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On September 25, 2010, I was raped.

There. I said it. So what? Well, I really haven’t spoken much about the experience since it happened. Because I’m knowledgeable about issues of violence against women, I knew exactly what to do in this instance. I called a crisis hotline to calm me down and give me advice. Then I went to the emergency room and did a rape kit. I spoke to an advocate at the hospital who further helped to calm me. I was required to file a police report; a week later, after much deliberation on my part, I decided to go ahead and press charges against my perpetrator. I sought out free counseling at my school, and when that wasn’t enough, I started seeing a counselor at Rape Victim Advocates. I told those who were closest to me about what had happened. But still, despite the existence of this blog and the fact that there is very little about my personal life that’s off-limits in terms of discussion, it’s been excruciatingly difficult for me to speak about the experience. The only thing more painful than my own experience is the fact that once I did open up to people and talk about what had happened to me, so many women I spoke to in private in turn confided in me about their own experience with sexual assault. However, although they all recognized what had happened to them as non-consensual sex, none of them were able to use the word “rape” to describe what had happened to them, in part because of trying to repress the memories surrounding the event, but also because of the blame they had placed on themselves for not being able to stop it.

Let’s back track a little bit. In my first semester of college, I took a little class called “Service Learning: Women’s Issues.” I didn’t know exactly what the class entailed, but already being a raging self-proclaimed radical feminist at the time, I signed up. The class, taught by Michelle Sayset, a wonderful woman who deserves more credit for all the work she has done with students and survivors, focused specifically on educating us about rape and domestic violence through direct action in protest and volunteer work, reading and critical responses, class discussion, and lectures given by guest speakers. It was there that I learned about the sobering statistics surrounding rape, as well as what to do in situations where you or a loved one have been assaulted. In a world where college women are 25% more likely to be victims of sexual assault, the importance of such a class is not to be understated.

The semester culminated in facilitating The Clothesline Project along with featuring student performers. It was at this event, more than three years ago, that I met my perpetrator, who was bandmates with a classmate I had befriended and would come to be a part of a large group of friends who I’ve subsequently all lost in the aftermath of the assault. He came to be my best friend, my confidant, my collaborator in terms of my art work, before he drugged me and took advantage of me while in a semi-unconscious state. If the fact that someone who had enough insight to speak out against rape would also have the balls to do it themselves wasn’t enough of a unpredictable twist in the epic of my life, I was coincidentally wearing a free t-shirt I had gotten through doing volunteer work with a women’s shelter as part of the class at the time of my assault. So, last week, when someone from this semester’s class stopped by my student poetry organization’s meeting to invite us all to read at The Clothesline Project’s open mic, I had a feeling of my experience coming full circle. I made the decision to get up in front of a room full of people–some strangers, some colleagues–and speak about my experience through my poetry and through discussion, not only because I felt it was an opportunity to exemplify how to combine the knowledge gained from the class with artistic craft to a room full of art students, but because I felt it was necessary in the process of healing myself.

(Here is a video of an older version of the poem I read; you can read the version from the event here.)

Although I was personally motivated in my performance, something happened after the event that had already occurred too many times–someone I had known for several years opened up to me about her own experience with rape. Apparently she had never thought of what had happened to her as an assault; her perpetrator was her then-boyfriend who was sleeping next to her. And apparently, like all the other women who had opened up to me, she had never considered it as rape because she blamed herself for not stopping it. I had, apparently, inadvertently lifted the blame from herself by recognizing my own experience as rape. As with all the other women I had confided in privately about my experience who in turn shared their stories with me, she didn’t use the term “rape” to describe what had happened to her–and who am I to label her experience–but the fact that I could take my traumatic experience and use it to help someone else somehow has made everything I’ve gone through (which, believe me, could be an entire blog in and of itself) completely worth it.

I can’t say that everyone who has ever been raped should speak to a room full of strangers about their personal experience. Doing so doesn’t necessarily exemplify strength or help in the healing process of such an experience, as it did for me. But I will say this: because I mustered up the courage to speak about what had happened to me in a safe space, I felt a huge sense of fulfillment. Using my experience and my art to reach out to people, and, hopefully, help them, while in turn helping myself, made me feel that some justice had been served. The legal process of prosecuting someone for rape is a strenuous thing (something that’s all-too topical given the charges surrounding WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange)–I’ve made almost no process in my own case, and even if my perpetrator is behind bars, it won’t undo the damage that has already been done. We can, however–as survivors, as women, as people who feel the need to do something about it–speak out about these issues and educate men and women as a form of prevention against rape. Although these issues are something I’ve come to know all too well, unfortunately most people don’t realize how common place rape is. Not all men recognize their actions as rape even when it’s clear to the victim, and not all victims know not to internalize their blame. As I already mentioned, being educated about what to do when it came time to deal with being raped myself has helped a lot. Unfortunately none of the women who had confided in me were provided that privilege.

This blog post is a call to action. Whatever you know of rape, whatever you are comfortable speaking about, and whatever you can say without causing harm to victims, say it. Say it publicly outloud. Tweet about it or update your facebook status. Start a discussion at your school, workplace, or among friends. Do what I did and blog about it. You can’t always be there to physically intervene and prevent a rape from taking place, but you can raise awareness about the issues surrounding rape. You never know whose life you’ll be changing.

