Nagle and Hannah Brancato. These two young feminists have been utilizing art and media in order to engage in critical discussions on rape culture.
By “rape culture” they are referring to not solely the acts of rape themselves but also to how we interact and engage as a society, communities, and individuals in ways that manufacture habitable environments for sexual violence. Nagle and Brancato have approached these issues from various lenses, including an art show that worked to begin these dialogues about rape culture within artist communities, as well as launching their own underwear line entitled “Yes! Consent is Sexy!”
This underwear line was printed with phrases such as “Yes”, “No”, “Maybe”, and “Ask First”. They are meant to be a fun way in encourage active conversations about consent. The underwear line was also created in direct response to Victoria Secret’s PINK line of underwear, which Brancato and Nagle believe encourages the very rape culture they’re fighting against. Victoria Secret's PINK underwear sport phrases that seem to support a "no means yes" attitude towards consent. In reference to the PINK underwear line, Nagle has stated, “So it is this young, liberated sexuality, but it is reinforcing these ideas that 'No' and 'Stop' are not ways for young women to set boundaries, but are ways for them to flirt, and that is not okay.”
The “Yes! Consent is Sexy!” underwear line by Brancato and Nagle is meant not only to critique rape culture, but also to promote a "counter-narrative" (a strong theme in all of their work) that promotes a culture of consent.
Luminous Intervention is a relatively new artists collective that utilizes projections in order to broadcast images and messages in a way that is at once “relatively non-invasive, but highly impactful.” Luminous Intervention draws on politics of utilizing specific locales and then casting their messages upon the buildings or the walls in order to make a specific statement about social justice.
Their projections have included everything from celebrating Occupy Wall Street’s anniversary through projecting luminations such as the now famous Occupy mantra of “99%” onto the The World Trade Center Building at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor; a “new project focusing on the connection between educational systems and prison systems” during this past Spring’s Mobilizing and Organizing from Below Conference; and a projection tour through Baltimore’s west side that questions the city’s unsustainable and unhealthy system of “urban renewal”.
Rebecca Nagle, Hannah Brancato, Mike McGuire, and Dan Zink wheeled their enormous, 16,000 lumen projector through DC’s autumn evening. Passersby gave strange sidelong glances as the activists calmly set-up the projector and its parts on the sidewalk outside Capitol Hill. The small accompanying media team circled the edges. Dusk had fallen and within minutes “Rape is Rape” shown brightly on the building’s nearby wall. It message stood for a few minutes, slowly changing to the first survivor’s story:
“As a young girl I was raped by a group of teenage boys. They put money on the bed afterward. I was convinced it was my fault.”
“Rape is Rape” came back on the screen. Then the second survivor’s story:
“My boyfriend kept trying to have sex with me. I kept saying no. He stopped after I started crying. I was 15. I remember apologizing later for crying.”
The words hung on the building where our nation's legislators recently debated how to define our experiences of sexual assault. “Rape is Rape” appeared on the wall again, followed by the third survivor’s story:
“I was drugged and raped by a man I met while traveling in Greece. He offered to show me around and then put sleeping pills in my food. It was broad daylight. Since my rape was not “violent”, the Greek courts did not charge my rapist.”
“Rape is Rape”
“I can’t even count the number of time I have had sex against my will. Some of the times I was pressured and other times I was drunk. I’ve never been able to call these situations rape.”
“Rape is Rape”
“I don't remember the details of what happened. I pick up clues from the seemingly random things in sex that paralyze me with fear.”
“Rape is Rape”
The activists worried that they would be stopped immediately by police before displaying all of the survivors’ stories. However, yesterday’s evening was quiet and the projections continued for fifteen to twenty minutes. A trolley of tourists passed at one point. The tour guide could be heard on the microphone saying to his passengers, “Are they going to be shot for doing this? I don’t know...”
At a different point a small group of tourists traveling on Segways rolled by the scene. They were friendly and curious. They asked about the purpose of the demonstration. Brancato replied that they were using art to engage in the national discourse about rape. Brancato also said that the next day would be the last presidential debate and they thought that people in Washington should be prioritizing survivors' stories about rape. The tourists on Segway gave their approval and wished the activists luck. As they rolled away one could be heard whispering, “How creative!”
