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?

7 thoughts on “Rape and Performance Art

  1. About worries of backlash.
    The woman was not drawing a crowd. She was alone, waiting for bystanders to approach her.
    So first conclusion: there are a number of bystanders who walked by and did not approach her. They have either been oblivious, or have recorded her at some level of consciousness, and are left thinking about a half-naked, bruised and crying woman that they walked passed and left alone. (Already quite the effect for a performance piece.)
    The only person who would know that it is a piece of performance art is the sort of person who would stop to help, and be told. Such a person would be told that it was a re-enactment of an actual event.
    So second conclusion: the reaction “she was just acting” is incomplete at best. She was not just acting, she was re-enacting. BIG difference.
    The person who stops to help gets told how many (in this case, how few) bystanders stop to help.
    The reader who sent in this story appears to have been deeply affected by it. Since only the people who stop to help get told the truth, and people who stop to help are in a self-selected group of caring people, and caring people will understand, indeed feel, this performance as effective, worries about backlash are minimized.
    My conclusion: an exceptionally thoughtful and effective performance.

  2. I have a couple of concerns here. For the first, I’m taking the possibility that it was real seriously.
    1. I suspect a good number of universities leave their faculty in the dark about what their obligations are, either formal or informal, and what their resources are in cases of students or others in distress. If a faculty member has good reason to think a serious crime has been committed against a student, does what they do remain for them to decide or should they call the campus police? Do faculty even know how to call campus police on cell phones? Given the nature of the supposed crime, medical help might have been a very good thing, but do faculty know how to get students into the health care system at the university? And so on. I guess I think that in this case I would have called the campus police, though the sexual nature might have prevented me. However, there are tons of reasons for reporting crimes on campus, not least of which is that that sort of data can impact staffing, surveillance, etc.

    2. I share Jender’s original worry about the effects of this form of performance art. It just takes one alert student reporter to write about it in the student paper for a large number of students to learn the next crime victim might really be an actor.

  3. Let me just explain and add a thing or two: Just in case the obvious isn’t obvious to everyone, there probably are good reasons for distinguishing between sexual injuries and many others as far as involving police, doctors, etc. I think I wouldn’t let students seriously injured in an accident (maybe some severe burns or a broken arm) just go on their way without trying to get them to medical attention, but many women choose not to involve authorities in the case of sexual crimes because the bad consequences can far outweigh the good.

    Also, it seems to me there is a serious question of liability, and I don’t know the answer. Supposing the student was actually internally injured and started to bleed and died. I have no idea what if any liability the prof might have. There is an awful case at Yale right now of a young women killed in a machine shop; questions are being raised in web discussions of whether Yale was following “best practices,” and I suppose we’ll find out in the next year or so whether they have some legal liability. I think that case shows an atttitude pervasive in higher ed that we treat students as responsible, knowledgable adults, but I have no idea whether that matches what parents, judges, etc, think are matters of professional responsibility.

  4. I too find myself rather skeptical of the performance aspect, and doubt I would be much allayed by such an explanation from the artist herself, especially if the display was an convincing as it sounds. In fact, I expect I would be put off by the attempt to play on my sympathies, though it’s hard to say without having actually seen something like that.

    I will say that men seriously using the “she’s just acting” excuse as a result of this seems exceedingly remote even given newspaper coverage, and in any case that complaint feels too victim-blamey to me. (I mean really, he’ll just come up with some other excuse if he doesn’t read that newspaper article.)

  5. Jay, I think recent research suggests that very small things can make all the difference. A lot of this research is discussed at various points by John Doris. It might be that students crossing a campus on their way somewhere would be influenced by the possibility that it was just acting. It really is a factual question, and I suppose none of us can be sure just by introspecting.

  6. This stunt strikes me as both trivializing and exploitative of both the bystanders’ emotions and the pain of real rape victims. I see very little good that can come from playing with people’s trust like this and especially from creating a regularly found routine in which a woman plays like she was raped as performance art. Talk about muddying already controversial waters.

    This is just an irresponsible, counterproductive, and selfish stunt by the young woman (assuming of course that she wasn’t actually really raped and covering at the last minute by claiming it was “performance art”).

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