Feminism is not a bad word. Say it again. Feminism is NOT a bad word. If you believe in the equality of the sexes, then you are a feminist. Feminism it is about uplifting and empowering women. It is about giving them the same opportunities and treatment men have always been afforded—it is not about hating men, like the Internet trolls try to tell people—and Whitney Bell’s work has been doing just that. Bell is a proud proponent of intersectional feminism and has taken to the galleries of California to start a conversation about sexual harassment in the digital age—with dick pics. Technology has made it easy for uninvited dicks to appear at any and all times of the day, even in the safety of one’s own home.
The self-proclaimed “dick pic vigilante” started her art show, “I Didn’t Ask For This: A Lifetime of Dick Pics,” last year. Bell very literally recreates her home, complete with bed and bedside tables, couch, fridge…plus 150 framed dick pics on display, a visual example of how someone can invade your home, your safe space, without ever stepping foot in the door. This isn’t to say that feminists can’t enjoy a good dick pic now and then, but not from someone random, and not when it isn’t explicitly requested. That is harassment.
Peep what this modern Margaret Sanger had to say about the realities of speaking out against harassment (which, of course, created more harassment for her), Kidd Bell (her amazing shop) and her upcoming art show, among other things.
On Sexual Harassment At a Show ABOUT Sexual Harassment
DOPE Magazine: You posted that a man openly masturbated at your art show about sexual harassment?
Whitney Bell: Yeah, it was at our second event in San Francisco. I didn’t see him personally but a guest saw him masturbating in a hallway, facing out towards the main gallery room, and she immediately alerted security. By the time they got over there, he had disappeared.
The thing that gets me about that is—at what stage did you decide to do this? The event is not free. It had actually sold out at that point, so you presumably bought your $20 ticket weeks in advance, went and waited in the hour to two hour line that had formed outside, got inside and…did you sit around and wait? Did you have this planned the entire time? Are you getting off knowing that someone might catch you, or are you getting off knowing that you’re violating women in a safe space? I have so many questions for this human on a psychological level (laughs) and in a weird way I am kinda thankful for that person, because not only are they giving me more stuff to talk about, they are further confirming my point.
This is about their own sexual gratification. This is about them exerting some kind of power. This is an extremely selfish act that isn’t about getting laid, and isn’t about pursuing a woman. Thanks for confirming my narrative, I guess, but put your dick away.
Q: Is this the first time you’ve had someone come to your show for the wrong reasons, or has there ever been any kind of protest against your show?
A: As far as I know this is the only time someone has come to the show with that intention. There were a couple of other creepy guys at the San Francisco show. One guy was showing women pictures on his phone of his penis cumming, and little videos of him masturbating. He got kicked out immediately. There was another man who kept asking women if they wanted to see his penis. He also got kicked out immediately. Aside from that, I don’t know of any other instances where there were people seeking out [the show] for the wrong reasons.
A group of people in San Francisco tried to get that show shut down, claiming that it was ‘revenge porn,’ which it is absolutely not. The gallery was owned by the city of San Francisco, so I had to go to the attorney and the San Francisco Art Commission and prove my case that this is not in any way revenge porn.
In order to be considered revenge porn, you need to three things simultaneously. The photos have to be identifiable, which none of these are. I’ve gone to painstaking measures to remove birthmarks, scars, tattoos, anything—which was an awful Photoshop day. They have to be distributed with the intent to shame the specific individual in the photos, and again, because they are not identifiable, because I am not including anyone’s name, I am not trying to shame any specific person. Three, the photos have to have been shared in a manner that is considered private, like if you were in a relationship or something like that. I can’t say whether any of these photos came from a guy to his girlfriend, because I don’t know where every single one has been or the backstory to every single one, but regardless, it has to be all three simultaneously and [the exhibit] is none of them, so it’s not revenge porn.
That group of people [who claimed the gallery is revenge porn] was not who you’d think it [would be]. It wasn’t a group of angry misogynists—it was well-meaning feminist activists, basically. Social Justice Warriors who, I think, really thought they were doing good. I don’t know who it is they think they were protecting—defenders of dick pics, revenge porn victims, or something? I just think they were going about it in a really wrong way. Harassing the harassed for calling out harassment is not doing anybody any good.
On Rape and Death Threats
Q: You wrote a post-abortion gift guide. What were your intentions when writing that article, and did you expect the hate you received for writing it? Was there also positive feedback?
A: You expect a decent amount of vitriol and hatred. That just sort of goes hand in hand with the topic. I have written about my own abortion in the past and that received an unreasonable amount of threats and harassment, so I sort of knew that writing about it for Teen Vogue—I presumed it was going to be much worse. Although I think nothing could have prepared me for exactly how bad it got at times.
