Rape and Performance Art

We’ve had this email from a reader:

I am a long time reader of your blog, and I find it to be an invaluable resource for keeping up with gender issues in the field of philosophy. I am a recent PhD in politics, and currently adjunct for a number of courses in political philosophy. As a relatively young, male academic, hearing feminist voices that might otherwise not come up in my normal day helps to keep me mindful of just how gendered academia (and culture more generally) remains. Thank you very much for your time and energy in this project, I appreciate it immensely.

I am contacting you to relay an experience I had recently on a University campus that I think may be of interest to your readers.

While I was walking to lecture earlier this week, and making small talk with one of my teaching assistants, we came across a young woman. She wasn’t wearing much, only what looked like a bikini, though this isn’t as abnormal as one might expect on a campus in southern California around this time of the year. However, she seemed to be somewhat disoriented, and as we got closer, the young woman appeared to be crying and her skin looked reddened and scraped badly.

It was around this point that I suspected she was a victim of sexual assault, and by the look of it [an especially] violent case of it. We stopped to talk to the girl, and ask if she was okay. Her speech seemed fairly incoherent, and I remember her saying, “I don’t know what happened.” She seemed to be sobbing. To say we were concerned is an understatement.

After several inquiries into whether we could help her, I asked my teaching assistant to do whatever it takes to help her, and to not worry about making it to lecture. I didn’t feel comfortable leaving this young woman like this, but I didn’t think that having two of us hovering over her was helping her. And I also felt that of the two of us (myself and my TA), my TA would be less likely to be seen as threatening, since she (my TA) was female and less physically intimidating than I am. So I went on to continue to walk towards my class.

A few minutes later, my TA caught back up with me and let me know that everything was fine. I turns out the young woman was actually a performance artist, and not a victim of physical assault. After I left, she informed my TA that she was completely fine, but that she was reenacting something that actually happened to a friend of hers. The actress also let her know that we were the first to stop to try to help her.

I wish to share this story, because I believe it to be one of the most effective works of performance art that I have seen. If good art is supposed to shake you to the core, this exceptional young artist has managed that, in spades. It horrifies me that this kind of event — not the performance, but the original that she was emulating — happens on a campus I work on. And while I know the statistics, and I hear the stories, it is hard to translate that the kind of emotion that this kind of performance inspired. And it is further horrifying to hear how few would stop to help her.

However, I’m also horrified by my own response. By asking my teaching assistant to help, I feel like I abdicated my own responsibility. I’ve replayed the scene several times in my head, and I’m reasonably sure I made the correct decision: I made sure she was in good hands, with someone I trusted to protect her and help her. But despite that, there’s still an intense feeling of powerlessness that was instilled by the performance. There must be more that I can do than just leave victims to people I trust.

So, I write Feminist Philosophers in the hopes that I can help to raise some more awareness to such an exceptional performance that seems relevant to the kinds of discussions that are had here. But I also write to inquire of your readers: what more can we do? Not just in my specific case, but for the larger problem?

In addition to the questions the reader raises, I find myself unsure about this sort of performance art. My worry is that it might backfire and lead people to take apparent victims even less seriously in the future (e.g. “oh, she’s probably just acting”.) I suppose this depends in part on the nature of the work as a whole: is this part of a larger project, drawing attention to inadequate reactions of bystanders, etc?

Watch That Baby Fat

You can now order a onesie decorated with the slogan ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’. A onesie. Yes, really. There’s also a ‘Please don’t feed the model’ option.

You can see photos here.

Though it’s worth noting that zazzle will slap pretty much whatever on a t-shirt and sell it. The bulk of the blame lies with whoever set up this particular shop.