Nonfiction

Red My Lips

24 May 2016

A few days ago I found myself writing in red lipstick on a shower screen in Malvern. It’s not what I expected when I agreed to take part in an international sexual violence awareness organisation.

Red My Lips was founded to support survivors of sexual violence and to change deep-set cultural beliefs that help to perpetuate that violence – particularly victim blaming and silencing. Every April (Sexual Assault Awareness Month) participants wear red lipstick, run events and contribute to the photography collection.

The organisation’s founder, Danielle Tansino, says that though Red My Lips means different things to different people, red lipstick ties it all together.

“We use red lipstick… to tackle issues related to rape culture, particularly rape myths and victim-blaming. [It’s] an easy way to start difficult conversations and show support for those who have been affected.”

Tansino founded Red My Lips in response to a female district attorney telling her they would not prosecute her rapist because “jurors don’t like girls that drink.”. Red My Lips started as a small campaign, Tansino says, but “for some reason, last January things exploded. By last April, there were 500,000 people who planned to participate in the campaign”.

The sudden popularity may be due to the ease of getting involved and wearing red lipstick for a month, or it may be the photographers who give their time and skills to take portraits of survivors, supporters and campaigners.

Elena, my photographer, came across Red My Lips in its sudden boom in January 2015, and has since worked with almost fifty survivors and supporters. She’s seen a lot of positive feedback towards her work, though occasionally people don’t see eye-to-eye about some points of view expressed by her subjects in the captions. “But,” she says, “the important thing is that it’s being talked about”.

Elena first approached me when she read my article in Farrago, ‘He’s Mean Because He Likes You.’ She told me this was an unusual approach, because usually people reach out to her after hearing about Red My Lips, and she talks through the various aspects with them.

“My role is to listen to the subjects and people who approach me to do the series and give them options, give them the ability to visualise what they want to say.”

Elena’s studying to be an advocacy photographer and has worked with Habitat for Humanity as well as Red My Lips. She hopes the photography series creates a safe space for survivors, as well as beginning a conversation.

“The way I see the photography is that it’s what initially catches peoples eyes, that’s what brings them in, but they’ll stay to hear the stories, they’ll stay to learn and talk and discuss.”

At first I told her that I didn’t think I should do it because I haven’t experienced any form of serious sexual violence. She was quick to reassure me that a portion of her subjects simply offer messages of support or solidarity.

“My aim is to make it more diverse,” she later said. “To be more gender and sexual orientation inclusive, talk about cultural issues, talk about social norms, talk about education, consent and create more discussion.”

The process itself was relatively simple. In the space of a few days Elena helped me decide what my caption would be (an excerpt from my article), what I would wear, what kind of photo we would do (the title of my article written on a glass pane held before my face), and the various lighting and backdrop choices we had.

Taking the photos wasn’t as glamorous as I expected – it mostly involved drawing on Elena’s shower screen with lipstick, stepping this way or that for the lighting, me blinking in unison with the shutter, and inevitably getting lipstick in places where it doesn’t belong.

“That’s why I always wear black clothes when shooting,” she explained with a laugh. Later, she said “the amount of lipstick I’ve collected in my room doing this series is ridiculous.”

Taking the tram back home, I noticed that my bright red lipstick was drawing stares and I wondered what it would be like to wear it for a whole month.

My photos are currently being edited and though I’m nervous about the final result I’ve already learned so much about Red My Lips, and I have been inspired and awed by Elena’s other subjects. I’m also looking forward for my caption to start a conversation amongst her audience.

There has been negative feedback about the cause, particularly about the use of lipstick and its gender connotations. Tansino agrees that male survivors are often omitted from discussions about sexual violence, but points out that “we have always been very clear about the importance of supporting ALL survivors and challenging rape myths, including the myth that men can’t be raped.”

Red My Lips is not just for those who want to speak out, either. Elena told me that one of the reasons she has become even more passionate about the photo series is not the public positive feedback, but the private messages she gets.

“Every couple of weeks I’ll get a message… saying ‘I don’t want to do Red My Lips, I don’t think I’m comfortable yet sharing my story, what I’ve been through. But by seeing other people do that it’s shown me that there is a safe community, there is a safe place, people will care what I have to say.’”

Tansino is also sure to mention this: “Many have shared that this cause has helped them to know and see that they are not alone and finally understand that what happened was not their fault… There is no right or wrong way to feel or behave after sexual assault or sexual abuse… some people feel empowered speaking publicly. Others don’t. And that’s ok.”

Tansino has seen firsthand the impact Red My Lips has had on survivors, and on changing mindsets, but she believes the cause can reach wider and achieve more.

“My hope is that RML will contribute to a shift in the way we talk about sexual violence and treat those who have been victimised. We can’t eliminate sexual violence overnight but the way we think and speak has power. My hope is that people around the globe will find power and hope in others and keep these conversations going.”


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