By Shelly Clay-Robison
Sitting alone in a dark gallery, watching In Her Own Words, is an uncomfortable, discordant, and profoundly emotional experience. This video and accompanying sound art piece constitute Baltimore-based artist Paul Rucker’s exhibition 20 minutes of action in 20 yeas of life, which explores campus sexual assault and the voice of a victim, referring specifically to the Brock Turner case at Stanford University.
The piece, on view in York College’s Brossman Gallery from November 28 – December 20, invites viewers to read the victim-impact letter composed by the victim of Brock Turner’s sexual assault. The text of the letter initially appears at the bottom of the projection and then gently floats upward, like embers in a slowly building fire. But the viewer must stay focused and read quickly, as line by line, the text dissipates to the top, ultimately re-joining to create a final image of Brock Turner’s mug shot. You must stay present and alert if you want to read the text before it disappears. And you must focus and be patient to witness the powerful conclusion. Too often, in discussions of rape, we want to turn away instead.
In 2015, Brock Turner raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. He was convicted and faced a possible 14 years in prison for his crimes. Yet Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Turner to only 6 months of prison while the news media continued to focus on Turner’s prowess as a competitive swimmer at a top-notch school. Many were outraged by the pitiful length of the sentence and news coverage, seeing them as another contribution to a culture of rape and normalization of violence against women.
Recently, while holiday shopping in a cozy shop full of handmade goods, “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” came on the radio. This popular winter holiday song was written in 1944 and has come under criticism in recent years for its lyrics that suggest unrelenting pressure for the woman in the duet to stay overnight at the home of the male singer despite her consistent refusal. It might be “just a song,” but it’s a part of our culture and culture teaches us what is right and wrong. This kind of culture is also bolstered when people like U.S. Representative Todd Akin discusses rape as something “God intended to happen,” or uses terms like “legitimate rape,” to suggest that some sexual assault was desired. There is popular music with men singing to women, “you know you want it,” or “Couple more shots you open up like a book,” suggesting that woman are responsible for being rape victims. And then there is the President-elect Donald Trump who says things about women like, “You have to treat them like shit,” or “You can grab them by the pussy…You can do anything.”
These examples are what contribute to a culture of rape. Rape culture is the expressions, norms, and behaviors associated with how we collectively consider rape and sexual assault. It involves victim blaming, slut-shaming, trivializing rape allegations, and sexual objectification. What compounds the problem is that media, politicians, and music normalize these behaviors and thus makes them acceptable. But rape is uncomfortable to talk about and we’d rather sanitize it by calling it “sexual misconduct.” Rucker’s video encourages us to sit with the discomfort and the painful truth. If we want to change this culture, we must be willing to unveil and focus on the misogynistic elements of culture and not discount rape as just “20 minutes of action.”
Shelly Clay-Robison is an adjunct lecturer at York College of Pennsylvania where she teaches international conflict analysis and resolution and anthropology. She also researches and writes on how the arts can be used as a tool for progressive social change.