We're standing on the subway platform waiting for the C train back to Bed-Stuy after attending our first "feminist book club." It's something I didn't know existed until my roommate Rosemary suggested we go. Despite not considering herself a feminist, she thought it sounded interesting, and acquiesced that she felt she needed more female friends. I agreed to check it out, not really needing any more female friends, but because it was my understanding that there would be free food.
As Rosemary leans against a metal pole along the subway tracks, her body tenses up when she starts talking about the book club, about feminism in general. It's a word she doesn't like because, like many young women today, she doesn't understand its meaning. She's let the negative connotations of the word overpower the word itself.
"If I don't act a certain way, if I don't subscribe to a particular set of rules, I can't be a feminist," she says. "It makes no sense."
"Well, you don't have to act a certain way, actually," I say. "You can act any way you want, that's the point. Feminism just means believing men and women, and all humans, should be treated equally."
"Interesting," she says. She thinks about this for a second. "I can see your point."
I mention that it's not really my point, but rather the definition of the word 'feminism,' before she continues to vent.
"My opinions would offend some of those chicks," she says of the girls in the club, while picking at the bandanna tied around her wrist. "Like, I don't want to talk about Terry Richardson." Her eyes roll into the back of her skull.
She's referring, of course, to the recent New York Magazine cover featuring Terry Richardson. A lot of people, women especially, (feminists even more so), are talking about it because it's a very nice interview that really coddles Richardson, an accused sex offender. It's not the fact that Richardson was featured on the magazine that people find offensive; it's the horribly black-and-white, binary implication of the headline: Is Richardson a "predator" or an "artist"?
The article (and Richardson himself) refuse to acknowledge the dichotomy of the situation, of his reputation, of reality. He shows no remorse for making anyone feel uncomfortable (to the point of filing lawsuits) and immediately throws the blame back on them.
"Why don't you want to talk about Terry Richardson?" I ask Rosemary.
She seems flustered. "Because he was on the cover," she says, continuing to get worked up. "It's done. It's not a big deal."
"I don't know if you'd think it wasn't a big deal if you were one of the women forced to suck his dick," I say quietly.
"It's art!" she shouts at me now, in an angry, condescending tone that implies I don't know the difference between art and sexual assault. "I've seen pictures of him with his dick in women's mouths. It's art."
"Those pictures are art, yes," I say, "and if he didn't sexually assault the subjects, they are just art. But if he did sexually assault the subjects, then that's art and sexual assault." I feel like I'm on some f*cked-up episode of Sesame Street. "Don't you see how that implication might offend someone?" I continue. "The article suggests that these women can't tell the difference between rape and art. Like, not only are they not victims, they're complete idiots."
When I was 19 years old, I was raped by a guy I had a class with in college. Of all the thoughts rapidly running through my head the following morning, I guarantee not one of them was "Was that art? Did he just art all over me?!" The line between art and rape is actually pretty easy to draw if you're the person being coerced into sucking a dick you don't want to.
When an article like the one in New York Magazine lays out such polarized and nonsensical options, like "predator" vs. "artist," we are once again ignoring the fact that there are a lot of gray areas when it comes to sexual assault. Someone can be kind, creative and giving and still be a sex offender. Rapists are not, as Fox News would like us to believe, always skulking faceless creatures in the corners of dark alleys. In fact, two-thirds of all rape victims in the United States know their attacker before the incident. I knew mine. And I will be the first to say, my rapist was a sweetheart.
He looked like a redheaded Charlie Brown. His features were soft and friendly, and his hair was cut close to his head like a Boy Scout. Everyone in our theater production class liked him. He'd made a great Stanley Kowalski.
Charming and funny, he was also entirely unassuming. He got good grades, had lots of friends. He was a talented artist and student. He was also a dude who raped me. The fact that he's sweet and loves his mom doesn't change the fact that he had sex with me against my will.
This doesn't mean he should suffer for the rest of his life. I won't suffer for the rest of mine. But, if he were featured on the cover of a magazine, not even despite being accused of raping me but almost because he was accused of raping me, my stomach would turn. If he were asked point blank about the assault after I acknowledged to the world that he'd forced himself on me, and he still maintained he regretted nothing, I would be disgusted.
No one can say for certain whether or not Richardson forced himself on anyone (aside from the numerous people who assert that he forced himself on them), but there's no denying he's made many, many women and men he's worked with uncomfortable (to put it nicely) and he clearly doesn't have any remorse. That's pretty messed up. That says something about our culture. Let's talk about that, if you don't want to talk about Terry Richardson.
I don't think anyone was questioning whether Richardson was an artist, New York Magazine. People were questioning whether or not his "professional" methods were more than a little creepy. People were questioning whether American media cared at all about the people this powerful, rich artist exploited. And you answered that question loud and clear.