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Baltimore duo's fight against 'rape culture' takes on Congress, Victoria's Secret

Victoria's SecretSexual AssaultArtElectionsTodd Akin

Rebecca Nagle and Hannah Brancato aren't interested in spilling Victoria's Secret. But the Baltimore-based artists and feminists do want the lingerie giant — and other cultural forces — to tell a different story about sex.

Disturbed by societal messages about rape and consent, the pair have projected the words "Rape Is Rape" on the U.S. Capitol, joined in an art exhibit about sexual assault and created a line of underwear with messages emphasizing that women control their own bodies. This month, they targeted Victoria's Secret's Pink brand during the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, posting messages to Twitter and Facebook promoting their "Pink Loves Consent" line of underwear — featuring sayings like "No Means No" and "Ask First" as a spoof alternative to Pink lingerie that bears messages such as "Sure Thing."

Their project, Upsetting Rape Culture, aims "to agitate the culture of rape and promote a culture of consent," according to the mission statement posted on its Facebook page. Nagle and Brancato "are employing a variety of tactics to disrupt the silence that surrounds sexual violence and call attention to the images that perpetuate the culture of rape. We envision a world where sex is empowering and pleasurable rather than coercive and violent."

In the case of the Victoria's Secret parody, "We decided to hijack their brand," said Nagle, 26, who describes herself as a performance artist and community arts teacher. "It's problematic to have those messages placed over a vagina. This is marketed toward women and is promoting gender roles that promote rape."

The online campaign quickly went viral, and their website, pinklovesconsent.com, was flooded with page views. The site was re-posted and shared through social media.

"We went from zero page views to more than 50,000 in the first few hours," said Nagle. Close to 9,000 people have "liked" the campaign's Facebook page. "It happened really quickly."

With the attention came the inevitable pushback from Victoria's Secret. Representatives from the retailer threatened the group's Web host, Bluehost.com, with legal action, which resulted in the website's being taken down, according to Nagle — for one evening.

Nagle and Brancato found a new host in Iceland, and the website went up the next day.

"Since putting up the new site, nothing has happened," said Nagle, a Charles Village resident. "The first provider tried to work with us, but they had no choice. They were between a rock and a hard place."

Attempts to contact Victoria's Secret were not successful.

"What we did is totally legal," Nagle said. "Since this was a parody or satire, it's considered 'fair use.' We're doing this so people can talk freely."

Katie Bogle, a professor of sociology at La Salle University in Philadelphia and author of "Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus," considers Pink Loves Consent a "positive step" that will draw attention from young women, "but the question is whether young men take notice."

Still, she said, "I think any type of pro-consent source that's unconventional and that people pay attention to is a good thing to counter the messages that they get from other places."

Nagle and Brancato have been working to raise awareness about "rape culture" — images, language, laws and everyday phenomena that they say validate and perpetuate rape — for years. But this past political season really ignited a newfound urgency for the two, egged on by instances such as Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's dismissing the likelihood of "legitimate rape" victims becoming pregnant.

Akin, who lost his bid for the U.S. Senate in last month's election, "is not the only person who feels that way," Nagle said . "Victoria's Secret made a mistake, but it is one instance of rape culture. We're swimming in an ocean of it."

The latest campaign comes on the heels of an October project in which the pair led an effort to project the message "Rape is Rape" on the Capitol.

They also participated in "FORCE: On the Culture of Rape," an art exhibit that addressed "rape as both a psychological and a physical weapon," according to their literature.

Next, Nagle and Brancato plan a project in conjunction with V-day, which coincides with Valentine's Day and aims to raise awareness of violence against women with performances of "The Vagina Monologues" and other artistic events.

The current Pink campaign, Nagle stressed, isn't just about lingerie, and she doesn't hate Victoria's Secret.

"When you parody something, there has to be some type of appreciation. We've spent a lot of time looking at their website. We've become very intimate with Victoria's Secret," Nagle said with a laugh. "I know who all their models are."

Baltimore Sun reporter Zach Sparks contributed to this article.

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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