Last year, young artist Robert Tennent was the victim of an unprotected sexual assault. Following five months of celibacy, he reclaimed his life by returning to various sexual activity – one-night stands, threesomes, and making love. Inspired by the sweet words of his lover, “Stay as long as you like,” he began to take pictures of his sexual partners, documenting his experience of healing. He recently published the photo book Come Back to Bed and is now curating an exhibiton in Auckland (New Zealand). Today, he speaks about the importance of taking control, speaking out again sexual assault, and refusing to be defined as a victim.
How did you get the idea to write this book? Initially, it seemed to be a form of healing and rehabilitation, so why did you decide to publish it for public consumption?
I was on a flight from Vietnam back home to New Zealand. There were no good shows or movies on the video display in front of me. I grew tired of listening to music. I ripped my printed ticket in half, put the food tray down and started to write. I had spent the night before with a beautiful British man, and we had an amazing twelve hours. He had to leave for work early in the morning and, before he left, he let me stay in bed and said, “You can stay as long as you like”. Those words stuck with me so I began to write about our night. I then wrote about nights I spent with the other men since my assault. When I realized how powerful this project was, I decided to turn it into a book and publish it so people could speak about assault and healing. People would have been less interested if I just released the photos on a website or Tumblr. This way, it is something physically in front of us, begging to be talked about.
How did taking and compiling these pictures help you to heal from your past trauma?
I was completely in control and it was a mutual trust between each other. I couldn’t control my assault, but I can control what I do after it, and this was what I chose to do. It was a strange experience but it made us grow closer, it was a way to build a friendship. I still speak to most if not all of the men in my book.
Very few of your photographs show your subjects’ faces. Was this their request for privacy or an artistic choice?
When I began taking photos, I had no intention of putting them into a book. So most of the images actually have faces. When I did decide to compile it all into a book, I had to find ways to crop faces out. I worked closely with all the men. I would send them the original photos and the edited ones. They got to pick what they wanted in the book and what they didn't want. I even sent them their stories in case there was something in there that could reveal their identity.
Many of your photographs feature men with your hands on their faces or around their necks. On first glance, they appear to be domineering positions. Why did you choose to include these? How do they speak to your relationships with the respective men?
I knew the photos were quite explicit. I did this for two reasons. The main reason is because I love necks. I love kissing them, touching them – just love them. I also chose to include them because, as a way of rediscovering sex, I had to have many different kinds of sex. I had one-night stands, threesomes, made-love; I tried a lot of things, and with that came dominant sex. I wanted to be able to try everything. This was not a way of alluding to my assault and I can understand that it may seem that way to some, but certainly not. It was to contrast the tenderness of the other images.
Your interview with your father for Out Magazine is incredibly moving. What was it like to sit down and talk to him about your experience? Why did it take you so long to do so?
I was scared. I was always afraid I’d have to defend my story or try to convince people. My dad is from a different generation and we don’t speak much about that stuff. No parent wants to think about their child being assaulted. And the book was revealing my sex life, which could be uncomfortable to look at from a parent’s point of view. When I did talk to him about it, a huge weight was lifted off my chest. I think it was a big step for us as father and son.
Did you have a similar conversation with your mother? How did that go? How did it differ from your conversation with your father?
My mother is Vietnamese and, quite frankly, I don't know how to say it to her. I speak Vietnamese but it’s rough around the edges. I only came out to my mother in April. And that conversation went smoother than I imagined. Her generation can be quiet closed-minded and the LGBT representation over in Vietnam is not the best/strongest. I have moved on from it in so many ways and am so confident in my narrative that I may just not tell her.
What were other reactions to your publication? Have you received widespread support? Any backlash?
As I sit here speaking to you about my story and my book, I am instantly reminded of how lucky I am to be given this platform. I want to speak for those that are unable to. I shine a light on the darkest parts of my life in the hopes that it can creep into the darkest parts of others. I received an email from an organization that claimed I was glorifying sexual assault. She said the photograph of me in bed clutching my pillow was sultry and does not resemble the horrified expressions she has seen in other victims. Pretty much she tried to invalidate my reaction and my form of healing, basically telling me to act more like a sad wounded victim. I am in charge of my body and how I choose to recover from this. Things you can’t control happen. But we can control our reaction and what we choose to do from there.
In your interview with your father, he says, “For those not involved, [sexual assault] is an ugly subject like child pornography.” How can we eradicate this taboo and it into a public conversation?
It’s hard and it’s sad to think about it. But it’s even sadder to think about how it is actually happening. I have had people reach out to me about being assaulted by family members, people between the ages of sixteen to fifty-six. I think the more we speak about it, the less shocked people will be. The case of Zainab Ansari gained worldwide attention, but it was already too late. I am not saying that victims owe us their stories. We see what being quiet can do and those that do come forward will be able to save someone that cannot.
In general, sexual assault is highly stigmatized, but it remains even more so for men. Has this been your experience? Why is our society so reluctant to deal with these issues?
In the gay community, it is spoken about quite often. I went on national radio to speak about assault, and they opened the conversation to the people listening. For the two hours I was live on air, all the callers were straight men. These were men that have been quiet for forty years or more, and to be able to speak up on national radio was extremely brave. It was extremely powerful because it shines a light. I think our society is so reluctant to discuss this because we don't have enough men coming forward. We teach them from a young age to ‘be a man’ and ‘stop crying’. It’s all built on this stereotype that men have to be strong and can’t be vulnerable. It’s caused pain for a lot of them.
The choice to publicize your past trauma is very brave. Are you happy that you did this project? What were the emotional ramifications of taking on such a task?
As an artist, it is hard to step away from a project and accept that it is good enough and leave it there. Looking at it now, I am extremely proud of it. I wanted to create something that was bigger than I was, and I think it has done that. I don't like to hype myself up or speak of things in case they don't live up to my expectations. This book has blown away any expectations I had. Thinking about your assault every day can be draining, and keeping it quiet for so long was hard as well. I didn't want people to know about it until it was out. I would dream about the book and think about it all day. I can now finally relax and focus on my next project.
What do you hope that readers will take away from Come Back to Bed?
I want them to know that this was how I chose to heal. I don't suggest you buy a camera and do what I did. But there are different forms of healing. I want them to know how important it is to take time to focus on themselves.
In addition to the publication, you’ll also have an exhibition of your pictures. How have you adapted the book into an exhibition? Are there any differences, besides the format?
I printed the photographs onto bed sheets and I hung them on washing lines. I also hung up socks and undies that were from the men in the book. I wanted it to be ‘in your face’. I wanted to play in a different format and I think it worked out really well. I hope I am able to bring the exhibition to other countries, but finding spaces can be super difficult.
Do you have any final words of advice for other victims of sexual assault?
Take your time. I am sorry that it had to happen to us. But there are so many people out there that will support us and listen to us. And I am one of them. I am always open to speak.