A reflection on The List of Men To Avoid and anti-sexual assault activism (reposted)

On December 12th, Elizabeth Dunn posted names of perpetrators of sexual assault and abuse on Facebook.  After the posting, Administration and some named students pushed for disciplinary action against Liz. They also asked them to release the names of survivors. After weeks of uncertainty, this past Friday, Liz was issued a letter of official sanction for violation of the Respect for Persons policy, a document that remains on their permanent record. In this flurry to punish Liz, most people forgot about the real problem of sexual assault on this campus, worrying about the “defamation” of the listed men rather than validating the pain and suffering of the survivors involved in the post.

Witnessing all of this fuckery as both Liz’s friend and a sexual assault activist on campus, I feel immense frustration. The question I keep coming back to in the aftermath of this backlash against Liz and the involved survivors is why the hell does it have to be them doing the labor, putting themselves on the line? Why should it be survivors who have to protect a community that hasn’t protected them? Globally, nationally, and on this campus, survivors are consistently tasked with shifting rape culture and promoting safety and respect within their communities.

While Liz and other survivors get punished for speaking out, many perpetrators of sexual assault suffer zero consequences. Survivors must face the reality of their experiences and their trauma every day, but perpetrators and those who have not experienced assault have the privilege to look the other way.  It’s an attitude that leads to those most affected and harmed having to do the triggering work that should never fall on them. When nobody else is stepping up, survivors are forced to stand up alone to break the cycle of violence.

Putting themselves and their experiences out for the world to see, activist survivors run the risk of being invalidated, punished, shamed, and retraumatized both personally and in their work. In this specific case, people continuously call the legitimacy of the survivors’ claims into question, standing by and supporting the named men through punishing Liz. In spite of all of this, survivors continue to speak up and take action. We survivors are given no choice. If we don’t do it, then who will?

As I look back on the work that Liz Dunn and other fellow sexual assault activists have done on this campus, I feel both grateful and angry.  I am grateful for their guts and strength in doing the work and for the support they have given me. I am angry that they have to carry such a large burden that others refuse to help shoulder.  I’m angry that the silence and stagnancy of the larger community make this burden increasingly heavy and render survivor’s labor invisible and unappreciated.

So here are the things that I want…Not all men are abusers and not all abusers are men, but rape culture thrives in hyper-masculine circles.  For men who aren’t abusers, you’ve got to step up.  Call out other men, call out your friends. This goes for past abusers too. Show the hell up. I don’t want an abuser to lead sexual assault activist initiatives, but I do want them to do the personal work that makes it a little easier for the rest of us to end violence on campus. For people of other genders, you too have to hold yourselves and others accountable. Don’t look to survivors to do the work of educating you.  It is your responsibility to learn how you perpetuate rape culture and participate in it.  I want those who have gone by unscathed by sexual and intimate partner violence to invest in the safety of their community members by doing something tangible, not just talking about it or consuming stories of violence as if it’s juicy gossip.

This is real.  This is serious.  Survivors are tired. So, rather than pointing a finger at Liz or the myriad of survivors trying to make a difference, maybe take a good hard look at yourself and start giving a fuck.

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Upcoming Exhibit: The Little Things

Stares on Stairs is creating a collaborative exhibit at M Gallery Titled “The Little Things.”  The goal is to express the aspects of sexual assault that people don’t usually think about or acknowledge as central to survivor’s experiences. We want to highlight the little things that survivors remember but often get brushed over. Through the exhibit, survivors will be able to tell their stories as more than physical acts of violence and instead have the opportunity to speak through the objects that they connect to their assault. These “little things” could be anything: clothing, a particular song, a poem –anything that stands out as a reminder of what happened that moves past the physical violation. If they so choose, survivors will have the opportunity to write explanations or back stories for their submission to the exhibit that can be featured in the gallery as well. We want this exhibit to be a symbolic expression that survivors are more than objects. We hope to create an exhibit that allows us to purge ourselves of the meanings and stigmas that society attaches to certain objects, ways of dressing, or behaviors and reinforce that these myths are false. We hope that “The Little Things” will be a cathartic experience where survivors can reclaim autonomy, rid themselves of shame, and experience solidarity and validation from other survivors. Please consider submitting your little thing as a part of this art installation.

