In the wake of the Weinstein controversy (and every other one in the news these days) millions of women have come forward with tales of their own sexual assault stories. Our feeds have been flooded with #MeToo posts and one recurring theme continues to surface - How do we change this? What do we do? How can I personally help?
I have quite a few personal feelings about the tech industry specifically, and will certainly share another time, but plainly, I believe that the answer is right in front of us: by talking about it, just by raising that question, we are creating change. I have never experienced the level of harassment that many of these women have, but I absolutely have been in a position where I've been sexually harassed, many times, and any woman who is among the living will likely tell you the same.
Feminist artist and activist, Whitney Bell, is known online as quite the controversial figure. I talk a lot about traditional "influencers" in the fashion, lifestyle and beauty space, but Whitney is profoundly different. She created an organic following of thousands of women by posting feminist art, discussing topics like mental illness and laws around funding Planned Parenthood.
Some time over the last few years she turned that following into a business, and launched an online store that regularly donates a portion of proceeds to programs like Black Lives Matter and Planned Parenthood. Soon after, the level of responses from women everywhere talking about their experiences was so overwhelming, she decided to create a space, within a gallery that took the power right out of the hands of the harassers, back to the women whom they targeted. That space, became the insanely popular traveling art installation, called "I Didn't Ask For This: A Lifetime of Dick Pics."
The name is exactly what it suggests. Whitney asked thousands of women to talk about the most common form of digital sexual harassment, receiving unsolicited "dick pics." She had them printed (with no faces or obvious markings to keep them anonymous) and posed them around her "apartment."
In every industry, we're at a crossroads. While something as aggressive as an unsolicited picture being such a common theme, I think it's time we start being as loud as possible. This is in no way suggesting that we, as women should start a bra-burning campfire and travel to a planet without me, but this should never be such a common issue that almost any woman you meet has a story.
"I wanted to create a tangible safe space where people could engage in honest discourse, and learn from one another about the often undiscussed painful underbelly of sex and dating in this culture, and I think I've done just that. Despite the onslaught of reactionary harassment, or perhaps because of it, my voice is growing louder than ever, and I'll continue to use it to stand up for all those who don't feel empowered enough to use theirs. Because empowerment isn't always easily accessible - Empowerment is a privilege." - Whitney Bell
Perhaps this is because of her press and popularity, but she attributes the success to the fissured state we find our country in, and to the conversations about gender and misogyny that are now at the forefront. More than ever before men are taking a real vested interest in learning how to become effective allies.
According to Whitney, she couldn't find any places where these discussions were happening, so she decided to create her own, and I think she's stumbled onto something pretty unique. Yes, it is all wrapped up in a topical, hilarious and unfortunately trendy Dick Pic package, but what sits underneath the surface is pretty powerful. Sure, she might need all that fun to get people in the door, but the empowerment that it breeds, the conversations that are sparked, and the education you leave with, will surprise you.
I think it's worth mentioning, that even in my not-at-all controversial life, I was met with quite an extreme response to my story about my feelings on the word, Girlboss* so I can only imagine the responses a person like Whitney receives on a daily basis.
Whitney says, "everything I do seems to either be met with applause, or overwhelming vitriol and hatred. It's not exactly easy, and I've definitely spent many night's seriously contemplating a career shift. But Roxane Gay once told me that, 'There will always be people who disagree with you, and their voices will raise above the rest. But for every person who hates you there will be 100 others who are quietly empowered. Just remember that you don't even know who this angry mob is, but they are spending their time seeking you out to harass you. You must be doing something right, to make this many men so angry.'"
Women who have come forward with posts saying #MeToo, I highly encourage you to share this article, or this link with your male coworkers, employees, friends and families. While, yes, it's aggressive, I think it's necessary. In Whitney's words:
"By recreating my apartment and lining the walls with these unwanted images, you become aggressively aware of how invasive this kind of harassment is. I wanted the viewer to feel innately "at home," to be completely comfortable, and then I wanted them to be assaulted. Because that is exactly how sexual harassment feels. This behavior is so commonplace we have all just accepted it as the norm. But by placing these images in such a routine space, I was able to use the juxtaposition to show that this isn't normal at all. Far from it."
Whitney tells me, 9 times out of 10 when she tells a man what it is she does for a living, their very first reaction is, "Well I've never sent one." The subtext there being, "I'm not part of the problem, I'm a good guy."
"Instead of listening to what I'm saying, and accepting that this is an overwhelming issue, they immediately go on the defense, and make it all about them, which is indicative of the problem itself," Whitney says.
We've created a society that encourages men to believe that they are entitled to sexual satisfaction, and then we glorified violence and promoted it as a positive aspect of masculinity. This combination is beneficial to no one. It pigeonholes men and tells them they aren't responsible for their own actions, that boys will be boys, and that their manhood is defined by aggression, by an inability to control themselves, and by their lewd advances; that that's just the way they are. Feminism holds that men are better than that, that men are more than that.
I encourage the men who come to the show to talk to the women in their lives and ask them not just about the pics that they receive, but about the sexual harassment that they face everyday. Maybe it's getting hollered at on the street, maybe it's feeling unsafe at work, maybe it's you...and you don't know.
*For the record, again, I think Sophia Amoruso is a genius, I simply feel like the word should only be used in reference to her book or her new business.