The Crater Lake North room at the Erb Memorial Union transformed into an art gallery this week with the Empower Your Pleasure: A Sex Positive Art Show, organized by UO’s Protection Connection. The organization distributes safer sex supplies on campus and provides educational resources for sexual health and wellness for students.
A recent addition to their efforts in the Eugene community includes UO’s first annual sex week this April, which is also Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The art show was the first event of the week followed by a Don’t Fear the Pap Smear: A Pelvic Health Workshop for All Bodies and Sex Toy Bingo. The art show featured artwork created by students at the University of Oregon that addressed topics like: postpartum bodies, sexual assault and challenging the gender binary.
Emma Howard, a volunteer at Protection Connection and a women’s, gender and sexuality studies major, created the piece “Gender Growing,” which speaks to the experiences of many trans and non-binary bodies.
Tacked onto one of the corkboards was a multimedia timeline of Howard’s personal experiences navigating gender identity from a young child to now. The first piece in the timeline is “No. 1 It’s a Girl!” and contains a warm toned picture of a young child on a piece of white paper, with a collection of words including “Her de ella,” “Nightmare” and “Threatens” scattered below.
“My piece centers around self identity and grappling with what it means to be non-binary and part of the gender expansive trans community, especially as someone who was assigned female at birth, and also who experiences a world that is hostile towards people who are assigned female at birth,” Howard said. “I tried to represent some of the growth I’ve done throughout my life — and finding ways to be okay with mourning the person I maybe once was; and finding ways to feel more comfortable and feel happier in who I am now.”
A piece “Listen to Your Mirror” took form as a Panasonic television flickered and began to play as attendees watched. A girl stares at the viewers, clearly uncomfortable, as hickeys began to appear on her neck, alongside questions that popped up on screen.
Laney Zinn, double major in family and human services and women’s gender and sexuality studies, explained how the piece was based on an experience she had that caused her to wonder if how she felt after a sexual encounter was “normal.” As the girl settles her gaze on her reflection of her in the mirror, the questions fade away, and the mirror reaffirms the validity of her feelings of her.
“Estos [were] questions that I was really wondering at the time. In the video, you see me with hickeys on my neck. And I’m asking questions [like] does this happen to everyone? Or do other people like this? What’s going on? All these real questions that were kind of flooding through my mind,” Zinn said. “As I figured out the answers for myself in this video, the hickeys fade away, and the video comes to an end. The message urges me in the past and people who view it to listen to your mirror because that is the ultimate clear reflection.”
First year business major Haley Bell wrote a collection of three poems which were featured: “Consent,” “Sex with a Narcissist” and “Safety.” The poems encompass a past relationship of Bell’s where she said “a lot of the things I went through very much felt like blurred lines.”
She got her start writing poetry at 14 and explained she picked poetry as her medium because she grew up listening to Taylor Swift’s songwriting, which is similar to the format of poetry. Bell said she could relate to the pop artist because “someone was putting words on what I felt like I couldn’t label.”
Bell’s poem on consent emphasizes the importance of education about what consent actually means, especially in the sexual sphere.
“If somebody has to lie to you for you to say yes, that is not consent. In the last line of my poem, I say, ‘Consent only lives under the breath of truth.’ And I just wanted to write it because, in my specific situation, I’ve struggled to be able to put labels on it,” Bell said. “Now someone can read my poems who have been through situations that have blurred lines, and now they get to find words to put on it.”
Bell’s sentiment emphasizes how the show provided an affirming and safe space for students to share to the community about what empowering their pleasure means to them, and to spread awareness about their experiences.
“I think that events like this can bring more visibility to the diverse community we have here at UO, which is not always represented. You don’t usually see a space where people of color and survivors and trans people, queer people, gender expansive people, are all celebrated in one show, especially about a topic like sex that’s so taboo,” Howard said.
As college is a time where many young adults are navigating sex and exploring their identity, it is extremely important that there are inclusive outlets on campus where all students can share about their experiences, joys or struggles relating to pleasure.
Art is a powerful method for students to connect with each other about sexual empowerment, which isn’t always a central topic of discussion on college campuses. The art show along with sex week provides an opportunity to normalize conversations around sex and reshape the broader campus culture at the University of Oregon.
“[In] instances where anyone feels like they have been made small by another person, make something big, whether it’s a noise, a song, an art piece. My two art pieces that I’ve made based on previous experiences have been the most absurd mediums of all time,” Zinn said. “They’ve been the most giant, heavy, awkward carrying things I could possibly give myself to make art. And it feels good. So I would encourage other people to do that as well — take up that space that wasn’t given to you, because it feels awesome.”
The UO Sexual Violence Prevention (SVPE) has more events lined up for the month of April for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, from Naloxone Training with the HIV Alliance to Self Care Yoga. To find more information about Protection Connection and UO SVPE, check out their Instagrams @protectionconnection.pc and @uosvpe.