If you are interested in submitting, click the link here to access a google poll to give us more information about your “little thing” : https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScJbHCo_Pg6iwaniO3hoEXDTsIujX331ip-eGP2LWA3X5votA/viewform?usp=sf_link

Rites of Spring//Complacency

“I’m sorry that they hurt you.” the owner of Champlain Valley Alpaca Farm told us, after threatening to call the Sheriff on us as we tried to protest Rites of Spring.

We were standing on the gravel road trying to convince him to let us protest on the property, even if only for 10 minutes. We were in various states of undress, as has become the norm when we protest. For a bit of context if you’re not already familiar with Stares and Stairs: we’re a sexual assault performance art protest group that originated out of a j-term class, but have continued to protest because of how strongly we feel about combatting rape culture. Our goal is simple enough; disrupt dangerous spaces, especially parties, where unhealthy and predatory behavior reinforces a culture of sexual violence. We try to bring an awareness to these spaces that wasn’t there before, and remind people that sexual assault does in fact happen here. We’ve protested at various locations (with varying levels of pushback) but this time we wanted to perform at a party that is the symbolic center of toxic masculinity, wealth disparity, and whiteness at Middlebury; Rites of Spring.

There are quite a few articles about secret frats, why they’re dangerous, and why they really shouldn’t be a thing, so I won’t get into that in this article, but trust me when I say that they kinda suck for pretty much everyone who isn’t a straight rich white man. We figured out when Rites was and how to get there, but once we showed up the property owner refused to let us enter the party, even as he expressed sympathy with our goals. It was painful, because on many levels it was clear that he agreed with us and cared deeply about the issue of sexual assault-but doing the right thing doesn’t make money, does it?

Ultimately, the reason we were barred from protesting is because unsafe, unhealthy, white male  dominated spaces are profitable. Secret frats have access to massive amounts of both social and financial capital-the cover charge for Rites of Spring was $40, the annual dues are even more costly, and the price of their privilege is the safety of almost everyone else, especially women, queer people, and people of color. A venue that usually hosts weddings and school dances isn’t going to jeopardize the considerable amount of money they were undoubtedly being paid. I understand that people have to survive somehow in capitalist societies-but we need to question our complicity within these systems when our survival depends on the exploitation of others. The line between doing what you have to do to survive and reaping personal rewards from participating, however passively, in rape culture, is much thinner than most people like to pretend that it is.

It’s not about us being hurt personally-it about us trying to address a systemic issue that, although it may have affected many of us, also fucks up the lives of an untold number of other people. Perhaps it’s actually better to risk something, money if it means that we’re starting to dismantle these dangerous systems.

I want to re-emphasize that although it would be very easy to blame the unhealthy culture at Middlebury entirely on rich white men, the hundreds of students faculty and staff who are quietly complicit with rape culture also need to be held accountable. How much more effective would stairs/stares be if even 10 more people got involved? How many traumatizing situations could be avoided if we cultivated a culture of consent and looking out for each other? What would our campus look like if more people confronted the predatory behavior that they’ve observed in friends and acquaintances? Even more-so than active perpetrators, people who are complicit form the backbone of rape culture and we need to shake ourselves out of this apathy if we want to create a safer environment.

PS: I am deeply grateful for the group that participated. We were able to form a supportive community of people under stressful circumstances-one thing I deeply appreciate is how much we managed to laugh. From running over a wild turkey (rest in peace) to joking about how suspicious of a group we were, we managed to keep a sense of levity that’s hard to find in activist spaces. I’m thankful to ya’ll for caring enough to actually risk something ❤

-ed

What’s wrong with Rites of Spring

There hasn’t been an action I’ve been more nervous about than our protest of Rites of Spring this past Sunday. Though we’ve been doing this project for over a year and a half now, we knew that this action would be different. Going off campus to an Alpaca farm (wtf) and protesting at a private event meant higher risk and less control. We needed to be sure that we were confident in what we were doing. We needed to feel especially passionate about this particular action. After talking with a large group of activists about the potential of a protest, that passion was not hard to find.

