A new wave of vigilante feminist art is making some sexual assault survivors angry.
Perhaps in honor of "Sexual Assault Awareness Month," anonymous Columbus activists have launched a vigilante-style public awareness campaign, in which they mark the locations of sexual assaults on the Ohio State campus with the stenciled words, "someone was raped here." On their website, the group Feminist Avengers (which denies responsibility for the graffiti) explains, "People have long used physical markers to remember tragedies past, from crosses and flowers at the intersection of a tragic car crash, to memorials at sites of disasters and violent crimes."
Although the website (seemingly sympathetic to the shadow organization) explains that the artists were at pains to stencil the words only in those locations where multiple rapes were reported - so as to protect the privacy of individual victims - the campaign has started a heated debate. While some have applauded the actions and the awareness of sexual assault - on the rise in Columbus - that it promotes, others say the images trigger memories of their assaults and increase their senses of menace. Writes one commenter, "The woman/ women who were attacked in that location have the right to handle what happened to them in their own way...It's the impact that matters, not the intent. Adding to someone's trauma to make a statement doesn't strike me as being remotely supportive or helpful."
As the city's Other Paper summarizes the controversy,
The local debate exemplifies a larger, nationwide debate surrounding radical feminist organizations-who has the right to speak on behalf of the women/survivors in question? Do jarring images promote awareness of sexual assault, or merely reinforce fears and existing stereotypes surrounding sexual assault? And should activists censor shock-campaigns to protect survivors emotionally, or do bold guerilla-style actions empower survivors?
It also brings up the question of the efficacy of guerrilla art as a tactic in the digital age. The last few months have seen several instances of feminist street art, from the absurdist performance art pieces of the British Muffia group, to Berlin's "feminist vandals" to the inscrutable commentary of France's street artist "Princess Hijab." While no one questions the importance of multimedia in maintaining the vibrancy of this or any other movement, the concern, as ever, is that such actions serve to dilute and sensationalize without providing concrete support. In the heyday of protest art, after all, such jarring tactics as those on the Ohio campus served as a wake-up call to societies genuinely sweeping important issues under the rug. But in a time when actual crisis and counseling centers exist only a few blocks away, as in the case of the Columbus graffiti, can feminists justify actions whose impacts might be problematic to actual survivors?
The artists would likely rebut that, in a time when such resources are indeed available, we run the risk of becoming complacent, treating rape as something manageable when by its definition it's not - and allowing an increased awareness of resources lower our guard to its dangers. The question is, will the benefits - the raised awareness, the sense of support for victims - outweigh the negative consequences? The sad truth is, any such action is unlikely to prevent someone disturbed from actually raping. But if it prompts campus safety or further awareness? Good. It also seems important not to treat all victims of assault as a faceless group who cannot be subjected to any reminders, because the horrible reality is that such reminders are everywhere, people deal with things in different ways, and the mixed response from survivors should serve to show, if nothing else, that this is not a monolithic population.