My intention with the piece was to get some very real life information to teen girls about a subject that’s not often discussed with them. If it is, they aren’t really told the full scope of exactly what to expect, and that they don’t have to feel shame around it. I got a lot of flak for it sounding so casual, people saying that I was making it seem like abortion was no big deal.
I understand that criticism, but from where I am sitting—if I really am truly pro-choice, and if I really don’t think that a fetus at 15 weeks is a baby, then terminating that pregnancy isn’t taking a life. Terminating that pregnancy isn’t this life-changing, massive, monumental decision. It’s simply making the right decision for you at that time. It’s acknowledging your own limitations and where you are at and what you are capable of. I don’t think that is something to be ashamed of.
In a weird way—I am not saying abortion is something to be proud of—but acknowledging what is right for you is something to be proud of.
Q: Although the article was villainized by many, would you do it again?
A: Absolutely. Yeah, there was a ton of hatred—and those voices are the loudest—but there was also a ton of love. I got so many letters and emails from teen girls saying how much it helped them, from teen girls who had abortions and felt guilty about it, or felt guilty for feeling guilty and couldn’t understand that emotion until they read it. I had a Harvard professor tell me that it inspired her to come out about her abortion to her husband.
Teen Vogue also was very generous in sending me all the love letters they got in response to [the article] as well. We both got so much hate, so it was a nice little, “Look, this person really likes it!” (laughs) And I stand so firmly with this new direction that Teen Vogue has taken. Talking to teen girls about real-life issues and not just lip gloss and shoes. I think that the success they’ve had in the last year is indicative of the fact that teen girls are serious. They do want to discuss this stuff. There is a market for this kind of conversation, and I am not afraid of putting myself on the line to further that.
I got a couple really scary threats from that [article], and I went to the police department and they were, of course, completely useless because the laws around online harassment and stalking are pretty much non-existent. There is almost nothing you can do until a crime has already been committed. You’re almost laughed at, which is really unfortunate and also something I am trying to change with the work that I do. Anyway, then I brought these claims, these threats to Teen Vogue, and their security was so helpful. They tracked the IP addresses and made me feel a lot safer, and I really appreciate that.
Q: You have been vocal about having been sexually assaulted in the past, and because of the work you do you are threatened with death and rape seemingly regularly. Do you ever fear for your life? What keeps you going?
A: You know, I don’t think I have ever actually feared for my life. I think at the very beginning, when the threats first started rolling in, I was a lot more scared then I am now because they felt so real at the beginning. But the longer you do this kind of work, the more you realize that the people threatening you on the Internet are the most cowardly. They’re hiding behind the anonymity of the web, and they’re keyboard vigilantes. They would never say this to your face, let alone actually act on it. I’m not gonna say all of them—obviously there are dangerous online stalkers—but I think the vast majority are pretty harmless.
I trigger something in them, and all the things they hate me for really have nothing to do with me. It’s a reflection of their own insecurities. It’s a reflection of their own issues with society. It’s not about me. It was never about me. I am not actually scared for my life. Who knows, that might change. The louder my voice gets, the bigger the show gets. But as of now, no.
There have been times when I have wanted to stop. I almost cancelled the San Francisco show because I was feeling so overwhelmed with the harassment. It was right when all of the revenge porn stuff happened. I was like, “Look, this is a group of feminists who are attacking me now.” It’s one thing to get it from the opposition; it’s quite another to get from people you think are in your camp. That hurt more than anything, I think.
I’m not gonna lie, I have wanted to stop. I am a real person with feelings, but at the end of the day I think I am empowering a lot more women than angering men. I think that empowerment is a privilege, just like race or socioeconomic status. The strength to find your own empowerment or the strength to act on your own empowerment is a privilege that not every has, so I think it would be selfish of me to not share mine.
Talking Race, Privilege and Intersectionality
Q: We have had some incredibly dangerous natural disasters recently, and instead of focusing on the people desperate for help in Puerto Rico and the USVI, our president has focused on NFL players taking a knee. You’re very vocal about your views on racial injustice—do you think this is racially driven?
A: Of course it’s racially driven. The fact the he refuses to even acknowledge that it’s about race proves that it is. It’s like someone saying that they’re color blind. Well, no, you’re not. You see race, you’re just not acknowledging it. And that’s the problem. You’re not acknowledging how it factors into society, how it factors into privilege.
In this specific case [Trump] is ignoring Puerto Rico because he deems it lesser than another state or province, because it is full of brown people. He didn’t respond this way to Harvey. He was there immediately and giving aid. Puerto Rico—the first time he mentioned [the hurricane] was to mock them and place the onus of blame on them, call them out for owing the government money. It was completely racially driven.
