In 2011, Danielle Tansino alleges she was raped by a friend of a friend after a night out. The then-29-year-old went to police to report the crime, but claims she was later told by a female prosecutor that the case could never be tried because “jurors don’t like girls that drink.” Tansino didn’t like or accept that answer—and eventually started a public awareness initiative to combat stereotypes about rape. Red My Lips asks supporters to wear red lipstick throughout the month of April, which also happens to be Sexual Assault Awareness Month in the U.S. (it begins May 1 in Canada).
Tansino talks to FLARE about the painful origins of Red My Lips, the reality of victim blaming and the necessary future for both victims and the culture at large.
How did you come up with the idea for Red My Lips? It was part of an emotional process. I knew I needed to do something beyond just processing and coping with what happened to me. I had an overwhelming belief that our society needed to change and that my voice could be part of that in some way. I went through a lot of ideas, but most were fleeting. I always came back to the same problem: how do you get people talking about something that everyone collectively agrees they don’t want to talk about?
It’s somewhat funny you ask about the moment the idea dawned, because it’s actually pretty specific. I was home for the holidays in December of 2012 and was ruminating over different ideas. I kept circling back to Slutwalk and Movember. Completely different causes, but there were things about both of them I liked and found extremely effective. I felt there was some way to incorporate the parts I liked of each, but I couldn’t quite figure out how.
Then suddenly: red lipstick. The name Red My Lips popped into my head immediately after. It was only later that I realized the incredible layers of symbolism, both in the lipstick and in the name.
What’s the significance of wearing red lipstick to support victims of sexual violence? When people in my life show up wearing red lipstick, it says: “I see you. I hear you. What happened was not your fault. You’re not alone. And I’m not afraid to be seen and fight alongside you.”
There’s a lot of shame linked with sexual violence. You learn from society that you must be weak or that something about your body, or the way you walk or talk, or move through space, must have brought on what happened. And talking about sexual violence (rape in particular) makes people uncomfortable. So there’s a lot of pressure to keep quiet and “learn your lesson.” The red lipstick was my way of saying: “No. I will not be invisible. I will not be silent. I will not be made to feel like this was my fault.”
What did you learn from the experience of reporting your rape? Reporting was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. I was living across the country from all my family and friends. I walked into the police station completely alone. But honestly, I don’t think I would have wanted anyone there with me. It was agonizing.
My experience with the police was mixed. I can’t say it was all bad. But the parts that were bad, were pretty bad. My anxiety skyrocketed after that.
How did friends and family react? They were initially sympathetic. But as soon as the initial shock wore off, that’s when the victim blaming seemed to surface. There were all kinds of assessments of my decision-making that night. Some expressed “disappointment” about my “poor” and “careless” choices. A lot of people suggested that maybe I was confused or overreacting. I found myself constantly having to retell the story in graphic detail in order to feel like anyone would believe that what happened was, indeed, rape. And that someone (besides me) was responsible. Once I painted them the whole, horrifying picture, they were usually convinced. But then, by that point, I was a re-traumatized mess. That same pattern happened countless times.
And then there were people in my life that refused to talk about it. Somehow that added to the shame.
How does a victim’s perspective differ from that of a person who is sympathetic to the cause, but perhaps unaware of the consequences of coming forward? I think many people have no idea how awful coming forward can be. It’s assumed that when you disclose having been raped or abused, you are immediately surrounded with love, support and puppies. But usually there is skepticism and judgement. You’re accused of being crazy, confused, vengeful, a liar, a slut. People who have zero reason to doubt you seem to find an excuse to doubt you. Sometimes you can see it in someone’s eyes when you talk to them. I’ve recently realized that this is one of my few remaining triggers. I still can’t tell the story of the rape without getting totally fragmented and giving incessant details. I still have a deep sense of not being believed.
What do you hope to accomplish with Red My Lips? My objective is both simple and complex. I want to give people a safe way to show support. I want survivors to understand and believe that what happened was not their fault. I want them to see love and support on the faces of those around them, whether they come forward with what they have been through or not. And I want our collective mentality to change. I want people to better understand how sexual violence, rape myths and victim blaming are connected. How they don’t just harm victims, but all of us. I believe this cultural shift is what is needed to lower the rates of sexual violence.
The objective of Project 97 is to increase the number of victims who report rape—as it stands, the vast majority of sexual assaults in Canada, about 97 percent, are never recorded as crimes by police. What needs to happen to change that number? People don’t report sexual violence for so many reasons. One reason is that we treat survivors who come forward horribly. And other survivors see that. When you’re raped, you constantly think about how people are going to respond if and when you tell them. And a lot of those fears come true. So why would someone say, “Hey! Sign me up for that!”? Especially given that so few reports actually end in a conviction.
One teenager wrote me recently about something she had been through, but said she didn’t want anyone to know. She explained it perfectly: “Right now we live in a world where telling is detrimental, instead of beneficial. Until it’s the other way around, victims will remain silent.” What she said is 100 percent correct. For many, this choice is about self-preservation. We act like victims owe us something. But we are the ones failing, not them.
How have people responded to RML? The response has been much more positive than I expected. Let’s face it, there’s a reason we don’t talk about sexual violence. It’s painful. It’s uncomfortable. It’s incredibly charged. On top of this, our weapon of choice is a very gendered beauty product. There’s a lot of things people can push back against.
But honestly, the most common response has been enthusiasm and support. I think it’s because people are tired of the shame and the silence. The topic is so heavy and causes many people, both survivors and loved ones, to feel helpless. The fact that RML gives people something concrete to do feels like it helps lift an incredibly heavy burden.
It’s hard to identify the most encouraging feedback or result. Since its inception, I’ve had countless people disclose to me in all kinds of different ways. Every time it’s both difficult and meaningful. Hearing that RML made a survivor (of any age) feel seen and supported is incredibly moving and motivating. However, it’s also meaningful to see people who don’t fully understand the cause begin to learn and grow.
What are your future plans? I’m excited to report that RML has recently been formalized as an official nonprofit organization. This is a huge step in having the kind of global impact that we envision. As a result, this April will be the very first time that supporters will be able to raise both awareness and funds with their red lips! This will help us to develop and grow RML as both a global movement and as a financially sustainable organization.
While we are a young organization, we have big plans. And we are inspired and motivated by the overwhelming sea of supporters worldwide willing to stand up, join together, and say, “We will not be invisible. We will not be silent.”
This story is part of Project 97 — a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Visit Project97.ca for more details on this collaborative project by Rogers-owned media outlets, and join us on Twitter with the hashtag #Project97.