As press releases go, the one for #thisdoesntmeanyes starts strong. “There’s a myth that surrounds women, a myth that embroils them: women who dress or behave suggestively, women who are playful or act provocatively, women who flirt or openly discuss sex – they’re asking for it.”
Anti-rape campaigners have been chanting “yes means yes” (and “no means no”) for decades, yet – as any feminist who spends much time online will be all too aware – there are plenty of other things that somehow still frequently get mistranslated as “yes” – including, say, miniskirts, alcohol, or being in a public place after dark.
#thisdoesntmeanyes leaves no room for ambiguity. By collecting photographs of women in their own clothing, its four founders – Nathalie Gordon, Lydia Pang, Abigail Bergstrom and Karlie McCulloch – hope to end the myth once and for all.
The campaign began because of an overheard conversation in a bar: two men turned to each other and commented that a passing stranger was “asking for it”. The women happened to be in the company of a friend who had been raped, and the suggestion that clothing could imply consent made her deeply unhappy.
Three out of the four women behind #thisdoesntmeanyes know someone who had also been the victim of rape, and the men’s comments made them realise it was time to act. With their backgrounds in art, illustration and editing, they decided to start their own campaign, and reached out to Rape Crisis London, who were on board immediately. “They just saw the whole thing as exactly what women needed”.
On April 11, the group took to the streets armed with a pop-up studio and the world-renowned photographer PEROU. Almost all of the women they stopped had a story to tell: not surprising, given that 1 in 5 women will experience sexual assault since the age of 16. “Sometimes it was enough just to say ‘we’re doing a project for Rape Crisis London’, and they’d say ‘what do I need to sign?’”. After being photographed, many of them asked if there was more they could do – one girl even e-mailed the team afterwards, offering to volunteer her time unpaid to help the campaign.
With other campaigns putting the onus on victims to prevent themselves from being assaulted, #thisdoesntmeanyes was a welcome chance to fight back. (When I ask the women about their campaign, one of the first things they bring up is the recent poster from Sussex Police. “It was everything we are trying to work against”.)
For those inclined to sneer at hashtag politics, it’s a potent reminder of the internet’s ability to forge progressive communities. Looking through the different photographs, what is most striking is the diversity of the participants. Hollie, who appears in the campaign [see photo above], is a lesbian, and after she was photographed stayed to talk. “We had always been very clear that this campaign was for all women including the lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities, and her stories re-iterated that it isn’t just straight women who are victims”.
The women are encouraging others to post their photos using the hashtag, and will be adding online contributions to the website. For demographics often sidelined in discussions of sexual violence, including women of colour and trans individuals, #thisdoesntmeanyes provides a forum in which they can represent themselves on equal footing. “It’s a conversation we desperately need to have with men and women of all ages, sexes, races, sexualities.” The range of women who have already joined the campaign makes for a powerful statement.
As the organisers themselves put it, “long may the message continue”.
See the campaign in full at thisdoesntmeanyes.com, and add your own image using #thisdoesntmeanyes
Rape Crisis South London is open 12-2.30 and 19-21.30. Their telephone number is 0808 802 9999, or you can get help online at rasasc.org.uk