Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2

June 18, 2014 by

The Poem that Went Viral, and the Woman Behind It

 Anna Binkovitz, 21, is a proficient slam poet and author of a published chapbook, The Love Hypothetic. At a national slam poetry competition in March, Anna performed a poem called “Asking For It” that addresses a refrain perpetually directed against rape victims: that by dressing provocatively, they invite sexual predation.

The poem invites viewers to “a strange world in which all of us…can only express our wants and needs through our clothing” – a dystopian, darkly comic imagining, in which nudity—during bathing, changing, or even childbirth—always signifies wanting sex.

 

Last week, the poem went viral—at 400,000 YouTube views and counting—after news blog Upworthy reposted a video of Binkovitz’s performance; Jezebel and the Huffington Post, among others, marked it as an important contribution to a heated cultural conversation about consent. So Lilith’s Malka Editorial Fellow, Talia Lavin, took the opportunity to have a conversation with the outspoken poet, rape survivor, and activist.

 TL: So, your poem’s gone viral! How did that happen? How does it feel?

Anna Binkovitz, poet and activist (courtesy Button Poetry)

Anna Binkovitz, poet and activist (courtesy Button Poetry)

AB: I think the fact that people were interested in having these conversations meant that, even before the poem was posted on Upworthy, it was getting a lot of views. The moment we’re at right now–after the Isla Vista shootings—people are having the conversations that they’ve been trying to avoid, about how casual misogyny can lead to acts of terrible violence, and I think that definitely impacted how my poem got so many views. I’m really grateful that one of the poems I’m behind the most is the one that’s getting the attention. It’s been pretty surreal, though.

TL: What kind of feedback have you received? 

AB: I’ve gotten a lot of really inspiring and encouraging messages from people who are survivors of sexual violence saying that this means a lot to them. And then, the occasional message saying rape culture doesn’t exist, or that I’m just mad because nobody wants to rape me. A few times I responded saying, “yes, I have been raped, actually, and it’s not something enjoyable,” and guys have deleted their comments right away. But right now I’m letting everyone else deal with it.

TL: The conclusion of your poem is tremendously powerful: “Stop asking people’s clothing to have sex with you, and start asking people.” What does that mean to you? 

AB: For me it means that idea of – don’t look to people’s clothing or to the way they’re behaving to decide if they’re sexually available. Just ask them. That’s the whole point of being an adult and having free will and language, is asking for what you want. Being so afraid of talking about sex, being so embarrassed about asking someone to have sex with you, is dangerous. You should just ask if someone wants to have sex with you.

I think that there are so many causes for fear to talk about sex in our culture. We’ve been taught as children that sex is this dirty thing, this secretive thing, that people do when they get married and that’s it – especially for women. For people to talk about it – it’s not appropriate, it’s not ladylike. On the flip side of that, a lot of men are trained to think that women won’t talk about it, so it’s okay to take what you want. If you talk about it, people will know that you’re doing it, and that’s bad.

 TL: This isn’t the first time you’ve spoken out about rape. In May 2013, you wrote an article in Macalester College’s newspaper, “Sharing a degree with your rapist,” about your experience of being raped on campus and subsequently harassed. Can you talk about what it felt like to speak out about these deeply personal events? 

AB: That article came out of so much frustration, because it had been an entire year of him living right across the street from me, and harassing me, and my school not following through on promises that they had made to keep me safe. And so for me to write that article – to use the truth to shame the school and shame him – it was really great. You’re forced into certain dialogue – if sex is shameful, then rape is so much more shameful: you weren’t able to stop somebody from invading your space.

It’s so important for people to have been through it to talk about it, because when we let other people tell our stories for us, we can be reduced to the term survivor or victim. For me, it was a big step in reclaiming myself as a whole person. I’m not going to be ashamed of it.

My dad told me the difference between something that’s private and a secret is the fear that people will find you out. People who have been victimized should never be afraid of being found out. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard: I’ve never experienced victimhood as a status symbol. If anything, I worry that people aren’t going to take me seriously if they know – that I’m going to be treated like a wounded animal, or something.  But the fact that I could choose to tell people meant that I have nothing to be ashamed of. I did nothing wrong.

 TL: Do you think your Jewish upbringing had an impact on your reactions to these events, and your decision to speak out about them?

AB: I definitely think so. Especially being raised in the Reform tradition. My mother was raised Methodist, and converted to Judaism. When she talks about Methodist culture, and I compare it to my experience as a Jew, Judaism seems very soulful: the soul and the heart are really the most important thing. You live your life in a soulful way where you are experiencing and expressing value. 

And I could not have asked for my parents to be better. I was really afraid when I first told them that I experienced sexual violence, but they were just great. My mom was very practical, she asked, “Should we install an alarm system? What can we do to make you feel safe?” I’m not really strongly connected to a Jewish community right now in the Twin Cities, but after my rape, I really fell back on my traditions. I got a mezuzah, and I started saying the Shabbat prayers every week at my own home. This was my way of telling myself that this was my space, regardless of the fact that my rapist made me afraid to go to school, that he was so close by. That was really powerful for me.

TL: So now that you’re a graduate, what are your plans going forward?

AB: Right now, I’m working on a collection of poems whose working title is “When the Law Man Come,” about hip-hop and Judaism. As I was being stalked and harassed by my rapist, I relied on hip-hop and my Jewish faith and my community and family. I think the collection ends up being about trauma and intersections of trauma—Jewish historical trauma, African American trauma, and my personal trauma, and it all weaves together. I’m hoping this will be my first full-length book of poetry.

 Check out more of Anna Binkovitz’s work at her poetry’s Facebook page.

 


  • Sherryberry

    If a candy store with a prominent window display of chocolates is vandalized, no one says “The owner was asking for it. What was she doing tempting the public?”. It’s a damn shame that chocolate has more protection than women.