A student posed as a dominatrix at the scene of her rape

In a photo series called ‘Reclamation’, student Karmenife Paulino returned to the fraternity house where it happened to assert her power

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An image from ReclamationTess Altman

Karmenife Paulino was 22 when she was raped by a fraternity brother at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, United States. Ostracised by her former friends, Paulino says she was forced to push for justice largely on her own. The experience almost broke her. 

“I became consumed by anxiety and depression, to the point where running into my rapist on campus left me vomiting. Sometimes I would get these hand tremors that were so horrible I could not turn a doorknob. I felt completely unsafe on that campus and I was constantly consumed with fear and anger.”

Three years after the rape, Paulino’s attacker was expelled from the university, although criminal charges were not pursued against him. Paulino began to put her life back together and to think about the spaces that had “terrorised” her on campus, including the frat house it happened.

“I figured if I had to go back there [to college], I was going to take that power back. I wanted to be able to walk around that campus confidently, without feeling so broken. Before, I had felt scared even to go to class or to go get food. I felt like my whole world had shattered, that I was being consumed by darkness.”

Along with photographer Tess Altman, Paulino’s photo series Reclamation is a response to the man who attacked her. “I wanted to do something in the space that had tortured me.”

Attired as a BDSM-dominatrix, Paulino shot Reclamation on the grounds of the fraternity house where she was attacked. “I chose my outfit because it’s clothing that I feel both extremely confident and extremely vulnerable in. The whole project is about role reversal and dominance, and since my body was involuntarily weaponised when I was raped, I thought, ‘I’m going to use this body to take everything back.’ I figured I’m going to wear this outfit that shows everything off and also exudes so much power. When I think of a sexually confident, powerful woman, the first thing that comes to me, to my mind, is a dominatrix.”

Shooting Reclamation has been an act of catharsis; a way to work through trauma. “Posing for the photos was extremely heavy but very empowering. I can’t express what it felt like to feel powerful and beautiful in a space where I had felt so powerless and broken for so long. For the first time in a long time I felt excited. I felt powerful.”

The response to Paulino’s project has been mixed. “On the most part, the reception has been positive. I’ve got messages from survivors saying how inspired they’ve been. But I’ve also heard people trying to discredit me, saying I’m lying or that I should be ashamed of myself for not reporting my rapist to the police.” For Paulino, the reaction to Reclamation perfectly illustrates how our society fails rape survivors. “If anything this shows me how deeply rooted rape culture is in our society and it gives me more determination to keep going and keep fighting to eradicate it.”

If there’s one message Paulino would like to send to men and women at college campuses across the USA, it’s that “we are rape culture. It is the society in which we live. It’s the way we treat each other. It’s helping someone home safely when they’re passed out at a party, and stepping in when you see someone’s boundaries being abused. Ending the terrors of rape culture begins with each of us examining and changing the ways in which we actively participate in it”.

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