While the event was partly inspired by #MeToo and the slew of celebrity rape and sexual abuse revelations, the goal was to ground this material in the everyday reality of our attendees' lives, feelings, thoughts, and experiences.Joining in conversation were activist and programmer Alice Barker (of support.fm); writer and sex educator Ana Cecilia Alvarez; artist Amalia Ulman; activist and writer Cyrus Dunham (also of support.fm); actress Dasha Nekrasova; net artist and activist Hannah Schmitt; queer academic Jane Ward; poet, erotic writer, and anti-violence advocate Larissa Pham; social justice organizer Paula Graciela Kahn; sex writer, filmmaker, and model Tierney Finster; photographer Vivian Fu; and Erica Braverman, daughter of the family business Doc Johnson, an American-made sex toy company and Pillow Talk’s current sponsor.
The group sat in a circle and talked for 90 minutes. For another 90 minutes, they talked in smaller sets and to the live stream.
Here are some things we learned, courtesy of Fiona Alison Duncan:
We’re ready for change. Meaning, action. We believe change is possible, and that it will take real work. Many of us are already working towards the cause: freedom to live well as we are, which is dependent on access to resources, including (but is not limited to): housing, safe transportation, education, and healthcare, for everybody. Talk is cheap. Actions have consequences, and these can be positive or negative.
Help can be simple. You don’t need to be Melinda Gates to better the world. One of us had a friend who was raped in college as an undergrad. She was a brilliant straight-A student in the midst of finals. Her “friends” took on her cause by making a scene, protesting on campus. Upon reflection, this young woman said that what she really needed was someone to make her soup (she stopped eating); to help her bathe (she stopped bathing); to negotiate extensions from her professors (she was too ashamed to ask); and to just be there.
Abuse is common. All of us who were present had experienced various forms of sexual violence, assault, and discrimination since middle school and younger. “In the post-Weinstein, #MeToo time,” actress Dasha Nekrasova noted, “I’ve been doing a lot of introspection, creating inventories...” For many of us, now is the first time we considered that life could be different; that we didn’t have to put up with unwanted male attention, aggression, and physicality; that we could share what happened to us in public without it damaging our social reputations and careers; that we might achieve justice.
It’s an exciting time. But it’s also not new. Discussions of sexual violence, rape, and other sex and gender inequalities were popular during Second Wave feminism, and again in the nineties with Anita Hill. We don’t want this become another passing trend.
We’re interested in applying restorative justice models to incidents of sexual violence and abuse. Queer scholar Jane Ward brought this idea to our attention. “Restorative justice,” she explained, “is an alternative vision for how to heal somebody who has been violated and to bring the community together for community healing... It’s a more grassroots model that creates community-accountability, a system where the person who has been injured can identify what they actually need in order to feel healed, and what they want to have the person who violated them say or do so they can heal. Because, when you send someone to prison, they don’t go to prison to unlearn rape.” Ward asked us, “What would restorative justice look like around sexual violence?”
We need changes to our socio-economic model. Currently, most endeavors that nurture and sustain life are not adequately supported. Many of us got in abusive situations because of our financial dependence on potential and/or actual abusers. These could be our fathers, a sugar daddy, a boyfriend, an agent, a boss. Women, queer people, people of color, and the disabled earn far less than able-bodied straight cis white men, and that’s only accounting for people working in the same fields. Fields imagined as “feminine,” like teaching, social work, and nursing as less monetarily compensated than equally vital work. Many of us are attracted to work that is emotional, physical, intuitive, devalued. We need to change our society and culture’s values.
We understand sexual violence, as Paula Graciela Kahn commented and has written about, as, “entangled with colonialism, and lack of accountability for colonialism and slavery.” The history of the Americas is based on colonialism, which involved systemic rape of native men and women. If we want to heal our current moment, we have to address this history.
We’re exhausted! “Should I be the person,” asked writer and anti-violence advocate Larissa Pham, “to teach the person that what they did to me was wrong? Someone else should’ve taught them, but they didn’t.” A few of us brought this up: the burden and exhaustion of following-up on the wrongs done to us. It’s often a necessary part of the process of recovery, holding your abuser accountable, but it can be, as Paula Graciela Kahn commented, “really draining. I’m doing all this work,” she said, “without monetary compensation.” Burnout in social justice organizations, as Larissa Pham experienced, is very common. Burnout for young ambitious femmes is common, as well. Pillow Talk is fabulous because we feel supported here: we’re given a beautiful, relaxing space to stay in as long as we need, as well food and drink, and free sex toys! When we get too tired, we can nap on a king sized bed.
We crave alternative spaces. As Hannah Schmitt said, “I’m really attracted to alternative spaces designed to help people think and solve problems. I think that one of the weird parts of living in our culture is trying to solve problems alone, instead of within a community or groups. It’s really damaging to be isolated, especially around identity or trauma. I’m excited for any experimental opportunity to push against that norm.” Pillow Talk was conceived as an alternative, supportive, comfortable, even sexy venue. New communal spaces inspire new communal thinking and doing.