By Shawna Potter
Rebecca Nagle and Hannah Brancato are organizers, artists, activists and educators working in Baltimore, MD. Hannah Brancato began working to end violence against women when she created an art advocacy program based in a domestic violence shelter. She received her MFA in Community Art at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), a program focused on art as a means to create social justice; and is currently an adjunct professor in MICA’s Fiber Department and Art History Department. Rebecca Nagle is an internationally exhibited and collected artist with works in the New Museum, NY and Ssamzie Art Warehouse, South Korea. Nagle organizes Baltimore’s four-day international radical Transmodern Arts Festival and its queer cabaret the Charm City Kitty Club.
I had a chance to sit down with them at Rebecca’s art studio, located in Station North Arts District.
I had a blast at your launch party for YES! Consent Is Sexy and I was hoping to share more information with all of HOLLA-World. Can you tell us more about the history of FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture?
HANNAH: It started out as an exhibition we curated at the Current Gallery in the fall of 2010 There was a huge crowd and a lot of conversation and we realized it was really important and we should do it again. So, we’re currently formulating a proposal to have the show tour several different colleges, some of them falling onto the top 10 party schools according to Playboy. Our rationale behind that is that the kind of dialogue that happened around FORCE would be really useful in the college setting, where a lot of date rape is happening.
REBECCA: In addition to our effort to upset and challenge the culture of rape, we’re also working to promote a counter culture of consent via a new underwear line called YES! Consent Is Sexy. It’s that extra reminder to check in with people with you’re in the heat of the moment.
You screened the underwear yourselves, choosing really bright, even fun, colors. Why is that?
REBECCA: We’re riffing off of Victoria’s Secret PINK line, targeted specifically towards high school and college age girls. This fall they came out underwear with these flirty statements like “unwrap me” or “jealous”, but a few of them struck a chord with us because we felt they reinforced this idea that “no” means “yes”. One of them says “NO” in big letters, and underneath in small letters it says, “peeking”. Another says, “STOP staring” and the other that is really disturbing is “Give a little, get a lot”. 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 OK.
Your underwear has statements like “Yes”, “No, “Maybe” and “Ask First”, which your website says helps to “celebrate our belief that good communication creates good sex”, but some might ask: is it too late to emphasize communication when the pants are already off?
REBECCA: No! (laughs) I feel like that is the most important time to emphasize communication. I think that the whole consent conversation isn’t just whether or not you want someone in your bed. Sex is so complicated and varied, as are people’s personal boundaries, and a lot of unwanted sexual experiences come from assumptions. Someone assuming that because you’ve given the green light for this, you’ve given them the green light for this, that, and the other. I think our culture has this idea that rape is a very clear situation of someone physically overpowering someone else. The reality of a lot of sexual violence and coercion, the way that people are actually experiencing it, is a lot more confusing. I think the only way to combat that holistically is to promote an alternative, to promote consent and communication.
What about the times when gaining consent is not a priority, when there is a clear-cut perpetrator and victim?
HANNAH: We realize that rape is used as a weapon of war and that it can be perpetrated by strangers, and that there are a lot of issues besides this one part we are tackling. We are fully aware of that. But this is one of the ways in which a lot of people are experiencing rape and it is one of the ways that we feel that we can do something about it. We feel that we can actually change some of those perceptions. If this exhibition is successful, we can start to create some of those connections and solidarity with those people who are working towards ending gender-based violence at all levels. We know this is not the only way rape is happening, but it is one of the ways that rape is not being recognized for what it is, and that is the biggest issue.
So this is mostly about the importance of communication to prevent date-rape type situations?
REBECCA: Well, communication is not just about preventing rape, but about promoting a more healthy sexuality. For a survivor, it can be really important for a partner to check in with them during sex. It can be really important to have the space some days to say “today I don’t feel safe, so even if we did this thing yesterday, I can’t do that today” So it’s not just about wearing panties with “Ask First” to prevent rape, it’s about having a more healthy sexuality where people are having conversations and feeling safer and it is more empowering for people if partner’s are checking in with them.
So, why do both the line of underwear and the curated art show?
HANNAH: For us, the counter culture of consent is important because the actual artwork that is in FORCE deals with survivors telling stories about being sexually assaulted and raped, and also montages of how pop culture and media culture perpetuate rape by putting damaging images out there. So it is a show that is really intense, not only explaining rape culture, but also showing examples of rape culture, right? But there is also the counter culture of telling stories that need to be told. We feel, as both activists and educators, its important that the project is multi-faceted. It’s not about just showing a problem or pointing to something, but it’s also about proposing an alternative to that culture, like how else can things be? Another theme of the show, or one of the conceptual underpinnings, is this idea of how rape becomes naturalized, or people think it is biology, that we’re born this way, and so one of the things we’re trying to deal with is how we’re taught. How we’re taught violent behaviors, how we’re taught to have these power struggles and how we’re taught to use sex as a way of getting control. I think in the whole conversation surrounding YES! Consent Is Sexy some of our original project has gotten lost.
Are there any local organizations or artists out there inspiring you, or even working on similar issues?
REBECCA: Probably SlutWalk! (laughs)
REBECCA: SlutWalk and Hollaback! are the two things I feel like….
