When you attend a small school, it’s easy to fall under the impression that the existence of sexual assault amongst your peers is more of a myth than a reality. You hear whisperings about it, listen to second-hand accounts of what happened to a friend of a friend, but it’s not until you’re staring it right in the face do you see how real it is. When Suzanne Brown transferred to Temple University, she was greeted with the shocking reality of the prevalent rape culture amidst the Philadelphia school’s largely urban campus. Using her passion for art, she put together a series of photographs labeled “Were My Pajamas Too Short?” in which she combines photographs of children and common validations for sexual assault to illustrate the absurd and overall detrimental harm that is perpetuated by rape culture.
Q: How would you define rape culture and what does it mean to you?
Suzanne Brown: I would define rape culture as the accepted notion that sexual violence is simply a part of life, which, in turn, justifies sexual assault and blames victims. To me, rape culture means making sure that I’m not wearing clothing that is too exposing (or else I’m a slut who is asking to be assaulted), while also not wearing clothing that is too concealing (or else I am a prude). Rape culture means that it is more believable that my GPA is high because I am blowing my male professors and manipulating the other male students in my class to do my homework for me. It is having to make the decision to either go to parties on campus and see other girls my age being assaulted while staying completely sober and feeling nervous or to have a quiet night with some friends only to be called a “prude boring bitch that thinks she’s better than everyone else.” Rape culture means that when I politely turn down someone who asks me out (I’ve been dating the same person for almost six years, mind you), I am told that I am too fat/ugly/nerdy to have a boyfriend, that I am a tease, and that I am obviously making my boyfriend up. Rape culture means that my boyfriend, my brother, and some of my friend are considered “whipped pussies” because they are in committed, monogamous, healthy, and happy relationships. Rape culture means that even these “whipped pussy” men who are also victims of rape culture still make excuses for other men who harass women.
Q: What inspired your project/series of photographs?
Suzanne Brown: I transferred to Temple last year and the whole mentality here was just shocking ― not that it’s not normal or anything but I came from a very tiny school and the whole college-party-date-rape experience was only something you heard about every once in a while. The second night I was here, I went to a party with my roommate and saw a guy drag an unconscious girl into the back room. A few other guys went in and 12 people (that I saw before leaving) lined up outside of the door. I felt absolutely sick; everybody told me that she shouldn’t have had that much to drink. End of story. Not a single person mentioned anything about the people lining up to have their turn with her. Before that, I wasn’t really aware of rape culture. I knew not to drink too much and that I should not leave my drink anywhere, but I had never really been exposed to just how extreme it is.
After that night I started noticing that this happened all of the time and I had no one to talk to about it. A lot of people that I talked to thought I was being overdramatic, but I knew there had to be a way to make it resonate with them. That’s how I ended up making these pictures. I thought that putting their validations next to children would show just how absurd these statements really are.
Q: What was something you knew before going to university in terms of the prevalence of sexual assault or rape culture?
Suzanne Brown: I had always heard not to leave a drink or to not drink too much, but I always thought that was just something parents said to scare their children; I had never experienced anything regarding rape culture before and I just kind of thought it was a myth. Even at my old school (I was there for two and a half years), I hadn’t experienced anything like that so I just kind of blew off the idea.
Q: Was your project influenced at all by the conflict between Temple University and the accusations against Bill Cosby?*
Suzanne Brown: Yes and no. I was already having some really intense feelings about all of these occurrences and was planning a way to express that artistically. After the Bill Cosby accusations happened, though, a lot of students became very outspoken about their beliefs that it couldn’t possibly be rape if it was with Bill Cosby; obviously these girls’ moments with him would have been incredible and quite possibly the most important moment of their lives. Hearing their opinions was definitely the ultimate push that I needed.
Q: What is the message that you want to convey with these pictures?
Suzanne Brown: I am trying to convey how ridiculous it is to validate rape. Ever. I hope that seeing these statements next to people who are not typically the ones hearing them shows how backwards this way of thinking is.
Q: What more can we (as a society) do to raise awareness about sexual consent?
Suzanne Brown: I think that the most important thing is for parents to teach their children at a young age to respect everybody. Don’t just teach girls how to not get raped; teach boys not to rape.
* In 2004 Andrea Constand, Temple University’s director of operations for the women’s basketball team, came forward and pressed charges against Bill Cosby for sexual assault. Since speaking out, several other women have come forward with similar allegations, all varying degrees of sexual assault. While Cosby has denied all claims of sexual assault, he has been forced to resign from Temple University’s board of trustee’s.