And then on #TakeAKnee, all he will discuss is the disrespect to the American flag, the disrespect to the name of America—which has absolutely nothing to do with what the protest is about. The protest is about racial injustice, and the fact that he won’t even acknowledge that is only further proof that that is the problem. No one is disrespecting the flag.
No one who hears the national anthem when they are watching a football game at home is standing up and placing their hand on their chest. If it was really about the flag, they would be doing that. You [Trump] are wearing a hat that says “Make America Great Again.” You are, every day, telling us that America isn’t great. So why are you so surprised when other people are saying it, too?
Q: In a HuffPost article, you are quoted saying that by focusing on straight women, you hope to “highlight the overwhelming issue of heterosexual harassment inflicted upon women” in your shows. Do you think aggressive sexual advances differ for those in the LGBTQ community? Could you elaborate?
A: I am not going to presume to say that I understand the rules of dick pic-sending in the homosexual community. That is above my pay grade. I don’t want to speak for that community in any way, nor am I trying to. There has been a lot of gay male interest in the show for I think pretty obvious reasons. However, I do think that in the queer community, in the trans community, there is so much harassment, likely even more harassment than straight women receive. However, I don’t want to speak for a community that I am not part of.
We make this show as intersectional as possible. We make it an inclusive and safe space. On these panels I have transgender activists and tons of queer activists, speakers and journalists. I want to elevate those voices, but I don’t want to speak for them.
The Shop Every Feminist Needs In Their Lives
Q: Your web shop, Kidd Bell, partners with local and national charities to create products that support the community. What charities do you partner with, and why did you choose those specific charities?
A: We try to spread out the charities and be as intersectional as possible. We’ve made things with Black Lives Matter; we’ve partnered with #Happy Period, which supplies the homeless with the menstrual products that they need; we made things for the National Center For Transgender Equality. We have a whole line, Fuck Housework, and the proceeds from that benefit the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
We also throw flash sales. When something really devastating happens, like the day after the election, we threw a 24-hour sale where one hundred percent of the proceeds benefited Planned Parenthood. We raised almost $4,000 in a day, which was amazing and not anything I anticipated. When the trans military ban was announced, we ran a similar 24-hour flash sale for the National Center For Transgender Equality and raised $500 in a day. We’ve done that also once for Black Lives Matter.
We try to not only empower the wearer with the clothing and products we have, but give them some agency in a time where it feels like we can’t do a lot to help each other, where it feels like it’s a constant battle. I think giving people a small way to contribute is important.
This show is very much a reflection of my own personal life. It is my entire house. It is my clothing. It is messages that have been sent directly to me. I am trying to make it as broad as possible, but at the same time I’m not trying to speak for any community that I’m not a part of.
What’s Next For Whitney Bell?
Q: The last two years have been huge year for you. You launched two companies, started “A Lifetime of Dick Pics,” and you are writing for some great publications. Where do you see 2018 taking you?
A: Oh, man! (laughs) I’m just trying to live it month by month. So much has happened so fast. My life has changed so rapidly, which I am so thankful for, but I am still just trying to get a hold of it.
I do have big dreams and goals for this show, though. I would love to turn the Dick Pic Show into a feminist festival, I guess. Right now, this upcoming L.A. show is the first time we have added a full second day of educational panels and workshops. We brought in all of these other partners and vendors and amazing artists, and that’s the direction I want to keep going in.
I want to keep pushing the educational aspect of it, because I think there aren’t enough spaces where women and femmes and allies can go and really have these kind of candid conversations with each other and really learn from other activists who are doing the same thing. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to add in all these panels in the first place. I wanted to see them, I wanted to experience them and I couldn’t find anything like this—anywhere.
We’ve had so much interest in taking this show on the road, and I have had so many amazing journalists and people reach out to me who live in different places, so I would love to be able to bring these events to them; to get local activists involved, to continue to elevate the voices of other feminists and other allies. I think this is a great, topical way to do that.
In an age where a man can be caught in the act of raping a woman and still only get three months in jail, and a presidential candidate can be caught joking about sexually assaulting women and still win the presidency, we need women like Whitney Bell; someone who is unapologetic about a woman’s right to autonomy over their own body. One of Bell’s shirts at her shop, Kidd Bell, says it best: “Women don’t owe you shit.”
This weekend’s event is the first time the Dick Pic Show has included a second day of panels. Day one includes artwork from over 20 artists, DJs, drinks, live feminist tattooing from seven independent artists, a vibrator vending machine by Doc Johnson and so much more. Saturday is full of panels from 1:00-4:30PM, including everything from “Feminism 101 For Men” to “The Intersection of Feminism + Pornography.” If you are in L.A. this weekend, head to the Think Tank Art Gallery and peep some peen (if you so choose), join the conversation and support those finding creative ways to shed light on women’s issues in an inclusive, intersectional, positive way.