Secret fraternities on this campus have long been ignored by administration, whispered about by curious students, and sheltered by the school’s elite few. Though they might be “secret,” the existence of these fraternities affects everyone. Fraternities have long been known nationally as hotbeds for toxic masculinity, racism, ableism, classism, sexism, and homophobia. Turn on your computer or check out a newspaper from the past three decades, and the number of articles about incidents of hate crimes, violence, and sexual assault will make you nauseous. Middlebury is not an exception, though we may pretend it to be. Fraternities at Middlebury were officially banned in 1991 after a bloodied female mannequin with sexual slurs written on it was hung outside of DKE. One generation later and I doubt things have really changed.

Before you get all pissed off, I’m not trying to say that today’s secret frats are running around creating such blatantly violent symbols of misogyny. I am however saying that the existence of these frats blatantly disregards this history of violence, perpetuating a culture that still treats women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people like trash. The fact that students disregarded the Middlebury community’s wishes to have a frat-free campus suggests that they have little concern for their fellow students, especially those who are most marginalized on campus. They send the message that they think they are above school policy, and in fact, they are! How can the school regulate an organization that technically doesn’t exist? Without any affiliation to a national fraternal organization (not that these affiliations have done shit to decrease violence), how are our frats supposed to be held accountable to any sort of standard? While regular frats have an open “rush” process, secret frats are by invitation only. You’ve got to know people in high places. This means that admittance is only open to one segment of people–typically wealthy, white, straight men who are connected by these identity markers. Bust out that Vineyard Vines, boys and maybe you’ve got a chance!

If these secret frats existed in a vacuum, I would (maybe) not have a problem with them, but the fact is they permeate more than just their exclusive sphere. The same people who are undoubtedly members of these frats are also those who have the most powerful voice on campus and the biggest influence on the general social scene. Frat culture thus becomes Middlebury party culture and that toxic masculine energy is released on all of us.

Now for the event itself…Because the dudes who are part of these frats are some of the people with the biggest social capital on campus, there is an implicit message that if you get asked to be someone’s date, you better say yes. This is particularly true if you are a freshman getting asked by a senior. I’ve heard stories of women turning down invitations and getting shamed for it. If you want to be one of the cool kids, “no” is not an option. After paying forty dollars, a sum not affordable for many, you get bused over to an Alpaca farm in the middle of nowhere. Twenty minutes away from campus, you don’t have the ability to decide to leave–you are stuck in a barn with a bunch of frat boys no matter what happens. To be clear, I’m not claiming that all these dudes are predatory. I am however uncomfortable with how this party puts women in a position where their social standing depends on pleasing the man who asked them to an exclusive, highbrow event with an open bar. The power does not seem evenly distributed to me.

For those of you who are reading this and are part of this circle, went to the party, or are a member of one of these secret frats, I hope you consider what your participation in this system means. This is not an expression of sour grapes for not being invited to Rites of Spring, rather it’s an expression of how this event and the culture surrounding it represent exactly what I don’t want at my school. The fact that our school allows this to continue makes us all complicit in making this place only safe for a select few.

 

REMINDER

come through to Axinn 220 tonight at 7 pm for a post performance discussion.  Open to all!  Come with questions, critiques, anger, happiness…we want it all. See you there!

Reflections from the Mill

I have done this performance many times, but I have never felt like I do now after our performance at the Mill.  Ever since I was a freshman, the Mill has been my place to party.  We all know that certain crowds flock to certain party spaces.  There are stereotypes associated with each, and you quickly learn upon coming to campus where you are expected to go.  With my interest in hair dye, college radio, and quirky clothes, I was immediately directed towards the Mill.  It was the “hipster,” “alternative” hangout that wore weirdness as a badge of pride.  I have learned, however, that the Mill, for all its claims of inclusivity or appeal to the misfits, is not always a safe space.  You have to be a certain type of weird, a certain type of misfit, a certain skin tone to really fit in. Good luck if you don’t have a tattoo, don’t live your life critiquing consumerism, or don’t know the most obscure underground bands.  Good luck if you are the token person of color.  Good luck if you are the freshman manic pixie dream girl that all the senior boys want to bang.  How can you speak up about feelings of exclusion, marginalization, or fetishization when you are constantly reminded that the Mill is full of “woke” people, artistic people, sad bois that feel all the injustices of the world?

