Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sexuality and Ownership in Art and on the Street

I dug back into my 'ole digital archives today to find these images. They're from a body of work I did years ago, that I thought of under the unsubtle title as the Egg series. They're from my early twenties, when I was exploring the multiplicity of emotions and ideas that come from being a sexual being. For some reason during that period of my life, eggs, with their hard shell and chaotic fluid inside, seemed to embody all the confusion and emotion I was experiencing.

As a woman, my sexuality and safety have always been linked. Rebecca Solnit said it best when she said that in order to be safe, women have to choose to limit their freedoms - what to wear, where to go, with whom, and when, and so forth. But lately I've been thinking about how sexuality and issues of power and powerlessness are also linked. This has come about from many discussions in the media currently, from the New York Post's headline that blamed Dominique Strauss-Kahn's victim for her rape, to Philaelphia's Dan Rottenberg in the Broad Street Review's article "Male Sex Abuse and Female Naviete," which he blames the way women such as Lara Logan dress for their rapes, to Jezebel's discussion of catcalls, to organizations like Hollaback and Slutwalk, to my own current experiences with street harassment.

The image above is a print I did called Armless, based on the faery tale of "The Armless Maiden." It wasn't part of the Egg series, but it was related in concept.I was thinking about my own powerlessness as a woman, and how sometimes my own sexuality could feel like a threat. I realize now I was blaming myself for not feeling safe in my own skin when on the street.

Part of me has been thinking about how so many efforts lately to end street harassment are reactionary, and wonders if is there a proactive solution? I also can't help wondering - who teaches men to catcall and bother strange women they don't know? Is that what the boys learned in fourth grade when we had to watch the video about our periods? Do fathers sit down with sons and have this discussion?

I'm currently teaching in a juvenile hall, with youth who are segregated by gender. For the boys, at least, it has created what feels like a hypersexualized environment, where I'm asked every week I go there about my personal relationships, and despite dressing rather conservatively, still find some youth not-so-subtly checking out my ass. I think at times it's meant as a compliment, other times because they haven't had the experience of relating to women in any other way. I should note here that I don't know if gender desegregation is the answer, and that it might also put some incarcerated young women at risk.

But I'm also starting to wonder how much of it is about power. By ogling me and other women, by making comments, how much is about asserting power over women, particular women who are perceived as sexually attractive. I'm proud of discussions lately about how women who own their sexuality, those who dress provocatively because it makes them feel good about themselves, rather than to attract a man. As I struggle with owning my own sexual identity, and every catcall chips away at my fragile ownership. It's a threat because its about claiming me, claiming women, still as property.  

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