When It Comes to Sexual Assault, This Artist Thinks We’re Not Focusing Enough on Those Who Do the Harming

The name of Jean Haluska's project is drawn from research conducted by public health Professor Mary Koss in 1987, in which she found that one in 23 men on college campuses openly admitted to raping a woman.

[Photo: A photoshopped image of five shirtless men with
"The overwhelming commonality of perpetrators boils down to male privilege and other forms of privilege," says Jean Haluska. Oheine Porter and Jean Haluska

“I’m not that excited about the #MeToo movement,” multimedia artist Jean Haluska told Rewire.News in April, sitting on the landing of a staircase in her Bushwick, Brooklyn, studio. “I mean, it’s great that so many people are interested in and talking about [sexual violence]. It’s wonderful.”

But, she added, “we’re still looking at the victims” rather than the perpetrators.

What would it mean to consider the reality of sexual violence by focusing our gaze on those who commit harm—instead of those who survive it? That’s the question that Haluska is seeking to answer in her latest project, 1:23. The name of the project is drawn from research conducted by public health Professor Mary Koss in 1987, in which she found that one in 23 men on college campuses openly admitted to raping a woman.

Haluska’s aim is to photograph 23 men naked except for an object covering their genitalia, and to hang the images in life-size proportions in a single gallery room. For one of the men, the object will be a sword—a symbolic representation of the violence committed by one in every 23 men. She describes the project as a “visual representation of the dating world for women who date men.”

Although the 41-year-old artist began working on 1:23 far before the wide popularization of #MeToo, her project carries a different kind of significance now. In a sense, she is in conversation with the movement, enabling us to ask ourselves different kinds of questions about the nature of the problem we face and how we might go about finding a solution. To stand in front of one the photographs is to feel an unsettling mix of emotions: a sense of vulnerability and fear in being confronted by the model’s nudity; a sense of power in the ability to examine and gaze; and a sense that the viewer is being pushed to look in a manner they haven’t before.

Haluska spoke with Rewire.News about 1:23 and why she thinks it matters.

Rewire.News: On your fundraiser site you wrote that this project came to you in a dream. Tell me about that!

Jean Haluska: My best work always comes to me in dreams. I was lying in bed between sleep and consciousness and an image came to me. I was startled that it was so detailed and complete. The experience filled me with energy and excitement. I saw the final exhibition in my mind’s eye from one camera angle. It also came to me in a few verbal phrases: “when the penis becomes a weapon (as in the definition of rape)” and “visual representation of the dating world.” Over the last three years, I’ve discovered and tweaked all of the details supported by this overarching concept. It has meaning on multiple levels.

Rewire.News: As a queer cisgender woman (as am I), I wonder how you think about how this project intersects or speaks to how we conceive of “male” or “female” bodies, and how the gender binary shapes who we assume are the victims and perpetrators of sexual violence.

JH: Many people assume that survivors are female and perpetrators are male because society’s biases support this assumption. This is true for the majority of sexual violence and rape, which is an indicator and symptom of sexism. However, rape occurs in every gender context, though there are a tiny numbers of [reported] female perpetrators. Some queer people are also perpetrators of sexual violence and rape, though queer people are raped in vastly greater percentages: 47 percent percent of transgender people are sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime; 46 percent of bisexual women have been raped; 40 percent of gay men and 47 percent of bisexual men have experienced sexual violence other than rape, and so on.

The overwhelming commonality of perpetrators boils down to male privilege and other forms of privilege. On the other side of the coin for victims, racism and homophobia can intersect with sexism to increase a person’s chances of being raped. Tragically, the demographic of people who are most commonly raped are people with developmental disabilities at 90 percent.

Rape is a crime of opportunity. It happens when people think they can overpower someone else and get away with it. Not everyone takes advantage of others, but evil is perpetrated often. Nearly three New York-sized cities can be filled with the number of survivors currently living in the United States alone.

Rewire.News: One of the things that immediately occurred to me when I heard about this project is what it means for a female artist to be turning a lens on male bodies. Could you speak a little bit about the objectifying gaze in photography, and the kinds of power dynamics you’re seeking to displace or destabilize through this project?

