Picture it: Iowa City, March 2014. Laughter fills the women’s bathroom at Brothers, a huge sports bar that squats next to the University of Iowa. As undergrads line the mirror, fiddling with their lipstick and offering each other sloppy affirmations, my friend Annie and I stand in a stall, pulling ski masks over our faces.
“Ready?” she asks.
“Ready,” I reply.
We pop open the door and march towards the sinks, tossing stacks of fliers that read, “THIS BAR SUPPORTS A RAPE CULTURE.” I unravel a larger poster with matching text, and the undergraduate drinkers—who’ve by now realized that we aren’t terrorists—read our fliers and applaud as we bolt out to the bar.
I think it’s perfectly fine to spend hours sniffing bath bombs at Lush, and most folks I know could benefit from some solo time with a coloring book. But these calls for self-care are often actually calls for women in particular to buy something. We could all use a little extra self-care right about now, but glossy magazines have essentially medicalized what my mother used to call “retail therapy,” and now treat it as a salve to systemic oppression. Plus, bubble baths and meditation are typically acts of domesticity and solitude, leaving little room to publicly express anger or offer solidarity.
With this in mind, I’d like to offer an alternative: protest. Based on my experiences as an organizer and participant, protest is also a form of self-care. The act of gathering with folks who share your experiences is a healing thing.
A few weeks before the bathroom protest, the Daily Iowan interviewed then University of Iowa president Sally Mason about the school’s response to a string of recent on-campus sexual assaults. Mason told reporters that ending sexual assault was ” not a realistic goal just given human nature,” essentially equating rape with breathing and eating. It’s not like sexual assault is the product of chronic misogyny, homophobia, and racism or anything. Boys will be boys, right?
Wrong. Students and members of the Iowa City community immediately took Mason to task and set up noontime protests at the center of campus. Led by feminist organizers, the “Not in My Nature” movement challenged the dangerous attitudes of the university’s leadership and its normalization of rape. Protesters met daily in the center of campus, with faculty joining in.
What made the culture of sexual assault at Iowa particularly pervasive was its connection to the city’s bar scene. When I started college in 2009, there were reportedly 48 bars within walking distance of my dorm; the school’s consistently ranked on Playboy‘s list of top party schools. During football season, people drove from all over the state to do keg stands around Kinnick Stadium. While I wasn’t opposed to drinking, I did fret over how drinking often justified the violent behavior of male students and resulted in a campus culture out of touch with issues of consent.
Kelly Gallagher, a filmmaker who was then an Iowa MFA candidate, was on my wavelength and wanted to take a more militant approach to challenging rape culture at the school. Using Facebook as the initial organizing platform, she brought together ROAR: Radical Organizing Against Rape. We had our first in-person meeting a few days later. There I pitched an idea for our first direct action. I wanted to go straight into the belly of the beast: Brothers.
Brothers is the place you go when you’re 20, majoring in business, and named Jake; weekly drink specials include something called a “Redheaded Slut.” The main room pulses with pop music and flashing plasma TVs. Hordes of students toss back cheap beers there in flat-billed hats and minidresses. In our minds, this bar was the hell mouth of Iowa’s rape culture.
The next Saturday, we convened at a pizza place down the block from the bar and coordinated the action: Annie and I would come out of the bathroom in the back, then walk to the front of the bar with our protest signs up, signaling to everyone else embedded throughout the bar to join us as we made our way to the front door.
We knew we had to move quickly and prepare for a lot of jeering. Sure enough, as soon as Annie and I emerged from the bathroom, drunk guys began to rip at our signs and shove us around. Security found us and began pushing us towards the front. Wide-eyed students turned around with their jaws dropped, but I could hear the sound of a few people clapping.
When we got outside, we began to rally outside of the bar, signs hoisted in the air, chanting, “Hey, mister, mister! Keep your hands off my sister!” A handful of cops and the bar’s manager wove through the throngs of people to engage with us as passersby gawked and catcalled.
But the spectacle of the event did spark a productive conversation. (It also made the local news.) The bar pledged to conduct new staff trainings regarding sexual assault and bystander intervention, all facilitated by the Iowa City Women’s Resource and Action Center. Other local bars followed suit, implementing similar policies. The moment marked a shift in how Iowa City’s bars understood their role in preventing sexual assault.
While I am pleased that this was an effective protest, it also sparked some profound changes to me on a personal level. By drawing a line in the sand and calling out a toxic aspect of the community I loved, I put myself on the line and felt myself become more aware of my power. I was willing to publicly stand up to institutionalized violence, and learned that there were people out there who would back me up. In the months that followed, I channeled this self-assurance into other parts of my life, using it when I came out as queer and applied to grad school. While a bath bomb might soothe for 15 minutes, organizing a protest compelled me to change the way I engaged with the world—the ultimate form of self-care. Though it’s been three years, I’ll still drink to that.