Photo Essay from Local Artists Points Spotlight on Sexual Assault, Women Empowerment
Editor's Note: The following article contains verbiage related to sexual assault that may trigger some readers. Please read with discretion.
I was 5 years old when someone I loved and trusted molested me,” She said. “I had no idea what was happening, but I knew that it felt wrong. I knew I did not like it and did not want to do it anymore. I wanted him to stop touching me and I wanted him to stop making me touch him.
‘She,’ who asked to remain anonymous, was molested as a child. She was assaulted by a boyfriend in junior high. She was “talked into sex,” more times than she could count.
“At my darkest time, I felt like there was just something on my face, something about me that said ‘please assault me,’” She said.
For this young woman, and too many others, sexual assault, or at least the threat of it, is a very real presence in their lives.
The National Center for Victims of Crimes states that "Sexual violence happens in every community and affects people of all genders and ages. Sexual violence is any type of unwanted sexual contact. This includes words and actions of a sexual nature against a person’s will and without their consent. A person may use force, threats, manipulation, or coercion to commit sexual violence.
Forms of sexual violence include:
- Rape or sexual assault
- Child sexual assault and incest
- Sexual assault by a person’s spouse or partner
- Unwanted sexual contact/touching
- Sexual harassment
- Sexual exploitation and trafficking
- Exposing one’s genitals or naked body to other(s) without consent
- Masturbating in public
- Watching someone engage in private acts without their knowledge or permission
- Nonconsensual image sharing
There is a social context that surrounds sexual violence. Social norms that condone violence, use power over others, traditional constructs of masculinity, the subjugation of women, and silence about violence and abuse contribute to the occurrence of sexual violence. Oppression in all of its forms is among the root causes of sexual violence."
These root causes and more all play a part in a culture that leaves women feeling unsafe in their own towns, their own homes, and their own bodies.
A group of local women, dubbed ‘Oil City Women,’ are trying to change that. These women are taking back their bodies and they are using art to do it.
Tatiana Parkhurst approached photographer Doug Tunison with an idea for a photo shoot; one that would empower women instead of sexualizing them.
“Tatiana and I have worked together for several years,” Tunison said. “One day, she texted me and said ‘Hey, let’s do a photoshoot to celebrate the court ruling that said it was legal for women to be topless in Wyoming.'”
That court ruling was the result of the ‘#FreeTheNipple’ movement, which sought equal treatment for women.
In February of 2019, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal judge’s conclusion that the law banning women from appearing topless in public was said to fall under unconstitutional discrimination, according to NBC News.
“It was based on 'negative stereotypes depicting women's breasts, but not men's breasts, as sex objects,’ the court concluded.”
The decision effectively made it legal for women to go topless in the six states that fall under the 10th Circuit. Those states are Colorado, Utah, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming.
That decision was a big win for women like Tatiana Parkhurst, a local model who tries to encourage and empower women with many of the projects that she takes on.
“We incorporate all kinds of women into every shoot that we do because we just want them to feel good about themselves,” Parkhurst stated. “We saw this [ruling] as an opportunity to just get a group of women together to empower them and to send a message that being topless could, and should, be a safe thing to do.
“However you want to represent yourself as a woman should be safe,” Parkhurst added.
I was 14 years old when the person I loved raped me,” She revealed. “I told him no repeatedly as he pulled down my pajama bottoms and did what he wanted anyway. He then told all of his friends how ‘easy’ I was and, for weeks, I was propositioned by them because they, too, wanted a taste of me. They wanted to know why I would do it for him, but not for them.
So when Parkhurst and Tunison came together with this idea, the next step was finding a group of women that would be willing to allow themselves to be so exposed and so vulnerable.
“We got some of my friends, a few of Doug’s friends and a few friends of friends,” Parkhurst said. “There were a lot of women [we spoke to] that didn’t want to do it, interestingly enough, because they were worried about the backlash of what would happen. But there was a woman who joined us that was actually contributing to the law changing in the first place, which I thought was amazing. She saw the idea as a really powerful thing.”
The group of ‘Oil City Women,’ as well as Tunison, came together in Downtown Casper, using many of its back alleys as a backdrops. They spent a few hours taking photos, laughing, and just bonding as women. The process of making the art was just as important as the art itself, Parkhurst said. Even still, the women had to be on high alert.
“We had you walk to the road with us,” Parkhurst told Tunison. “That was something I kept thinking about. In the alley, we got into our little group and we were just having so much fun and we stopped caring and didn’t really have any negative feelings. But when we walked to our cars outside the alley, we still had Doug walk with us, just so we weren’t worried about people coming up to us.”
Women have said that they don’t feel comfortable walking by themselves at all, regardless of time-of-day or what they are or are not wearing.
“Women don’t walk around this country feeling safe," Hillary Kelly wrote for Vulture. "We hold our keys between our fingers on dark streets and wonder if we’ll have to use them to wield off attackers. We keep our drinks pressed tight to our bodies at parties and bars. We fake phone calls to keep strange men at bay. We take longer routes home to walk under streetlights. We text friends from bus stops and after we’ve locked our front doors. We turn on location-sharing lest a date turn ugly or violent. We reconsider running shorts when it’s blazing hot just to keep the catcallers silent. We do a goddamn ton of the work to keep men from touching us in the ways we don’t want to be touched. Frankly, it’s exhausting.”