Performing there last night, I was acutely reminded of just how exclusive the Mill can be.  While everyone was cordial, there was a general distance.  The feel was, “oh yeah I know art, I like art, but I don’t need to engage with this further.” We were told without words that we weren’t taken seriously for the gravity of what Stairs/Stares represents.  We were decoration, another way for the Mill to prove their openness rather than change their culture.

I say these things not to tear apart those who are part of the Mill or love the Mill–I have many friends who are members and I myself still go.  I don’t want to make a sweeping statement about all those who saw or interacted with the performance. I also do not believe that those who interacted with us had bad intent.  I say these things rather because we have to move past the classic phrase “fuck the Mill” to actually do something about it. Joking about how shitty the Mill is just erases the experiences of those who actually feel unsafe or unwelcome there. We have to challenge the complacency that is present to actually make the environment more safe.  Just because you are part of the Mill doesn’t mean you can hide behind that one GSFS or Critical Race Theory class that you took and say that you’ve seen it all.  Your one ear piercing and painted nails do not make you the expert on mitigating violence or oppression.

I am tired of seeing new rounds of freshmen girls just like me roll through the Mill and experience the kind of things that I experienced there. Come on Mill folks, let’s get real. Are we really better at the Mill than we are at Atwater?

If you feel offended by my words, ask yourself why.  Really did deep. And next time you say “fuck the Mill,” try not to say it with irony–it’s not cool anymore.

 

Post-Chromatic Mini-Responses

The following are anonymous responses from performers/bodyguards reflecting on last Saturday’s (5/7) performance installation at Chromatic.

  1. What stood out to me about the Chromatic action was the chaos that surrounded it. I’m not a person who is anti-drinking or anti-sex at all, but you learn so much being sober in party spaces. There were a number of people who were kind to our performers, but there was also some noteworthy rudeness at Chromatic. A freshman who was really sick got pulled out of the basement at one point, and most of the partygoers acted like this was somewhat routine, or at least not noteworthy. The Chromatic action taught me that perhaps there are spaces that are too frantic or soggy to receive our message. That being said, what I saw at Chromatic has heightened my resolve to use Stares/Stairs as a platform to think through how we treat each other in this community… and not just Monday through Friday. Because if I’m being totally honest, I was not impressed by much of what I saw on Saturday night, and I think  that as a collective, we can do better.
  2. Doing the action last Saturday made me reflect on how vulnerable (to violence) we each are in party spaces at Middlebury, especially because as a resident of another ridgeline house, this action felt “closer to home” and the negativity and chaos were jarring when I’d expected community. It strengthened my conviction that these performances are so, so, important–and that they should not be confined to any particular space on campus. I am grateful for those who created the piece originally and brought me into it–I am grateful for the community that surrounds the piece and supports each other. This was my first experience as a performer, and while I hadn’t thought that would change how I experienced the performance much, thinking back now I realize that I internalized people’s reactions more. As a bodyguard/person who talks to observers, I was much more focused on other people’s experiences or safety which gave me some distance from the piece. I also became more aware of my desire to “make it ok” for the observer–to smile and have them smile back at me, to accommodate their discomfort.
  3. One of the most disappointing things I heard at Chromatic was a male presenting person’s comment towards our most dressed performer. “You didn’t go all the way. She’s in her underwear,” he said. He laughed and walked away. The energy in Chromatic was more chaotic this time. More frenzied, more drunk. I saw many more people at this party whom I know than I ever do in Atwater. Performing in Atwater, I have been able to distance myself from the reality of where sexual assault occurs. In Atwater, when people would ask us why we were there, we boldly responded, “because this is where sexual assault happens.” However, as a person who lives in an interest house, it was terrifying to see the responses when our performance art piece was brought closer to home. And this is exactly what needs to happen. My friends go to these parties. I go to these parties. This was important for us to see.
  4. It is wonderful to see the positive responses. The groups of women who come up to us and thank us. It is sad how gendered the responses we receive are. It is good also to feel angry. I take energy from this anger and chose to keep performing.
  5. I’m glad we did this performance, even with only one ten-minute session, because each time we do this piece we learn so much.  This time was different because we were really in the party, and there were a lot more people moving through the piece a lot faster than previous installations.  I guess I had assumed that Atwater would be the most difficult location to perform, but this is making me second-guess that.  Also, one of the organizers brought up in our debrief that we shouldn’t set a standard for ourselves to feel shitty or emotionally or physically in danger each time we do the piece.  I’m thinking about how to balance what’s best for the piece, with what’s best for us, and how those don’t have to be different things.

