Interview by Anna-Claire McGrath
Shanon Lee is a contributing writer for The Huffington Post, a filmmaker, a Women’s Media Center SheSource Expert, a member of the Speakers Bureau for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) and the host of The Hush!, a blab talk show for feminist voices. Her current documentary, Art as a Voice, features five artists-activists who are survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.
THE FEM: You work a lot with victims of domestic abuse as a member of the Speakers Bureau for RAINN and as a filmmaker. What led you to go down that path? Why is it important that we talk about these issues?
SHANON LEE: I was a young divorcee and survivor of marital rape that went on to study clinical mental health counseling because I wanted to understand the mentality of my abuser and my relationship patterns. A decade after my divorce, my rapist started harassing me online during the height of the #IamJada movement. I felt that if a teen could be brave enough to speak out, after images of her rape were spread across social media, I could help others by sharing my story. After my essay about marital rape was published on xoJane.com, I was interviewed on HuffPost Live and invited to join the Speaker’s Bureau for RAINN. This year, I had the opportunity to submit a short film to an art event for Sexual Assault Awareness Month and I loved the experience. I am a storyteller; everything I do is influenced by my life experiences and desire to advocate for other survivors. Marital rape is not only stigmatized because women are still fighting for equality, the crime is overlooked because people are uneducated about consent.
THE FEM: What would you say to someone who maybe suspects that they’re in an abusive relationship, but is afraid to get help?
SHANON LEE: Educate yourself about the signs of abuse and value yourself enough to take action. Leave any relationship that is toxic. What I love about writing is that the stories that resonate often do so because you have recognized a similar situation in your own life. You can read about what has happened to others and make corrections in your own life. It is scary to ask for help, but you have to push past the fear and take positive steps to improve your life. That does not mean you should be unwise. There are organizations, like RAINN, available to help you make an escape plan so you can escape safely. Reach out to your support network of coworkers, friends and family. Nothing is going to change until you do. I went from living as a military dependent to having my husband arrested and displaced from our home by the police overnight. I did not have an immediate plan, but I knew I wanted to stay alive. Trust that you will enter survival mode and be able to surmount any challenge set before you in the future because you have already experienced the worst.
THE FEM: You wrote a recent piece for The Huffington Post where you lament the fact that we still call divorced moms “damaged goods”, and you talk about your own experience as a divorced mom receiving stigma. Why do you think that stigma still exists, and what can we do to challenge it?
SHANON LEE: Part of human nature is our tendency to judge others. It is easy to point out what we perceive to be flaws in others, without addressing our own issues. Americans are force fed this ideal of monogamy and marriage that is unrealistic, but millions are trying to achieve the impossible. Many of us are not emotionally evolved enough to handle the selflessness that marriage requires. The fact is, marriage is hard and the happily divorced woman is still a phenomenon. But, whether people are mistreating divorced moms out of jealousy or fear, it still hurts. The idea that you can be uncoupled and content goes against societal norms and anyone who goes against the grain is going to be ostracized. I have been single and dating, married, happily divorced and in a long-term relationship for five years and counting. There is not anything anyone can say to convince me that I am unworthy of a great partner because I have not had a lasting marriage, because I know that is a fallacy. The best thing we can do to combat negative stereotypes about divorced moms is to speak out when we see them being perpetuated.
THE FEM: The documentary you’re working on right now, Art As A Voice, deals with artists who are survivors of domestic abuse. What have you learned by speaking to survivors about abuse that you didn’t expect? Do you feel artists handle the trauma of abuse differently than others, and how so?
SHANON LEE: I am constantly reminded that there is more work to be done to prevent intimate partner violence. I am disappointed by how common domestic violence and sexual assault is in this country and how often it is excused. If you are creative, you will naturally express yourself through your art. Pain has a way of making you turn inward and that solitude can often manifest the most poignant pieces. Whether it was writing songs, penning essays, or making films, creating art has always been cathartic for me. What is even more inspiring is how art therapy is used to treat trauma for survivors who have never been artistic. Someone who has never produced art is tapping into a whole new side of themselves to heal and that is beautiful. What I found while working with different art-activists for Art As A Voice, is the art they created took on a more meaningful purpose after being assaulted.
THE FEM: What writers and filmmakers inspire you and your work? Who should we be looking towards?
SHANON LEE: Growing up, my favorite writers were Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Shay Youngblood. In 2015, I was obsessed with Shirin Neshat’s short film Munis. I learned I could successfully mix advocacy with filmmaking in a way that was compelling. I am also drawn to quirky feature films by directors like Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and hope to see more work by director Amma Asante (Belle) and visual artist Khalil Joseph. There are amazing female independent filmmakers cropping up in every community. Support our projects and if you need help finding us, search using #womeninfilm on Twitter and Facebook.