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“The woman artist” is a notion that persists today, assumed to have gained the most strength during the Women’s Liberation Movement. Today, the idea behind “woman art shows” is the same as it was in the 60’s and 70’s—to give women a platform in which to share their art, lest they be marginalized in the regular art world. Almost all of the time, these shows focus around female empowerment, and, by association, feminism. But, truth be told, whenever I attend these shows or take part in them, they leave my feminist senses with something to be desired.

A month or so ago, I caught wind of a “feminist show” at Locked Out, one of my favorite Chicago venues that doubles as an anarchist commune. I was pumped about it, expecting to show up and see lots of riot grrrl style bands. But the real show was nothing like that. I walked in at the beginning of a performance art installation that featured many naked women on stage, just standing there and being naked, and what looked like the Bride of Frankenstein with a phone cord wrapped around her neck in the middle of it all. Once the performance was over, the host informed us, “The artist wants you to know you can interpret this installation in anyway you please.” I thought to myself, Really? Because this looks like blatant sexual objectification under the mask of avant garde to me. The next act? An all-male band with a female front woman who, again, made little to no actual feminist commentary. The fact that the only reasonable explanation for this band performing being because of the sole female member added insult to injury, especially when I know of several local all-male bands that deal with feminism in a more direct way. Not only was this show failing as a statement for feminism, but it also struggled to find enough talented, all-female artists to fill the bill.

To be honest, much of women’s art has gone this route—an art student’s desperate, yet failed, attempt at political consciousness—or another route: to try to continue to exemplify feminist art from the Women’s Liberation Movement rather than expand on it in the Third Wave. If you said this was because there have been very few prominent feminist art influences since that time, you’d be half right. If you said this was because feminist art is still trying to market itself as art for women by women when the conversation has been expanded upon immensely, you’d be on target.

“Hey! What’s wrong with making feminist art for the purposes of feminism?” You might ask. Well, there’s nothing wrong with making art for whatever purpose you see fit—or for no purpose at all. What’s wrong is the way this art is presented to its audience, almost always through “woman artist” shows. It’s not that “woman artists” are less talented because they’re women, it’s that most serious artists reach a point in their career where the last thing they want is to have an extra noun tacked onto their title, be it “woman artist” or “gay artist” or “black artist” or “working class artist.” At this point, I should hope the interests of feminism have progressed so that “woman artist” and “feminist artist” should not be synonyms. I know female artists who would like to have nothing to do with feminism and many male artists who frequently give adapt insights to our oppressive climate. Many of those actually talented have the title “woman artists” thrust upon them by others, regardless of whether or not they identify as such. When someone says, “Here’s a poem written by a woman poet,” it’s like saying “Here’s a poem I wouldn’t bother to read if it weren’t written by a woman.”

Not every “woman artist” rejects the notion of being labeled, however, and these artists usually fit into one of two categories: 1) they need the exposure and are willing to play-up their womanhood in order to get it, 2) they recognize that being a “woman artist” and making feminist art will gain them a place in a community. The second one I consider to be much more damaging, because the “woman art” community, in true tradition of Second Wave Feminism, continuously isolates other political opinions, not to mention female artists of color. Yeah, there are still a lot of poetry open mics that feel like old boys clubs, and sometimes when I get up on stage and share my poetry, I know I’m going to have to deal with at least one audience member hitting on me after the show. I have been to plenty of open mics where I was the sole female contributor, and seen as a novelty for this reason. But the fact of the matter is that the objectification of women is really not much better at these “women’s only” shows. Fuck, at the feminist show I previously mentioned the vast majority of the audience were males who find hyper-sexualized art arousing, and the so-called feminist artists were more than ready to give it to them. This climate is no less threatening to women and their legitimacy as artists than any other.

So should woman artists shut up and just try to compete with the white males who still dominate the art world? No, but they could certainly try to look at the art world in a way that isn’t either half a century old or, more often than not, concerned primarily with getting exposure for their political platform (and, by association, themselves). The obvious solution—to me, at least—is for artists who are truly concerned with politics not to isolate themselves to a venue where everyone will share their opinions, but to try to make political art more visible, yet more subtly political, outside these realms. Perhaps it’s easier for me to say this because I live in a major city with a seemingly endless supply of galleries, venues, and cafes seeking artists, but in the age of the internet and the rising popularity of blogs (or other forms of self-publication), there are even more outlets for art and audiences for it than ever before.

One phrase closely associated with feminist art is “the personal is political.” This was true in the 1960’s as it is in our time. But the fact of the matter is, unless you are extremely careful not to isolate your audience, people are more likely to not relate to your personal political poem. It’s dangerously easy to bypass technique in favor of getting a political message across clearly. One should never sacrifice artistic integrity in favor of better voicing their own opinions. Instead, one must look at the challenges they face as both an artist and someone with political opinions, and accept them in order to make great art. After all, in art, it’s not sound opinions that influence people, it’s mind blowing compositions that make people see the world in a whole new way. Let’s focus on that, shall we?

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