Thoughts on BORNS and Beyond

It’s been a couple weeks since our BORNS action, but I wanted to document some of the thought process behind the action, and how it was different from previous actions in Atwater.

 

We received a lot of positive feedback on our BORNS action, both as students walked through the installation and in the following days.  There were many “thank-you’s” and many affirmations of the importance and relevance of activism around sexual assault.  Though it felt good to receive positive feedback, it was also a reminder that sexual assault is a real, relevant, and personal issue for our campus.  I also felt a sense of relief after our action, because there had been so much thought and debate going into that night.  

For me, this action, compared to the previous ones in Atwater, was the one I was most hesitant about, and felt the most back-and-forth in the planning process.

Our previous actions had been in the stairwells of Atwater.  This space is a lot more intimate, as people going to and from the suites would have to interact more with the performers one-by-one as they ascended or descended the staircase.  Part of our installation is documenting interactions with and reactions to our art piece.  One of the things we learned in our JTerm class is the way performance art can serve as a reflection of society (think Marina Abromavic’s “Rhythm 0, 1974”).  We take note of the verbal, emotional, and physical ways people react to our piece to shed light on the relationship people have to the topic of sexual assault.  The Atwater suites were a good opportunity to witness and record reactions to our piece.

BORNS did not provide us with that same intimacy.  Instead, we sacrificed that intimacy for a much larger audience, and a space where we were more likely to get positive reactions (maybe because people are less likely to say negative/fucked up shit on their way to a concert and in front of a lot of other people).  Another reason I think we got more positive reactions is because nobody felt directly targeted (At Atwater, many people, particularly men, would react defensively to our piece).  Before, people would ask if we were targeting the people who lived in Atwater suites, or the people who go to Atwater parties.  My response to that is that we are targeting what Atwater represents for many people, a space that represents a campus culture where sexual assault occurs and, to some extent, is normalized.  However, we know sexual assault happens all over campus, and it is not just people who party in Atwater that are its perpetrators or victims.  We never intended to only perform in Atwater, and the BORNS concert was a good opportunity to show that this is an installation we want to bring to all of campus.

The first time we performed, we decided to have blank expressions, and let the piece speak for itself.  However, we realize that this came off as aggressive to many people.  We made changes to soften our body language, for bodyguards to be more warm and welcoming, and to allow performers to smile or acknowledge people they knew or who were expressing their thanks.  I think this also had a big impact on whether or not people reacted defensively.

A concern we continue to grapple with is how we can take care not to cause unintentional harm, particularly to survivors or people who may be triggered by this piece.  We recognize that performance art activism should be disruptive, and discomfort is a natural and intended reaction to something challenging the status quo.  However, we also want to be careful not to harm the people we are trying to advocate for.  In Atwater, we were able to put a disclaimer sign on both ends of the installation, warning people that this was an installation that dealt with themes of sexual assault.  We were able to identify an alternative route for people to access the suites in case they wanted to avoid the installation.  There was also an opportunity for people to take the elevator.  Of course, this is not a perfect solution, and we are continuing to think of ways that we can evolve the installation to prepare for the potential impact it could have on survivors.  At BORNS, we were not able to establish such a clear alternative route (except for people to go behind us and not read our signs?).  This was one of the main reasons I was most hesitant about performing that night.

I was also thinking about the potential impact it would have on people going to the concert.  I pictured myself going to BORNS, seeing a performance art installation on sexual assault, and the effect that would have on my mood the rest of the night.  I think concerts are an important part of student life, and are an opportunity to let loose and have fun with friends.  So I also didn’t want to ruin someone’s night by doing this performance.  However, we also talked about our action as having the potential to prevent sexual assault.  To not just raise general awareness, but perhaps influence people’s actions that night.  To me, in the end, those potential benefits made me feel comfortable moving forward with the action.