The police arrived early on the scene, though not as early as expected. They spoke directly with Luminous Intervention activist, Mike McGuire. For about ten to fifteen minutes the police engaged in polite but befuddled dialogue with McGuire. They couldn’t quite determine why or how the peaceful and non-invasive projections were illegal, but they were positive that somehow they were. McGuire simply replied that he didn’t believe light was regulated nor were they attempting to do anything other than exercise their basic freedom of expression in their nation’s capital.
The police eventually ordered the activists to shut down the projetor, claiming that putting anything onto the Capitol building was illegal. The question on everyone’s minds was, “Even light?”
In a way, light is one of Luminous Intervention’s most powerful tools. Police, security, and other authorities are perplexed on how to regulate a message displayed through light. For in the end, it would be directly regulating an exercise of free speech.
The activists had originally planned to shut off the projections as soon as the authorities asked them to. They all beamed at each other for having been able to demonstrate much longer than they had anticipated. The activists kept their word and shut off the projection.
The activists began packing up their giant equipment in order to begin dispersing media of the action as thoroughly and quickly as they could, hoping to spread the word about the intent behind the night.
The Issue and the Intent
As previously stated, the purpose of the night’s action was to bring attention to the fact that the current national discourse on rape entirely leaves out survivors' voices, the ramifications of rape culture, and engaging in difficult discussions about how rape and sexual violence are not by any means as cut and dry as the definition of “forcible rape” suggests—instead it is a weave of annulling consent, agency, and exercising power over another.
The activists cite that “Women are twice as likely to be raped in their lifetime than to develop breast cancer. Only 14% of all rape fits lawmakers Ryan, Akins and Rivard's narrow vision of “forcible rape”. The stories projected onto the capitol building last night are from the other 86% of people who have been raped.” (October 21, 2012, Action Press Release)
The activists also state:
The origins of “legitimate rape” or “women who rape easy” are deeper than anti-abortion legislation, conservative views, or a few politically incorrect statements. The problems in the public conversations about rape are bigger than election year politics. The image of forcible rape is the only publicly recognized image of sexual violence in America, and it is not realistic. Rapists do not only use physical violence. Rape is not only committed by a few sick criminals. Rape is not a rare occurrence. Rape is much more complicated and much more common. If sexual violence is going to end, Americans need to drop the story of “forcible rape” and face reality. These stories are here to force the issue. (October 21,2012, Action Press Release)
After the action, in an exclusive interview with Indyreader (to be released in full audio and video shortly), Brancato and Nagle discussed their belief that the most powerful thing we can do is to begin to have these difficult conversations about what sexual violence actually looks like within our lives—to shine light on it, in other words. Much of the power of rape lies in obscurity from public view. When we don’t discuss the realities of rape, it doesn’t have to really exist and nothing has to change. And in silence, survivors are still left to feel powerless. The first way we can build a culture of consent, Nagle proclaims, is to practice consent ourselves. From there, we must understand and discuss rape as first and foremost an issue of consent.
In terms of legislation, Brancato and Nagle encourage states to adopt the FBI’s recent redefinition of rape as, “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” This redefinition, from earlier this year, removes the descriptor "forcible" and the specification that rape can only happen to women.
However, while the FBI may have changed their definition of rape, laws surrounding rape are formulating on a state-by-state basis. Hence, this is why Nagle and Brancato encourage states to individually adopt the FBI’s definition that now prioritizes the lack of consent in rape and doesn’t exclude any gender.
It is apparent that legislation and national political discussions motivate the activists' action and message. However, they all conclude that this conversation is far bigger than an election or a written law. We must grapple with these questions of power, violence, and silence. If we don’t analyze sexual violence as it actually exists, we will not know it. If we don’t actually discuss it, we will not be able to change it.
Neither FORCE nor Luminous Intervention plan to cease discussing this and other issues. They believe that media and art are utilized to shape our realities—including our oppressions—and that we can utilize them to in turn educate and liberate us. They plan to continue doing this through ever expanding creative strategies. Finally, the activists ask not only for people to play audience to their artistic acts of protest, but also to participate in the conversation.
Casey McKeel is a community organizer and photo journalist. She is a worker/owner of Thread Coffee and collective member of Bearings Bike Project. She is also a member of Another BDC is Possible. She splits her time between her love of photography, coffee, and bicycles.