And We Walk: Of Inconsolable Memories and Crucified Pleasure.
On 6th August 2021, wearing a dress handmade from the papers of her failed rape case, artist Megan Lucille Boettcher walked through Glasgow for 12 hours. Part healing ritual, part protest, part participatory event, the project aimed to continue conversations about women and gender-variant people’s safety, and encourage further focused discussion of bodily autonomy and sexual pleasure in the aftermath of sexual violence. The walk ended at the Pipe Factory, where there was a screening of Boettcher’s short film, Emulate the Virgin Mary, which explores shame and sexual pleasure. This was followed by a talk with the curator and artist in which they discussed pain, pleasure, and life after trauma. There was also a small exhibition on display at the venue.
In 2020, there were 52,210 rapes reported to the police in the UK. Of these, only 1.6% resulted in a charge or summons. Rape Crisis estimate that only 15% of victims reported their assault to the police in England and Wales. In June 2021, the government published the ‘end to end rape review’ in which it is stated that prosecutions and convictions for adult rape have fallen by 59% and 47% respectively since 2015/16. These figures, which suggest a decriminalization of sexual violence, were the starting point for this project; it was born out of anger.
It is anger and defiance that fuels my interest in (which boarders on obsession with) pleasure. Humans are, for the most part, sexual beings. What happens, then, when your life is ripped apart by sexual violence? How do you go about recalibrating how you view sex, pleasure, and your own body? When your sole focus for a period is to simply survive, how do you begin to live again? I do not have answers to these questions, but it seems incredibly important to pose them. Not once during my experience with doctors, nurses, therapists, did anyone ever talk to me about the fact that sex was potentially now inextricably linked to violence in my mind. It seems to me we are at breaking point; we are unable to prevent one in five women from being sexually assaulted, we do not care enough to ensure perpetrators go to prison, and we do not take survivors’ sexual pleasure seriously.
Trauma is a part of being a human, and the pain of women is age old. Having experienced firsthand how contemporary society deals with women whose trauma is caused by violent men, I am fascinated by what happens when we wrest our trauma from the hands of the medical professionals, lawyers, and police. What happens when this pain and anger finds a home in the artistic sphere? Is it here that we can rewrite the narrative around sexual pleasure? Can we shed the embarrassment and squeamishness long enough to talk about the fact that women are active participants in sex, rather than objects?
Megan Lucille Boettcher does exactly this. Having sought legal justice for her rape and failed, she makes a silk dress from the papers documenting every painful memory. It references the frustrating and familiar question ‘what was she wearing?’ with icy defiance. Conforming to gender norms through the almost bridal-style dress, Boettcher poses the question: is experiencing sexual violence a female gender-norm?
The body is both the site of violence and the place of healing, a contradiction that makes navigating life after sexual violence messy and unpredictable. The photographs that make up Of Paper Souls and
Making Love Getting Fucked series speak to the complicated, non-linear experience of healing; they are unapologetic, provocative, sexy, and vulnerable. How do you reconcile an enjoyment of sex with living with the trauma of having experienced sexual violence? Boettcher’s work is sexually explicit, and she is the sole focus. It is defiant and deviant. She throws social pressure out the window. I’m thrilled by this series; it is the work of an artist who is no longer censoring herself. Instead, she celebrates her own desire and sticks a finger up at all those who seek to shame her. As in Emulate the Virgin Mary, Boettcher places the female orgasm as the be all and end all, forcing a queer reconsideration of our sexual stereotypes.
Boettcher’s work encapsulates the many contradictions that I feel that I am experiencing every day, the fear, anger, shame, joy, and pleasure. I am exhausted and bored of talking about rape and sexual violence. I feel like people are bored of hearing me talk about it. I am scared I have pigeonholed myself and my practice. I wish I was someone else. Except, Megan’s work makes me realize that I do not wish that. She makes me see that the shame and anger and sadness that wraps itself around my spine and seeps through my veins is not a reflection of me as a person.
The curatorial premise of And We Walk can be traced back to the beginning of my studies in September 2020, where my initial research was based around trauma, memory, and silence. It is no coincidence that I began trauma therapy in late August 2020; the evolution of And We Walk follows my academic research, my artistic collaboration, and my personal process of healing. The project was conceived in anger, but it was born out of the pursuit of pleasure and the need for change. My thinking about pleasure is very much based on, and inspired by queer theory, specifically, the desire to create a space for a collective experience that is often marginalised. And We Walk was a curatorial investigation into exploring the pursuit of sexual pleasure, and placing trauma into an artistic sphere, as opposed to a legal or medical one. It responded to gaps in the care currently provided to survivors of sexual violence and explored how to prioritise sexual pleasure.
This work was funded by the Hope Scott Trust and was runner up for the Sustainability Degree Prize.