Karmenife Paulino ’15: On Reclamation and Other Things

Credit for this photo goes to Karmenife Paulino and Tess Altman at The Reclamation.

Credit for this photo goes to Karmenife Paulino and Tess Altman at Reclamation.

Note: This interview discusses sexual assault. It was also conducted prior to Winter Break and doesn’t reflect certain changes on campus since then. 

I knock at some small senior house right off of Cross street, and a muffled cry of, “Be right there,” can be heard from behind its chipping red door. The door opens, and this is the first and last time that I ever meet Karmenife Paulino ’15 – I follow curly, auburn hair up the narrow staircase as we say our hello’s and I am taken to her room. Her room is cozy and dim, with colored lights strung up on the left wall next to artwork and posters. My eyes graze over the mid-packing mess that I’ve interrupted, led to a mannequin in bondage gear leaning on the right wall.

She sits on her bed, crosslegged and comfortable, her body turned at an angle from mine, as I take a seat on the bottom most edge and gracelessly stumble through introductions. She’s patient as I rummage through my bag for my questions, and we begin.

What exactly is Reclamation?

 The need for this project began from a personal thing. I was assaulted by a Psi U brother the second month of my freshman year, and I have always felt…really unsafe in fraternity spaces. I had only gone to Beta twice, and I had only gone to DKE a few times. Every time I would go into these spaces, it kinda felt like my body stopped being mine. People would start touching me… no one had any respect for me, and it was weird because if I were to say something about it in those spaces, I would be the bad person.

I also had another friend who was a woman of color who was dancing at DKE and she was called a slut and all this shit – it was really fucked up, and it was just, you know, women of color are especially demonized in these spaces. So I figured, one thing that has been very therapeutic to me as a survivor was finding creative outlets for my pain, and so I just thought, ‘What would reclaiming that space look like? What would a shift in power dynamics really look like?’ I thought it would be an incredible kind of photo project to do, especially since it’s not only a survivor’s body who is in power, but a survivor of color who is in power.

I founded Survivor Support Network this semester, and both within this network and in speak outs and things like that in general – I noticed that most of the people speaking out are white women. And that has a lot to do with the fact that white survivors, when they speak out about their experiences, they can really represent themselves and be individuals – and survivors of color, we’re burdened with representing the whole community. If your attacker is part of that community it’s just so much harder. Just so, so much harder – it took me so long with finally coming to terms, to calling my rapist a rapist, because he was black. I just felt like I was enforcing stereotypes by calling him that. I felt like I was betraying the community that I had been trying to protect my whole life – I had a really hard time dealing with that. That really shows you how ingrained rape culture is in everything. To think that I am causing the problem by calling him what the fuck he is, when he is the one causing everything because he is the one deciding to do all of this.

So I just, like – I wanted to do something where I was the one who was in complete control in that space. I was the one who was completely confident and dominant in that space, and I use my body, and show off my body because sexual confidence is a huge part of the project as well. Because women who are sexually confident and independent are demonized in these spaces. My rapist used to say, “Oh, you’re going to believe that slut, that whore, that this-and-that, and it’s like, yeah I am a “slut” and that’s totally fine. At the end of the day I’ve said yes to these men, but I’ve said no to you. It doesn’t matter. I’m really sick and tired of people bringing up a survivors sexual history when we are talking about sexual assault because they are not correlative.

They don’t connect. At all. It really bothers me – if someone steals your car, like, I made an analogy the other day: If you get your car stolen and you go to the police and the police are like, “Oh, you like to carpool don’t you, don’t you share your car with everybody else…” that shit is stupid. It doesn’t make any sense, it doesn’t correlate. And so I wanted to do this project where not only is a person like me in power, but really importantly a body that has been really tortured by these spaces is the one getting to reclaim it, getting to recreate my own power structure in buildings that are already existing as such oppressive forces. I was so excited to do it, because being on this campus and having to deal with bullshit from frats—I can’t, I’ve been catcalled by Beta bros on their fucking roof, the times that I’ve been groped at DKE, the times that my friends who are gay have been kicked out of DKE, the times that my friends who are trans and gender nonconforming have been harassed at Eclectic; all of that shit.

And I also- we spent a whole day in Eclectic, because it’s the only place that we were allowed to be inside. I would have loved to go inside the frats but they were closed up, and we were only allowed to shoot from the sidewalk so we had to get really creative. How are we going to make this look a little different? But Eclectic was the only space we could go into, because it was the only one open, and that took a whole day because that was the first time I had ever gone back.