I did not plan that, internet.
REBECCA: No, but seriously, we feel there is a new generation of young feminists doing interesting things with feminism and using fresh tactics. So, Hollaback!, SlutWalk, Feministing.com, all this new stuff cropping up using social media to address some of these issues and push things further. We like to think of ourselves as part of this new feminist movement.
HANNAH: Definitely there are other artists working on similar things, but I couldn’t claim to know all that is going on.
A lot of this new wave of brash, in your face feminist activism that you consider yourselves to be a part of has received critiques from women of color for being too exclusive. How are you making sure that FORCE doesn’t shut anyone out? Is it here to include everyone’s story or is it more personal?
REBECCA: I like to use the magnet/container analogy (laughs). One of the reasons feminism (and rightly so) is accused of leaving people out is that sometimes feminism tries to be this box with clearly defined boundaries. Like “here is the feminist box and everything in this box is feminism and everything outside of it is not feminism”. I think it is a problem because anytime you want or need to grow you have to break that container. I like to think about the way we’re working on this project, we’re not creating a clearly defined box of what FORCE is, but we have some core values. We want to end a culture of sex that is disempowering for people, that violates people, that is about coercion and violence, and instead promote an alternative culture of sex that is empowering and pleasurable for everybody involved, and that is the magnet. So if you want to work towards that, then we’re on board. People might have different takes on it. This issue is going to be personal for a lot of people, it’s personal for us, and so we recognize that. In feminism and especially when you deal with sexual violence, it is OK for people to do it in different ways, to have different feelings about it and see it differently. But I think we can have some core values that we’re all on the same page about.
HANNAH: I think it is difficult to resist the temptation to box it in because of the criticism we get. It’s interesting; I had never been accused of not being a feminist before.
HANNAH: So, here’s the thing, so while we are being accused of not fitting into the box, how do we still keep what we’re doing as a magnet and not a box. The automatic response would be to be defensive and put up walls, right, but actually what we’re trying to do is reach out to people who have critiques and invite them to participate in a dialogue. I think we’re going to do a video to document some of the disagreement, because what happened over YES! Consent Is Sexy is representative of the larger disagreement where people are saying “third-wave feminist sluts,” which is all over the place right now, so I think this is a microcosm of something that is happening on a larger scale, so hopefully documenting it will help. We’re super aware of it, which doesn’t mean we won’t make mistakes, but we try to be really open about the fact that this is a process and we’re open to suggestions.
What types of things do you find yourselves saying to partners in bed most often, what do you have to communicate most often that isn’t assumed?
REBECCA: (laughs) Hmm, do I want to share this on the blog?
REBECCA: I generally let people know that I like people to check in, I ask them what their boundaries are, what do you like or not like, if they have any STD’s. And it is interesting because some people are excited to talk about it, some people have never been asked that before and don’t know how to have that conversation, some people think it is not sexy and it busts their mood. But for me, I am way more comfortable and excited about a person when they are excited to have that kind of conversation…. And it’s nice that it has been happening recently! (laughs)
You can practice what you preach!
REBECCA: Yeah, totally!
(HANNAH’s originally published answer has been left out for privacy reasons. It wasn’t totally crazy though, so don’t get any kinky ideas!)
One more question. Can you be satirical when it comes to being sexual?
HANNAH: Well, less about being about satire, it’s really about subversion, which is an important distinction.
REBECCA: We talked about this a lot, and we had to give each other therapy, because when people are posting negative comments online…
HANNAH: Yeah, never has there been this much attention on anything I’ve done, not until we took some photos of people in their underwear. I hesitate to say that because I think it validates some people’s arguments. We’re not ignorant to what we’re doing, we understand the implications of it and we’re doing it with as much awareness and consciousness as possible. And I think it is important to do because the fact of the matter is there is nothing wrong with a naked body, but there is a lot wrong with the way naked bodies are used; to perpetuate a rape culture, a patriarchal culture, but that doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with a naked body in and of itself. I think continuing to use this tactic to divert attention away from victim blaming, to start to address the actual issue, like shifting the conversation away from self-defense and towards perpetrators learning that sex should not be a method of gaining control, that kind of thing. I think these tactics are successful in doing that when it comes down to it.
REBECCA: I’ve been thinking a lot, too, about the complication of the photographs we put out of women in the underwear and people’s strong reactions to them. I feel like I personally have had this life experience where I got really angry about the ways I felt objectified as a young adult and victimized as a woman, and I went through this period where there were no high heels in my closet, I shaved my head, I wore pants; I was super butch in college. Then these little things like heels and dresses started trickling back into wardrobe and it was finding a way to feel comfortable being feminine and sexy and feeling like my sexuality was my own and not for other people to control and manipulate and dictate and objectify. And that is a really hard space for any woman to stake out, because there is so much baggage placed on women’s bodies and the choices that women make about the way that they present their bodies. So I think it is really radical, what SlutWalk does, to create spaces where all forms of expressions can be OK and safe and empowering. And I think our culture needs that, I don’t think that business suits are the answer to women being objectified, you know; I think it should be an option for women. Pants should be an option; bikinis should be an option; women should be able to be powerful in whatever situation they feel powerful and self-actualized in.