The Oil City Women are tired, too, according to Parkhurst. They’re tired of being objectified, sexualized, and made to feel like their bodies are not their own.
“What I love about this is that we’re taking back ownership of our own bodies,” Parkhurst said. “We’re choosing what we do with our bodies.”
I was 17 years old when my long-term boyfriend decided the only thing I was good for was sex. Barely a ‘hello,’ before my pants were being taken off and we were having sex that I didn’t want. And afterwards, it was too much to cuddle, or even treat me with basic respect or kindness. He had what he wanted, he had his release, and I was worthless to him otherwise.
It was also important, for both the models and the photographer, to choose the right place to showcase their photo essay. That place was The Bourgeois Pig, a coffee shop in Downtown Casper that is as eclectic as it is supportive.
“It was perfect timing,” Tunison said. “Josh [Tinnell, the owner of the café] wanted to put an art gallery up and he wanted to feature things that were not your typical sunset landscapes. He wants to see conversations happen, even if they’re controversial.”
Tinnell agreed with that assertion.
“I feel like ‘living room art’ is already pretty well-represented in this town,” he laughed. “My idea with this is to provide a serious space to artists that want to make a statement and push the envelope, without taking ourselves too seriously in the process. Art has always been a big thing with me, but I just got to the point to where if I had to go to one more pretentious art opening that had nothing to do with the art itself, I was going to scream.”
The Bourgeois Pig is the opposite of pretentious, and that’s by design. But it also doesn’t throw things in its customers’ faces. Even with Tunison’s photos, they're showcased in the hallway at the back of the café. The photos are there for people who want to see them, but they’re not being forced upon anybody. Tinnell said he doesn’t want to offend people; he just wants to start conversations.
“Those conversations need to happen here,” he said.
And the ‘Oil City Women’ photo essay has certainly started many conversations.
Accompanying the collection of photos, is a written piece that offers a description of the series, as well as some staggering statistics.
“A troupe of brave women met in the alley behind Wolcott Center to reclaim ownership of their bodies,” the description read. “They created the work of performance art illustrated in this show. Our intention is to provoke a discussion about the harmful objectification and sexualization of women’s bodies and the rape-culture that is woven into the fabric of our culture. The women played, posed, and laughed often, topless, enjoying their freedom. The absurdity of the oppressiveness and double standard of our culture was exposed.”
Further down, the piece continued, stating that, “In Casper, WY in 2018, the number of reported rapes was 103 per 100,000. To put this in perspective, the number of rapes in New York City in 2018 was 33 per 100,000 and in Chicago, it was 66 per 100,000. The rate of rape in Casper is almost 2x greater than Chicago. These numbers are the reported cases of rape. It does not count the unreported rape and the daily verbal and physical harassment that women endure. The subliminal messaging on the television, in social media, and in stores that objectifies women surrounds us all, numbing us to its reality. It is ubiquitous in our culture and impossible to escape. The belief that women are safe in this city is delusional.”
Those words are powerful, which is what Parkhurst and Tunison intended when they wrote them. They wanted to shake people and they wanted to wake people. More than anything, they said, they want women to be able to share their stories and know that they are not alone.
“I’ve thought about this a lot,” Parkhurst said. “Feminism, to me, is treating what women do with equal respect as with what men do. And we wanted to do this project and take this time to redefine what women do, by women, based on women’s words, not men’s expectations. I think this project is a great way to represent taking back power and redefining our own abilities and beliefs. I just want to educate people and bring attention to the people who have stories and need to tell them.”
Stories like ‘Hers.’
I am 24 years old and can count on one hand how many positive sexual experiences I have had in my life. My husband once asked me why I couldn’t just ‘get over it’ when I was having a panic attack during sex. The answer is that sexual assault isn’t something a person can just ‘get over.’ At least in my experience. It’s a daily struggle; a daily struggle to not be taken over by a panic attack when a man walks too close or stands too close to me. Or dares to walk in the same direction as me. I have never experienced a ‘healthy’ or ‘normal’ relationship with sex and I don’t know if I ever will. I don’t feel like my body is, or ever has been, my own. So many have touched it without my consent before I ever could. The repercussions of my assault(s) haunt so many aspects of my life. This isn’t something that happened to me that I will be able to ‘get over.’ This is something I will be recovering from for the rest of my life.
'She' is capitalized because 'Her' story could be anybody's. For something so personal, sexual assault is all-too-common. The National Center for Victims of Crime states that "nearly one in five women in the United States have experienced rape or attempted rape sometime in their lives." Likewise, one in 71 men have as well. As more and more conversations take place, as more and more spotlights are shone, as more and more stories are shared, women (and men) are able to realize that they are not alone and that, most importantly, their assault is not their fault. And that is the message that Tatiana Parkhurst, Kim, K. Rayne, Heidi, Tia [last names redacted], Doug Tenison, Josh Tinell, and everybody else who participated in the Oil City Women photo essay want to convey. Women's bodies are their own. As are their hearts, their minds, and their spirits. Their lives are their own, and this project is just one example of women taking it all back.
To view the photo essay online, visit this website.
If you or someone you know has been sexually abused, and you need somebody to talk to, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).