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.
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.”
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