JH: Our society is centered around the desire of straight cisgender men. The [objectifying] gaze is key to this and is unidirectional. It’s been this way for a long time, and we’ve developed photographic traditions that mirror society. So there is an inherent objectification to the medium of photography, but it can also be used in additional sexist, voyeuristic ways. The objectification of women is so prevalent and normalized by our society that many people don’t see its violence. It just becomes part of the way we think. Reversing the situation helps people notice it.

I know how much damage objectification can do and I think of it as one side of a continuum with sexual violence and rape at the other. So I’m mindful of it and do my best to be as supportive as possible of my models as I work with them. I make sure to be incredibly respectful and aware of the vulnerability of their nudity and I look at them with caring, compassion, acceptance, and thankfulness—not with desire. This emotional work adds quality to the photographs. My relationship with the model can be visually seen through emotional presence and believability of the model’s gesture.

Rewire.News: Why did it feel important to you that the men were nude—but with some kind of object to act as a prop for their penises?

JH: Nudity is central to the project primarily because it reverses the power dynamics of sexism. It reverses the trope of a nude female muse of the clothed male artist who has lost touch with his emotions and sexuality. The nudity of my project focuses the observer, thereby creating a space for processing emotional content of the photographs. The role of the object prop is to further focus the eye, stylistically creating the symbolic definition of a perpetrator (when the penis becomes a weapon). Practically speaking, I also couldn’t think of a way to use that definition of sexual violence and rape without using nudity or going even more abstract. The context of the objects is absurd and personal, so it lends an element of playfulness, humor, and individuality to the work that makes the intense content of the project more digestible and less objectifying to the models.

Rewire.News: I’m wondering whether you worry that using a prop to create the symbolic definition of a perpetrator removes the human behind the weapon from the cycle of violence. In other words, by focusing the observer only on the “penis as the weapon,” are we allowing the observer to forget the systems of oppression that allow the perpetrator to act, or even the perpetrator himself?

JH: Absolutely not, I’m exposing perpetrators in more ways than one .… The systems of oppression that allow perpetrators to act (problems with the courts and police, and the culture of entitlement and the commodification of women’s bodies) culminate in the extremely dramatic and intense moment of the penis being used as a weapon. Rape literally is that moment.

Rewire.News: This project is called 1:23. Tell me about the history behind the name, and why you think it’s important to have artistic projects about sexual violence framed around perpetrators instead of survivors.

JH: Without looking at the perpetrators there is no accountability, and this epidemic continues unchallenged because society doesn’t protect people from sexual violence and rape. The judicial system is an example of how it preys on them, by re-traumatizing survivors in a process that almost never convicts a rapist.

We cannot change history, but we can rehabilitate survivors and work to change rape culture through advocacy, education, and reforming how the judicial system addresses sexual crimes. This process starts by becoming aware of the scope of the issue. It’s a starting point, because I think that we can do more than focusing exclusively on survivors. We need to take this seriously.

Rewire.News: Tell me about the decision to print these photographs life size. How do you anticipate this will shift what it means for someone to be in the gallery space—and for different kinds of people to be in the gallery space?

JH: The epidemic of sexual violence and rape is one of mammoth proportions, so it seems right to have the show reflect the scale of the problem and its effects on a survivor’s life. The life-size dimensions of the images creates an immersive environment where we are bathed in the statistics. It is commensurate with their significance. Also, we don’t have control over the epidemic and small images would imply that we do. The show also makes a scary everyday reality visible, where it has [frequently] been obscured and rendered invisible. This shift should be validating for survivors, given that ignorance about the topic damages survivors.

I think that the beauty and humor of the work will make people want to interact with it. Then they might get lost in the statements that the individual models are making with the personal objects they chose to represent themselves. My hope is they will read about the 1:23 statistic and be better equipped for the world we live in.

Jean Haluska’s 1:23 will be shown at 112 Waterbury Street, in Brooklyn, New York, starting November 3. Learn more about the project here. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.