How do we represent sexual assault in media?

The_Unheroic_Act_John_Jay

I watched two silent men stalk a woman for an hour around London streets and graveyards. They wielded video cameras. She was at first flattered, but over time pleaded with them to leave her alone. They barged into her house and wouldn’t leave, wouldn’t let her leave. They turned the dial of her animal desperation up and up and up. 

I witnessed this through the cameramen’s lens, half a century later, today. The film was shot and edited under the direction of Yoko Ono and John Lennon, as an art piece called “RAPE.” Without her consent, they made this woman their video subject and traumatized her for the sake of a political message. According to them, rape is acted out in events that aren’t just sexual. Apparently they needed to commit this (contestable) version of rape themselves to prove the point. 

This year I filmed about a dozen folks discuss their intimate perspectives on sexual harassment and assault, with a close friend, lover, or family member. For each shoot, I extracted a ~10 minute story from ~1.5 hours of raw footage. I still have heaps more footage to edit—I’ve hardly touched some of the thornier stories, partly because second-hand trauma is a thing. 

I’m even in one of the videos, kind of by accident. Was it terrifying? Yes. But also liberating.

I’m even in one of the videos, kind of by accident. Was it terrifying? Yes. But also liberating.

My shooting and editing process presented a complicated task of practicing consent at every stage. I can’t coerce them during filming to spill more than they bargained for. Nor can I twist or overly dramatize their stories while I edit—which means remaining in conversation with my biases and my perspective’s limits. I can’t make these trespasses. Sowing seeds of distrust would not only hamper participation in the project as an ongoing series, but would also, to state the obvious, undo the entire ethic that the work hopes to instill.

Suffice it to say, I’m disturbed by a fellow filmmaker’s sacrificial-lamb approach at getting at something artistically about rape. Who’s this for? An audience already quite acquainted with the fear portrayed, who could benefit most from processing rape through art? I think not. It’s unnecessary and wrong. 

But please, go and see it yourself, at THE UN-HEROIC ACT: Representations of Rape in Contemporary Women’s Art in the U.S. at Shiva Gallery, John Jay College in New York City.