How Rape Survivors Are Using Art

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. As a survivor and survivor advocate, I struggle during this time with the way media portrays us. While individual stories of survival and victimhood are critical, far too often some of us feel boxed in by what we call the “sad rape girl” narrative. This is what happens when journalists reduce survivors down to their narratives of victimhood, of loss of control, of lack of agency, and refuse to let us share how we’re fighting back, of how we’re experts in law or advocacy around sexual violence.

This is part of why I was so interested in attending the recent public conversation “Consent/Dissent,” between by Emma Sulkowicz and Aliza Shvarts, two artists who challenged the status quo of survivor and victim narratives through performance art.

Emma Sulkowicz is best known for her “Mattress Performance” held at Columbia University. She carried her dorm mattress around with her each day her rapist still attended the University. During this time, Emma noticed that suddenly everyone was an expert about her rape—that everyone had all these ideas about what rape survivors would and would not do. Emma was provoked by these commentaries to do something that a “real” rape survivor would never, ever do – in “Ceci N’Est Pas Un Viol” (2015; “This Is Not a Rape”) she recreated her rape experience on camera as a performance piece.

Sulkowicz and Shvarts opened their discussion by focusing on the contradictory nature of consent. Their definition is: “to give permission, to regulate power in a manner that preserves the supposition of agency.” Consent is something that can be given, just as much as it can be taken away – with one caveat: the control over our bodies. Consent presumes that the individual granting it has full agency over their body. For many women in American history that was simply not possible. Sulkowicz and Shvarts bring our attention to the 1855 court case State of Missouri v. Celia, a slave. Celia was on trial for the murder of her slave owner. Today, she would have certainly been found not guilty on the grounds of self-defense, as he was continuously raping her. However, slaves were objects, did not have agency over their bodies, and therefore couldn’t legally give consent, or take it away. Sexual violation applied only to white women.

Lincoln Blades emphasized this same point during Black History Month in Teen Vogue after an article in the Washington Post described Sally Hemings, slave of Thomas Jefferson, and the mother of six of his children, as a “mistress.” Blades writes, “it’s insulting to identify the relationship between a slave and a slave-owner using the term “mistress” when that term denotes a relationship predicated on mutual choice, autonomy, and affirmative consent — things slaves do not have.”

Even though slavery was abolished over 150 years ago, racist inclinations still run deep in American blood. In a recent study done by The Psychology of Women Quarterly found that white women were less likely to intervene in a sexual assault situation if the victim was black, than if the victim was white. The study found this was “‘because they [white women] felt “less personal responsibility’” Secondarily, they also “’perceived that [the black victim] experienced more pleasure in the pre-assault situation’.”

How do we reject our offensive history? How do we resist?

Sulkowicz and Shvarts then went on to discuss the concept of “dissent,” which they describe as “the right to protest, to voice opposition: the capacity to resist and refuse.”

Sulkowicz and Shvarts discussed other performance artists who used their work to dissent.

Ana Mendieta’s “Untitled (Rape Scene)” was a performance where Mendieta had her art students discover her in an apartment, naked from the waist down, bent over a table covered in blood. She performed this piece in response to a horrific rape and murder of a nursing student at the University of Iowa where Mendieta had been studying. The other was a series of pieces by Suzanne Lacy, titled “Three Weeks in May,” where the artist retrieved rape reports from the police in Los Angeles, and proceeded to mark the sidewalks where the incidents had occurred with red chalk writings: “2 WOMEN HAVE BEEN RAPED NEAR HERE.”

This second performance piece reminded me that when my friend and I were in college, advocating for consent and sexual assault education at orientation, we scrawled “I WAS RAPED HERE” in giant chalk letters in front of the dining hall, with a link to our petition underneath. We were unknowingly mimicking Lacy, unearthing what was too often shelled in shame and darkness. We were taking our narratives back—“sad rape girls” no more, we were advocates and champions for our cause.

With only two people in the world who actually know what took place that night Emma Sulkowitz says she was raped, her performance shares with the world the thing that they claimed they were experts on. Many people do not report their assaults as soon as they happen. In fact, many people do not report them at all, fearing both that they won’t be believed, and dreading the re-victimization that could occur when reporting. Sulkowitz brought up the fact that even bruises or scrapes aren’t necessarily proof enough, that perhaps the sex was consensually rough. She describes “Ceci N’Est Pas Un Viol” (2015) as the proof she wishes she had. But even then, she acknowledges, the whole interaction could appear consensual, which it absolutely was not.

Aliza Shvarts, in her ongoing performance piece titled “Non-Consensual Collaborations” (2012-present) also plays with blurring the lines between sexual violence, art and consent, examining social interactions “not through social scripts, but aesthetic ones,” in real time. In the four current pieces that make up “Non-Consensual Collaborations,” she presents “performances with other artists who did not agree to their participation,” in order to upend “who gets to insist on the separation between aesthetic and social life” to “recalibrate a feminist capacity to act.”

With these performances, Sulkowitz and Shvarts take some agency back for themselves, muddle the lines of an already heavily contentious picture, and use art to examine what autonomy they have over their bodies. I’ll be holding these thought-provoking conversations near as I continue making my way through April, considering all the ways in which we navigate consent/dissent in our everyday lives, whether or not we are survivors.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.