Bikinis to Ball Gowns: Still Not Asking For It

Lily Gordon, ’17

Stairwell and hallway walls were plastered recently with flyers from S.T.A.G.E., the feminist club (Students Taking Action for Gender Equality) at BHSEC, asking students to participate in a video for BHSEC’s rendition of Project Not Asking For It. Sally Rappaport, a Wesleyan student, inaugurated Project Not Asking For It earlier this year, inspired by the Slutwalk movement, a campaign against victim-blaming.

Victim-blaming occurs when society tells sexual assault victims that they are responsible for the violation that they experienced. Rappaport, in an interview with Bustle, criticized people who react to victims by saying that the sex crime could have been avoided if the victims dressed or conducted themselves differently. Victim-blaming is problematic because, by the very nature of the word “nonconsensual,” sexual assault takes place when a victim did not give permission for sexual activity. Consent is defined as a verbal agreement. Sex crimes occur to people within a broad range of clothing types and social engagement with their offenders. Instead of teaching society that women should act cautiously to avoid being assaulted, Rappaport argues that we should teach society that harassment, rape and assault are the perpetrators’ fault, that women should be able to embrace whatever levels of sexual expression they want to without fear, and that women’s demeanors or appearances are never an excuse for violation.

Rappaport’s project involves filming and photographing students wearing whatever they want and dancing however they wish as a way of counteracting America’s pervasive rape culture. Y1 Emma Morgan-Bennett says, “The purpose of Project Not Asking For It was to reinforce the statement that no matter who you are, what you’re wearing, or how you’re behaving, no one is asking to be assaulted.”

According to Y1 Ariadne Spellotis, “Project Not Asking For It is an attempt to address the too-typical critique of attire and dancing as a means of justifying nonconsensual interactions. One of the ways people blame the victim is by claiming that their clothing was “too inviting.” People also say the same about victims’ actions; but if someone is grinding they may just be having a good time, they aren’t necessarily interested in having sex.”

Rappaport’s project spread like wildfire. According to the Huffington Post, many colleges are participating in the project, including Columbia University, Stanford University, Georgetown University, Vassar College and Connecticut College, the Claremont Colleges, Rhode Island School of Design, George Washington University, New York University, the University of Kansas, Brown University, Yale University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

BHSEC can now be added to this growing list of schools. S.T.A.G.E. members found out about the movement last year from an alumni member, Rayna Holmes ’14, who knew the creator and suggested it to the club. Emma says, “everyone loved the idea, so we decided to do it this semester, because it was around Halloween.” Emma explains that many women are afraid of assault because of their costumes. She criticizes the culture in which women are taught to be cautious of how they dress and what time of night they walk down the street: “Anybody should be able to dress in a bikini or a ball gown and not have to be afraid of walking around the streets of their city.”

Dance floor feminism (the right to party, dance, and dress, without others assuming these acts are sexual invitations) is a highly relevant issue for young people at the pantheon of colleges and high schools participating in the project. Lately, a lot of attention has surrounded the failure of colleges to adequately address sexual crimes on campus, and the overwhelming frequency at which these crimes occur at colleges.

One strategy for tackling this issue is education—teaching future generations to think against the grain of rape culture, and changing the way society perceives consent. Ariadne noted, “The ultimate goal of the project is to recognize that one’s actions and clothing when partying are not necessarily meant to encourage another to have sex with them. Showing different scenes of parties with different types of people and different sorts of dancing and clothing stresses that this applies to all situations.”

Last year, S.T.A.G.E involved a large number of BHSEC students in the “I need feminism” project, where students wrote why they, as individuals, needed feminism. This year, Project Not Asking For It had a smaller turnout, perhaps due to its heightened focus on victim-blaming and slut-shaming (the act of making people, usually women, feel ashamed or inferior based on certain behaviors such as how they dress, their sex lives, or anything that deviates from traditional sexual codes of conduct). The narrower lens of Project Not Asking For It meant that it was not as universal as the “I need feminism” project, where people had a broad spectrum of issues to represent.

The filming was spread over the course of a couple of days. Initially, S.T.A.G.E. members worried that few people would show up. But, on the Friday of Halloween, more people came to be filmed. Emma adamantly states that she did not feel disappointed by the smaller number of participants: “Even with the smaller amount of students participating, they had so much energy. It was great and we all laughed and had a good time dancing to Beyoncé. Many times I think a successful project is determined by the energy put into it and not the amount of people participating in it.”

Acquiring the kind of energy necessary for the Project Not Asking For It video was no easy task. An available classroom served as the backdrop for students to dance their hearts out, mainly to Beyoncé songs. Emma recalls, “I was the first person to dance in front of the camera and I just wanted to sink into the floor and disappear. The entire room was looking at me! But Beyoncé gave me the power to dance and then the whole room started clapping and people started jumping in so we ended on a high note.”

Ariadne added, “Making the video was a whole ton of fun! People came, danced for the video, and then stayed and encouraged others on! In other words it turned into quite a party—we got asked to quiet down by the History Department multiple times.” Similarly, Simone Messer ’16 said, “As a project organizer, I thought the video went really well! As a participant though, it was weird! It was so easy to give instructions from behind the camera—to tell people to put more energy in or to be less self-conscious—but when I had do to it, it was so uncomfortable! But then I was just like ‘this is my project, I should dance like I mean it.’ And I guess that’s the whole point: the necessity of feeling safe and comfortable in one’s own body. Whether you’re twerking or doing that weird thing where you cross your hands over your knees (me), nothing you do gives someone else the right to invade your personal space until you explicitly give them that right.”

The young feminists do not intend to stop here. This December, they attended the first inter-high school feminist conference. The conference was conceived and organized by S.T.A.G.E as a way of bringing together New York City high schools that share a common interest in gender equity and brainstorming ideas for a project that incorporates a larger part of the young feminist community. The aim of the event was, according to Ariadne, to “come to a consensus on one project that each of the high schools will start and that will hopefully catch on and become widespread.” LREI, Friends Seminary, LaGuardia, and BHSEC participated in the event. S.T.A.G.E. also hopes to have their annual Chalk Walk this spring, which the rainy and cold weather has forced the club to delay.

The Chalk Walk is one of the many projects S.T.A.G.E. has planned for the future. Simone says, “I think that’s kind of what our role is now. Last year Priya and Isabel [former club leaders] did a really great job of forming a solid foundation and assembling a dedicated club, and what we started doing last year and what I think we really need to focus on doing this year is reaching out and involving the rest of the school and the community beyond.”

Project Not Asking For It is a prime example of how students can band together to combat social issues. It proves that BHSEC in its entirety is involved in feminism and that our school can be a part of a larger feminist community of people who wish to see a fairer and safer world on the dance floor and beyond.

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