Meet the Sexual Assault Survivor Who Rewrote Her Experience in a Powerful Photo Series

Meet the Sexual Assault Survivor Who Rewrote Her Experience in a Powerful Photo Series
Source: Reclamation
Source: Reclamation

Two months into her freshman year at Wesleyan University, Karmenife Paulino was raped in the basement of a fraternity.

Paulino, who ran away from what she called an "abusive household" just before her 18th birthday, thought she had found refuge at Wesleyan, a home base where she could grow and thrive over the next four years. Instead, she found herself crying in class, avoiding her rapist, poring over the university's sexual misconduct policies, filing reports and attending hearings until, finally in her junior year, the man was expelled.

Her story doesn't end there. Paulino, now 22, recently transformed her long, painful experience into "Reclamation," a series of photographs shot in and around fraternities on Wesleyan's campus, including the very house where she was assaulted. 

The series' BDSM imagery is an overt reference to Paulino's "reclamation" of power over her attacker. But it's more than just that.

"There's something really powerful and beautiful about dominatrixes and just to be in front of these frat houses and to have these models kissing my feet and worshiping me — there's an element of humor to it," Paulino told Mic.

She poses with men sporting collars, ball gags and tank tops reading "FRAT FILTH." Holding their leashes is Paulino, clad in chains, a fishnet bodystocking and a harness. 

"I've worn that outfit before many times," Paulino said. "It's what I feel the most powerful and the most vulnerable in and I wanted to wear it because women who are sexually confident are always demonized in these spaces and in society in general."

"I'm tired of black respectability politics and people of color's bodies being viewed as vulgar and 'too much.'" 

She and photographer Tess Altman found models for the project via a Facebook blast, and even though Paulino prepped the models on what to expect, they made sure to talk about safe words and hand signals. 

Read more: Beyond "Mattress Girl": The Case For a More Complex Sexual Assault Media Narrative

Because it's communication, she said, that establishes a culture of consent. "Talking changes everything," Paulino said. "The project would have been horrible if we didn't have that discussion. It took some extra time, but it wasn't hard to ask questions about what people were comfortable with." 

Paulino's photo series not only speaks to her own experience, but is a clapback at the vocal contingency who scorn college students' calls for "safe spaces" on campus. 

"Spaces are everything, especially on college campuses," responded Paulino. "We're not asking to be 'coddled' — we're asking to be safe." 

And fraternities, she said, can be among the most toxic spaces on campus, something she found increasingly evident when she joined Wesleyan's coed frat, Eclectic, where Paulino said racism and transphobia were rampant.

Wesleyan has made a number of efforts to reform the university's fraternities, mandating that all fraternities on campus admit women and vacating Eclectic's frat house, which will soon be home to one of the school's residential program houses, Music House.

During her last semester in fall 2015, Paulino started the Survivor Support Network to help sexual assault survivors like her. She said she was happy to provide the space on a campus severely lacking in such resources, but couldn't help noticing one thing about the people who showed up: Most of them were white.

For survivors of color, though, the experience of sexual assault can raise unique conflicts. 

"When we speak we have to represent the entire community, which is horrible," Paulino said. "Because my rapist was black it was really difficult for me to call my rapist a rapist. I felt like I had let my community down and like I was enforcing stereotypes."

Since leaving Wesleyan, Paulino is helping to carve out creative spaces for survivors of color in her new home of New York City. The path to healing is long, but Paulino said "Reclamation" has been a step in the right direction. 

"I needed to take these spaces that had so much power over me, over my community, over everything, and then have that power completely switched and have it rest on my shoulders."