Trigger warning: mention of sexual assault.
Molly Gildersleeve is an artist, designer, activist, and founder of a safe sex campaign called THIS IS NOT CONSENT—all before the age of 20. As a current fashion design student at a renowned arts college, she is paving the way for a safer sexual landscape via style and clothing. She told HelloFlo more about her plans, goals, and interests.
What is THIS IS NOT CONSENT, and why should our readers know about it?
THIS IS NOT CONSENT is a tee shirt line designed to promote discussion about sexual consent and rape culture in our society today. Each shirt is intended to represent a different circumstance a woman might be blamed for “asking for it” which is a phrase that really makes my skin crawl. Circumstances like drinking, being alone, and showing too much skin are some examples of ways victims of rape and sexual assault are blamed for the crimes committed against them. Sex is never an obligation or accidental request. Sex should be about intimacy and care for another human and if respect is missing from that equation it is no longer sex, it is rape. Our shirts are designed to make people think about these “excuses” society uses for rape. The reality is rapists rape. Alcohol doesn’t rape, isolation doesn’t rape, “slutty clothes” don’t rape—rapists rape. No one is ever “asking for it” or at fault for subjecting themselves to a bad situation and that is what we would like to communicate in our shirts.
What inspired you to get started with THIS IS NOT CONSENT? How do you hope to impact the realm of sexual health and happiness?
If I am going to be completely honest, I was sexually assaulted a couple years back. I blamed myself for everything and carried around a lot of guilt because of what happened. I felt maybe if I had worn something less revealing, or had behaved in a different manner, that it wouldn’t have happened to me. Every time I saw the dress I had worn that night, I couldn’t help but be afraid something like that might happen again if I put it back on.
This last year, I finally came around to accepting that I had been sexually assaulted and in facing this reality, realized it was not my fault. It was not fair of me to blame myself because there is absolutely no excuse to treat a person like that. I had to reset my thinking and essentially stand up for myself against my own self-hate. I had to reteach myself that it is OK to feel beautiful, it is OK to demand respect, and most importantly it is OK to say no.
I started THIS IS NOT CONSENT because I want to help others going through this healing process realize that it is not their fault. I want to educate about sexual consent so that I can alleviate some of that guilt and anger for others like me. The pain will never go away and I cannot change what has been done to me, but I can work to help change how things like this play out in the future for other survivors.
It is important that each one of us feels safe and able to discuss our feelings and worries about sex and I would like THIS IS NOT CONSENT to help open that discussion in order for people to learn about themselves and others so that the miscommunication that leads to sexual assault happens significantly less often.
What do you consider to be one of the most important aspects of your work?
As an artist/designer, I think it is important to maintain an outward focus when creating. With every project I embark on, I try to incorporate an element of giving back to or advancing the community around me, because let’s be honest, we are stronger together than apart. THIS IS NOT CONSENT is about both educating and giving back. We are educating by providing a safe platform to discuss sex and the grey areas between sex and rape. We are giving back by donating 10% of out proceeds to The Children’s Advocacy Center, an organization that provides legal and psychological support to children, teens, and adults who are victims of child abuse and sexual assault.
I believe art and apparel have a significant influence on society today and I would like to use this power to change the world for the better.
What are your hopes for your future and the future of THIS IS NOT CONSENT?
Moving forward with THIS IS NOT CONSENT, I would like to grow my team because, like I said, we are more powerful together than apart and I am always open to new contribution. I want to advance the blog we currently have on our website and open it up to fellow writers who have similar passions and experiences. Additionally, I would love to get the tee-shirts/message to more college campuses specifically because I recognize that rape culture is a very concentrated problem in that environment and as a college student myself, it scares me how rampant sexual assault really is.
In addition to growing THIS IS NOT CONSENT, I would also like to grow my own portfolio. As a junior Fashion Design student at Savannah College of Art and Design, I am about to embark on development of my senior collection which I would like to center around women’s rights and sex culture. Lingerie has always been a love of mine and I plan to develop my own line in which my focus will be on creating beautiful, comfortable undergarments for women in ways that empower rather than sexualize. After school, I plan to continue this work, either independently or with a brand that has the same focus on sexual education and liberation.
How do you find inspiration and hope in the face of discouragement?
I’ve had a lot of people react to this project by saying “rape isn’t a problem anymore” or “women have equal rights, what’s the problem” which, in both cases, is really frustrating. I have, in some moments, second guessed myself and felt maybe it wasn’t a worthwhile cause… and then a case like Brock Turner’s shows up and I am once again reminded why sexual education is so important to me.
Whenever I find myself losing motivation, I reeducate myself on what I am really fighting against. Just the other day a case came out about a court judge in Canada asking a rape survivor, “Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?” That is the kind of victim blaming that gets me so angry I could scream. That is the kind of behavior that needs to change and that is exactly why I am working on these projects.
What’s an important lesson that you’ve learned since you’ve started this work?
Not everyone will like or understand what I am doing, and that’s OK.
What has been one of your biggest career challenges, and how did you overcome it?
It is hard to not compare yourself to your competition. In art school especially, I have met so many unbelievably talented people who would blow me away in one talent competition or another.
The secret is collaboration. We all have that thing we are the best at. No one is the best at everything. By collaborating, everyone is able to contribute their ability in creative ways that no one person could do on their own. I have since collaborated with photo, writing and fibers majors, all who bring skills to the table I could only dream of having. By opening my projects to others, I have been able to gain from others’ talents and they gain from mine. This mentality allows people to be supportive rather than jealous and in this way, work is able to develop in a much more organic, liberated way.
Do you have any advice for young girls who want to be more involved?
Don’t be afraid to ask how you can help! Email any company or organization that seems interesting to you and offer your time. Most activist organizations, like THIS IS NOT CONSENT, are centered around community and collaboration and will be very excited to hear from you and help you get involved. In the process of looking for an internship for myself, I started by googling “feminist lingerie” and emailed every company I could find asking to help out in some way. “Thinx,” an underwear brand designed for women on their periods with a focus on body positivity, emailed me back offering a position as a Brand Ambassador meaning I get to host events once a month to educate and expand on women’s rights and sexual health.
If you want to start your own project, ask for help! Don’t get frustrated if you can’t do everything on your own because believe me, no one can. You will be surprised how many people will want to get involved when your focus is on a worthy cause.