Credit for this photo goes to Karmenife Paulino and Tess Altman at Reclamation.


And how did Eclectic respond to how you were in that space?

Oh, they didn’t have a choice. The current president,  when I first posted about the project – he reached out to me and said, “Let me know if you need to get in here and I’ll take care of it.” He was so on it, he emailed everybody to make sure, like, “This is when she’s coming to do the shoot, you’re not going to use the front door,” and during the shoot, the whole time, he had a chair in the middle of the stairs, making sure that no one was coming through to disturb me at all. He said, “Honestly, the very least we could do is let you use this space.” I really appreciated just how seriously he took this – how he didn’t want anyone to bother me.

But, at the end of the day when I decided to do this, I was like, ‘They are letting me into this house. I’m not taking no for an answer.” Are you kidding me? And also, that would be the dumbest fucking thing to do to me, to someone who was one of the most dedicated members in Eclectic’s history. They can say whatever the fuck they want to say about me but they cannot deny that I took my role there very seriously, and I did everything I could to make the space better.

Ultimately, I think one of the biggest reasons why I am so passionate about shutting it down was not just because of what they did to me, but just looking back at my time there, I hate the person that Eclectic turned me into. I was really trying so hard to change it; one of the reasons why Eclectic is such a toxic space is because it’s a space that completely hinges on privilege. The whole foundation of Eclectic is this nonchalant I-Don’t-Give-A-Fuck attitude. I’m cool because I don’t care. The Eclectic song is “I’m An Asshole ‘Til I Die”, I specifically remember the first time I heard that during the day I got initiated – and that was a great day for me – I remember being like, I hate this. I don’t want to be an asshole. I’ll be an asshole to the people who deserve it. I don’t really feel comfortable chanting “I’m An Asshole ‘Til I Die” – being an asshole for the sake of it. I don’t like it.

This place has so much fucking potential. I was at the time like, ‘I’m going to work at it to make it what it needs to be’. But, like, the first time I applied I didn’t make it – and I had a friend who pushed me to do it, and I wanted to get closer to her. So I did it and I got in. Long story short, she told me she had to leave the society, a year after I got in. She experienced horrible transphobia. I was just like, “Do what you need to do.” You shouldn’t need to deal with that and we need to talk about this. In the end, there may have been moments where I said something, where I stood up for her because someone was talking shit – there were a lot of other times where I just let that slide behind me.

That’s what I mean when it’s a play on privilege. I have cis-privilege, so trans issues don’t affect me and I end up benefitting from them. So when I was in Eclectic, I look back and I see myself not having it at the forefront. That shit is really fucking despicable. That’s how trans people die. That is how 22 trans women of color have been murdered this year.  That’s how they keep getting killed, by people like me, doing that. And that’s why Eclectic scares the shit out of me, because that’s what it encourages. If you’re white… that’s why so many people there love to say the n-word and shit. Same thing with straight people; this one guy we initiated into Eclectic called my best friend a faggot while I wasn’t on campus. My best friend had to call me to tell me this. I ended up sending this guy an email being like, “If this shit is not fixed by the time I come back to visit it’s going to be you and me.” Shit like that would happen, and some people would be uncomfortable with it, wouldn’t like it. But no one would say shit about it.

If you do say something – “Oh, she’s being sensitive.” It’s completely unhealthy. That’s why I get so fucking scared about people joining it to change it. No, look at me, look at what happened to me. Not only did they almost completely destroy my life, they also turned me into a person who, for a while, was just doing the shit that people do to me all the time. To know that I was that person, that really –

And to think I was that person, and I couldn’t even see it, because I was surrounded by people who were telling me that this behavior was acceptable. To think that I was subconsciously – well, no, subconsciously, but I’m scared to say subconsciously because I don’t want to deviate from the fact that I need to take responsibility for what I’ve done. It was normalized. I did that, and I consider myself to be someone who really tries their hardest to be the best person that they could be. You get people who go into the society to use it for the house, for the drugs, for this-and-that. Their worst sides come out in that house. I really hope that it gets shut down. It brings out the worst in people.

It [the house] is an incredible space and it should be a communal concert space for different student groups to use, or for art shows. When I met with Dean Farias I had a whole plan to turn it into a safe haven for survivors of sexual assault. Those could be extra bedrooms, because a lot of survivors have to move after they choose to speak out because their friends don’t want them no more, or their hall is where they were assaulted. We could use the ballroom as a space for survivors to have a creative outlet – music, art shows, group therapy circles.