Some questions we continue to wrestle with: How can we take care of survivors as we engage in radical performance activism? How can our piece prompt our audience to reflect on the role they play in fighting against or enabling a culture of sexual assault on campus? How can this piece evolve over time and space to best address the needs of this campus?  How does this installation fit in with the good and important work other groups on campus are engaging in?

If you have any thoughts, feel free to email me (cjchang@middelbury.edu) if you want to chat, or come to our debrief sessions after our actions!  This post is meant to keep the conversation going, as we continue to reflect on and think critically about the role of performance art activism at Middlebury and beyond.

-Chi Chi Chang ’18

So Many Stares: looking back at our first installation

None of us totally knew what to expect when we gathered for our first installation the night of February 3rd.  We had spent weeks preparing, but how were we to know what we would actually face once we were outside of our intimate meetings and dance studio rehearsals? Things were planned to a T except for all that we could not control–the interactions and reactions we would meet in the Atwater stairwell. We knew rationally what to do.  We had practiced our performance mode, we had yelled at each other, jeered at each other, complimented each other, done everything we could to prepare ourselves for any possibility.  Now it was like a dice game, which of the thousands of possible reactions would we get?

 

The energy was nervous but excited.  I felt like I was about to jump out of my skin.  This project though brand new already felt personal and important. I am a survivor, but I knew I was there to make a statement that was bigger than myself. I didn’t really know whether to scream or dance or cry.  I got undressed right away when we got to the meeting place.  To me that wasn’t the hard part.  These are people that I know and trust, I was not scared of my bareness in front of them.  I knew it would be different later.  We went through our planned routine: distinguish who would bodyguard who, and center ourselves with eye contact and body scans.  We gathered our signs and walked out the door towards the music.

 

When we entered Atwater there was immediately a stir.  The performers stripped off their coats, displaying bare skin and body paint and people turned and stared.  It was a strange feeling climbing the stairs in my underwear all the way to the top.  I could see groups of people gathering outside looking in at us through the windows.  People coming down the stairs were shocked, clinging to the railing to let the naked women through.  It’s interesting how in some settings my nearly naked body is interpreted as an invitation while in others the sight of it is taboo, frightening.  We lined up on the landings.  I stood on the largest landing right outside the door to the suite having the party.  Our choice of placement was not an attack on the people in that suite, but just due to the fact that it was the only party happening on a Wednesday.  

 

The reactions we received were mixed to say the least.  Here’s a list of some common  negative comments:

“Fuck you guys”

“Why are you targeting us?”

“I’ve never sexually assaulted anyone!”

“These are good people, they’d never do that!”

“I’m gay so I could never sexually assault anyone!”

“Get out, we’re just trying to have fun!”

“Bitch!”

“This isn’t art.  Have you seen the Sistine Chapel?  That’s art”

 

One of the most offensive comments I got was “She thinks sexual assault is a problem? I’ll sexually assault her.” It is hard to hear violence so pointedly stated. At one point a large group of men carrying solo cups built a wall in front of me, blocking any view of me from passerby on the stairs.  They stood in line, backs to me acting as if I did not exist.  I have a hard time believing this was accidental.  In addition to my own experiences, other performers got similar comments.  One of the most poignant was just the stares.  Even without words, so much was portrayed through the eyes. The message was very clear–we were not welcome.

 

Despite some of the aggression that we encountered, I felt consistently connected to the other activists in the performance.  I knew that they were there for me no matter what just as much as I was there for them. We also heard some incredibly encouraging comments from observers:

“Thank you so much for doing this”

“This is so important”

“You are all so brave”

“I can’t believe nobody has done anything like this before”

“As a survivor, this really speaks to me”

“How can I get involved?”
I left the action feeling shaken yet invigorated, and these feelings return every time we repeat the installation.  I feel power in bringing the comments that people say behind closed doors out in the open.  These beliefs exist in our community, and I am not surprised.  The work is to point to a larger problem and maybe make people realize just how much we are all enmeshed in a culture that promotes violence.  I feel validated in our efforts as I hear the encouragement of some of our audience members.  We are doing this for the sake of the survivors and those who can yet be protected. We are doing this for all the people who can be taught the affect of their actions, who can be forced to see that sexual assault is done to a person, not just a body. It is not just a story on a page or a distant figure in some place far away, but something tangible and deeply impacting this community. While we do this for others, I must remind myself that it is also ok to do this for me.  I have been wounded, but I still have power.  My body has been taken from me, but I can take it back and use it in the face of a culture that violated me. I stand in the stairs to honor myself and to honor everyone that passes through. This is hard, vulnerable and scary, but it continues to be worth it.

