Preventing Reactionary Activism from Being Extra Press for the Other Side

As sexual freedom activists, we often have to play defense. We are regularly responding to the laws that inhibit our human rights, and the statements and actions that harm our community members. Sometimes, it’s difficult to fight against something without repeating it—in which case your opponent is heard twice and you are only heard once. They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, so how do we prevent reactionary activism from becoming extra press for the other side?

Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy is an excellent example of this “no bad publicity” pattern. When Trump makes racist and sexist comments, he is more often than not rewarded. His continues to lead in the polls, and in the past month Rolling Stone and New York Magazine have both released in-depth cover stories that aim to humanize him. He captures the media’s attention with offensive shock factor, only to hold its gaze long enough to win (some) people over.

Two of Trump’s most scandalous comments throughout his campaign include his attack against the Latino community in his announcement to run for president and his comments alluding to Megyn Kelly’s period affecting her intelligence. In response to his hateful words, artist Sarah Levy has created a portrait of Trump out of her own menstrual blood and hopes to donate the profits to an immigrants’ rights organization.

"Whatever" by Sarah Levy. Photo courtesy of the New York Times
“Whatever” by Sarah Levy. Photo courtesy of the New York Times

What I love about Sarah Levy’s artistic activism is that it’s innovative and moves the conversation forward. Instead of repeating the moments where Donald Trump used hateful language, her painting acknowledges them while also creating a new moment of strength. The painting is powerful to look at and productive in how its profits will be used. Sarah Levy combats Trump’s shock-factor with more shock—this time with a constructive twist.

We may not all have the capacity to create menstrual blood paintings (literally—even for folks who do menstruate, I’m sure a painting takes a good deal of…paint!), but we can still take a tip from Sarah Levy’s art activism. While the piece is reactionary, it also becomes its own stand-alone statement. It avoids the media screaming match of who is being louder, and redirects the focus to the content of what each side is saying—and how they are saying it.

Lucy Sparrow, an ex-stripper from Bath, is also using her art in reaction to oppression. Based in London, Sparrow has created Madame Roxy’s Erotic Emporium: a sex-shop with 5,000 products made entirely of felt. Sparrow created the shop in response to new British pornography laws that ban porn producers from showing images of female pleasure, such as face-sitting and female ejaculation.

Felt condoms are just the start of Lucy Sparrow's sex shop inventory. Photo courtesy of Lucy Sparrow.
Felt condoms are just the start of Lucy Sparrow’s sex shop inventory. Photo courtesy of Lucy Sparrow.

“I want to challenge the rights of sex workers, fetishists and consumers of porn with the creation of a complete sex shop which, were the exhibits not made from felt, would be illegal,” Sparrow told Mashable. “The question is, does a porn magazine created from felt and hand-stitched break Britain’s new porn laws?”

Similar to Levy’s menstrual blood painting, Sparrow recreates the reality of a situation through the use of different physical materials. She does not have to repeat the laws that restrict her sexual freedom because that freedom is still in tact in her felt world. She draws attention to the issue, but shows no sign that it has taken away her strength to create and be who she is.

As we continue to hear dialogue that goes against our values and our work, engaging in creative, political dialogue can be both therapeutic and effective. Finding a way to change the direction and the tone of a debate shows strength and dedication—two key parts of working in solidarity towards human rights.

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