By Diane Semerdjian, Digital Mobilization Coordinator in Amnesty Belgium (French speaking section)
A survey published in March 2020 by Amnesty and the Belgian organization SOS Viol reveals alarming views about rape and sexual violence in Belgium, and how pervasive these views are. Among them, one third of young people surveyed think it’s not rape when the other person doesn’t explicitly say “no” and 23% think that “women like to be forced, that violence is sexually exciting for them”.
After the initial shock at these attitudes, what does remain?
Sex without consent is rape. This is clear in the Belgium law. But the answers to the survey reveal that many young people are not clear about what constitutes rape or sexual assault. This is in part because of dangerous negative gender stereotypes and the persistent myths about rape in our society. A surprising number of people still think about sex through the lens of toxic masculinity. Young adults must learn to recognise these pitfalls so as not to reproduce them.
A lot more needs to be done to encourage young people to talk about sex and consent as an essential step for preventing rape and other sexual violence. A good way of doing this is through art. In order to understand the importance of consent in a sexual relationship, we decided to ask many young artists from different disciplines to translate it into their own artistic language.
This experience was done in the context of the #JDIWI campaign launched by Amnesty against rape culture in Belgium (“JDIWI” being a simpler way to write “je dis oui”, which means “I say yes” in French).
This is how we did it and the results:
Involving art schools to promote a consent culture
The idea was to engage arts students to express what consent means to them by using art and to promote a consent culture.
We opened a Facebook contest to several art schools in Brussels. The key starting point was to encourage school staff members to understand the importance of the initiative, in order to ensure a solid foundation of the project. Students were given total freedom in the choice of expressive means (cartoon, video, posters, photography, etc) to reflect the key message: sexual consent must be freely given, otherwise it is rape.
The art school ESA Saint-Luc was among the most engaged. The professors motivated the students, gave weight to the project and provided reminders and valuable tips once the contest was announced, such as doing research on the topic before moving on to the creative phase or working in groups to strengthen visual proposals. They opened the school’s doors to Amnesty. Several workshops were held during which the survey figures were discussed and major stereotypes about rape were collectively deconstructed. Above all, they made young people aware of their own power to change the harsh reality and shift their peers’ consciousness and group norms toward a culture of consent and experience of sexuality based on mutual pleasure and respect.
To ensure the success of the competition, it was particularly important to communicate very simple instructions, a single email address to send the visuals and a short deadline. Young people were willing to get involved, but it is up to us, as organizers, to remove barriers to participation and provide a guiding framework without imposing constraints on the creative process; to support and encourage students engagement in a way that does not require their long-term commitment and give them space to use their imagination.
We received 31 works out of 39 registered participants, 14 of them were boys. All sexual orientations and genders, including genderfluid, were present among the candidates. The competition created a lot of activity on our Facebook page: almost 70 comments, 441 shares and 3529 likes. The feedback from participating students was very positive. Some of them expressed their optimistic state of mind during the month of the competition. Maya who produced a comic strip, said:
“As women, we must educate, integrate and regain our power of decision and action, our freedom to enjoy our bodies and share them with others or not and our fundamental right to change our mind at any time. We decide. It is our choice. We have power over our bodies. We won’t leave it to others”.
See some of the students’ artwork throughout this page.
Using art as a powerful tool to promote cultural change
The choice of art to make people think about a topic is not a coincidence. It is one of the most sensitive, impactful and simple ways to talk about a social problem. Art can be above all, a means of inclusiveness. In our case, it can appeal to people of all genders to campaign for consensual sex. The more diverse mediums are used, the greater the chance is to educate about this often misunderstood notion of consent. Two ingredients allow us to unleash creativity: when we feel concerned and when we feel that we have power to change things.
These two mobilising factors will ensure the quality of the works received even if a reward or other incentives can also be driving forces.
For this competition, the prize was a certificate that rewarded the winner, and what every student got was some exposure of their work! It was an opportunity to convey a vision as artists but also to deliver a strong social message by creating awareness-raising tools and content to promote conversations about consent.
Finally, having young artists and creatives advocating for consent helps resonate and connect with youth audiences. It’s the knowledge of who they are talking to, i.e. young people, that is decisive for active participation. They can be role models and change leaders and we would like to give them a platform for their work and views.
If you want to create a similar initiative, now you know how it works – and you can find more guidance and ideas in this Activist Toolkit and in the Let’s Talk About Yes campaign page. If you are an artivist, you can share your visual artwork using #LetsTalkAboutYes and tagging @LetsTalkAboutYes on Instagram.