The Guy Who Raped Me Saw Me Half-Naked (and I liked it)*

By Anonymous

Content warning: Sexual violence

The proceeding text is from my diary. It was written on April 10th, the day after the BØRNS concert. While I was not part of the original group that devised this project, I am grateful for their openness in allowing me to enter their community and participate in their art.

 

I didn’t realize what an outsider I’ve been to my own body until last night. (The term “alienation” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Dear Body, I’m sorry.) It was the night of the spring concert; at the last minute, I decided to participate in a demonstration against rape culture at Middlebury. I stripped down until much of my skin was exposed. Purple handprints were painted on my flesh. I held a sign saying “still not asking for it.” There were four of us performing. One of the other signs read “sexual assault leaves a mark.”

I went into the action not knowing if I wanted to take my clothes off or participate by handing out slips of paper to passersby. In any event, I hoped that I would see Daniel.**  I’ve been doing a lot of bodywork in therapy these days, some meditation… It’s amazing how much of PTSD is written onto flesh and bone. Yet as the BØRNS action approached, I sensed that I needed participate as a performer. The deepest part of me wanted to transform my body from a site of mourning to a tool for education. I needed to challenge the gaze, His gaze, which still haunted me.

I didn’t perform this piece to spite Daniel.** On the contrary, I have a deep-seated belief in his capacity for growth and change should he want it. I engaged with this performance because I needed to reaffirm the preciousness and value of my own body—a body that, in one night, had transformed into my enemy. I participated in this action to redeem the corporeal from rape in ways that op-eds and theses and intellectual exercises had not.

Here’s the scene: I was standing outside of the concert venue before it started. I did not feel strange about being semi-nude in public—I felt at ease. Three or four minutes into the performance, Daniel** walked down the corridor. He was walking with Tom,** who had looped back to support his friend. (I paused: for once, it wasn’t my burden to seek this kind of support.)

I stood firm in my posture, remembering the grounding techniques that I’d learned in therapy. (Despite the messages that Daniel** often sends to me on Middlebury’s pathways, I realized that I have a right to consume space.) I looked at Dan** and Tom** with an intent gaze. It was intent, not angry—the same gaze that I’d used to engage with dozens of others.

One of the runners involved with the performance approached Daniel** and Tom** and asked them if they wanted a piece of paper describing the art display. They quickly said “no” and moved on. More than anything, I remember Daniel** trying to speak to Tom.** He was so flustered that he couldn’t create words, no matter how hard he tried. His eyes darted all around the room; Dan** was clearly struggling. (I know the exact feeling… For me, this sort of flushed-faced, bodily chaos had become all-too-routine.)

Here’s what was so transformative about the fact that the guy who raped me saw me half-naked: Daniel** saw my flesh, but it was radically on my own terms. In seeing him display a sense of shame, I was released from my own. Our sexual misconduct proceeding had been rather cold and distant—I knew how Daniel’s** lawyers felt, but not Daniel** himself. (And, to be certain, people who rape are undeniably human.) In that hallway, I found comfort in seeing Dan** disarmed, in knowing that I wasn’t the only one impacted by the past few years. I found comfort in having my body visually represent what I am reminded of every day—that sexual assault leaves a mark. And the best part is that I had a wonderful, feminist community to care for me throughout the entire process.

 

Dear Body,

            You have been through so much, and I have at times been so harsh to you. Last night, I learned that you are such a powerhouse—I learned that when you are centered, you can move mountains.

            You aren’t valuable because of the gazes of others—you are valuable in spite of them. I feel you, I notice you, and I love you completely.

 

 

* In the interest of complete transparency: I filed a sexual misconduct case against this individual, and he was found by the College to be not responsible on all counts. I am not ashamed of this fact, nor does it deter me from my present activism.

** A pseudonym