When rape culture meets art: high school students speak out
By Angela Long
June 28, 2016
It’s the lunchtime rush at Kosy Korner. Three students from Haliburton Highlands Secondary School are here to celebrate June 21, the last day of school. They’re also here to meet with a reporter.
“I’ll have the grilled cheese,” Grade 12 student Amy Black says. She puts away the menu and lays a stack of papers on the table. “Research,” she says.
Black, along with fellow Grade 12 students Christina Stephen and Taylor Morrison, are staging a protest. On the morning of June 20, a piece of art, Stephen’s final piece of her year-end portfolio, was removed from where it hung in the lobby. The multimedia piece featured a black-and-white photo of a woman whose breasts are visible. “Disarm rapists” is written across her stomach. According to Stephen, she created the piece to address a lack of awareness about rape culture.
Rape culture, a term embraced by feminists since the ‘70s, has become a mainstream catchphrase to describe what Women Against Violence Against Women define as a “complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression” ranging from “sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself.”
The work of art was not meant to shock or offend, says Stephen.
“Obviously there are things you can’t do in school, but this isn’t something negative. This is something that needs to be put out there,” she says.
Her classmates agree. In support of Stephen, the other students in the portfolio class, including Black, have taken down their art.
Initially, Stephen says she “had no idea” her artwork had been removed. When she received an explanation later that day, Stephen says she was “shamed.” She says she was told her piece was “inappropriate” and that she was uneducated about the issues.
“We are very much aware of these issues,” says Black and rifles through the stack of research. “One in five high school girls say they’ve been sexually assaulted,” she says.
Statistics Canada reports two out of every 10 women in Canada have been sexually assaulted. Girls and young women between the ages of 15 and 24 are most at risk. In the 2008 Safe Schools Action Report, nearly 50 per cent of high school girls reported “someone made [unwanted] sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks at me.”
“If the school thinks we’re not educated enough to speak out about rape culture,” says Stephen. “Then educate us.”
In the main office of Haliburton Highlands Secondary School, principal Dan Marsden and vice principal David Waito say the school does educate their students about rape culture. Documentaries such as Tough Guise and Jean Kilbourne’s teachings about the objectification of the female body, form part of the school’s curriculum, says Waito.
In terms of Stephen’s art, Marsden says, “We support students in every academic piece and extension of their learning at school, whether this includes gender, social justice, or anything else.”
School policy, he says, allows for nudity in art, but he stresses the need for a “collaborative process.”
He said in the case of Stephen’s portfolio, this process was not followed. Both Marsden and Waito say the school is not opposed to the subject matter of Stephen’s art. They would have liked an explanation to accompany such a sensitive piece. Communication, not censorship, is at issue here.
More communication is what Stephen, Black and Morrison hope their protest will achieve. Art such as Stephen’s, they say, educates. Stephen says her art is an “emotional” rather than an academic response to rape culture, and shouldn’t have to be explained.
“That piece of art could resonate with so many people,” says Morrison. “It could mean salvation for someone who has been raped, or it could be an eye-opener for someone who doesn’t realize rape culture is an issue.”
As part of their protest, the girls are wearing something that can’t help but catch the eye of those they pass. On their T-shirts, two black Xs decorate their chests. The Xs, made from electrical tape, are inspired by “Free the Nipple” – a campaign with hundreds of thousands of followers on social media that opposes anything to do with rape culture, starting with the sexualization of the female body.
Four students are stationed throughout the school, says Black, armed with electrical tape. Dozens of students have participated in the protest, both boys and girls, according to Black.
“The wave just gets bigger and bigger,” says Stephen.
The girls, who will all be graduating this year, are happy to mark their last day of school with two black Xs.
“I feel confident leaving the school with all those passionate people that will do something, that will support us,” Black says. “They will try to make a change.”