He was not listening to me about it! Honestly, anything would be better than what it is now, because its dangerous, completely dangerous.


Credit for this photo goes to Karmenife Paulino and Tess Altman at Reclamation.


So, why, in the photos, did you choose to have some of the models wear tank tops that said “frat filth”?

I wanted something that was going to make them look as degraded and dirty and nasty as they made me feel when I was there. Because that’s how you’re treated when you walk into a space like that. You are filth. You’re nothing. You’re turned into an object for entertainment. I also love how there is definitely elements of humor in this project. I just thought it would be hilarious to have a typical tank top, like all frats have insignia tank tops, and if I could get it in the right lettering and the right colors, they would look like this unified group. If you are going to have this space where you are going to degrade and objectify women, you are filth.  That’s what you are.

I wanted something that was going to sort of symbolize the role reversal – I wanted to make sure I was able to properly symbolize my dominance over them, and degrade them in every facet, in even their dress. And I chose that statement because part of the project is getting the reactions from the frat community – some of them were upset, and were like “What is this?” It’s like, yeah, that’s how you make us feel. This is just a T-shirt that says something; you’re getting your feelings hurt over a T-Shirt. You’re getting angry over pictures, where everyone is consenting to everything.

The amount of work we put into this project, to make sure that everyone felt comfortable and safe – that was extremely important.  Tess Altman and I, we met here at my house, and we invited the models over, and I showed them all of the props, and I got them to look through it, and told them “If you’re not comfortable with any of the props let me know now – we don’t even need to use some of them.” We came up with safe words and safe hand signals (for when they had the ball gags). Everyone in the picture was safe and is consenting to everything.

And I wanted to create a situation where they would get pissed over a T-shirt – and that’s how you make them feel in your house, like they’re garbage. So you’re gonna get mad over a fucking T-shirt that hurts your feelings but where is your reaction when you see these people treated like shit in your house. It was an idea that was there to play on symbolism and reaction. I was very prepared for what was going to come. If you’re angry at these pictures, you’re proving to me why this project is needed. You’re showing me! This project is about empowerment through role reversal, but your institution is about oppression and elitism. Don’t compare the two.

Oh, that was the best, when those T-shirts came in the mail. Oh my goodness, they’re amazing, they’re incredible – everyone wants one now. Everybody wants one. It’s great; I think that was probably my favorite prop that we got for the project. It was so good, and everyone who saw the shirts, who shared the same experience with me really resonated with them, because that’s how they feel when they go in there – they feel like garbage. That’s what I wanted to stimulate with that role reversal.


A: And what did you want to elicit from the larger community of Wesleyan, the community outside of frats and outside of survivors?

I wanted to, sort of, grab their attention. I feel like we’ve had a lot of discussion about this issue – we’ve had speak out events, WSA meetings, but there’s not really artwork. I don’t really see artwork – and these photos speak so many different volumes. Like, you can garner so many different reactions from people with these photos, without really saying anything. I was really just hoping that the people who were kind of in the middle would look at them and start thinking about things in a different way. When they are looking, it evokes a reaction – and I want them to think ‘Why do I feel this way? Why do I feel uncomfortable?’ Is it because everything is switched? Because this is what’s happening, but in a completely more malicious way.

Also, one thing I hoped to achieve was, when they looked at these photos and felt these sorts of reactions, I wanted them to think, “Why did she do this? What garnered this?” And that’s why I found it very important that we included the project description: to give a little bit of history to the inspiration behind the project and hopefully people in the middle will see these pictures and it will motivate them to get more involved. That’s the other thing, too – I needed them to see these pictures, to show them that this is what’s happening here. The fact that this project has to exist tells you that there is a serious fucking problem with sexual assault, institutional racism, transphobia, – all of these things, they exist here, at Wesleyan. And these spaces are an aspect of this campus that sort of exude those structures. You need to pay attention to this, you need to get involved.

I really just wanted these pictures to spark a conversation that would draw more people in and get more people involved. One of the problems that we have here at Wesleyan, especially in the whole movement against sexual assault, is that the people who are leading this movement are the victims. That’s not fair! I just think about all the shit I had to do last year – and I wouldn’t take any of it back – but I never really had the chance to heal. I had to devote everything into fighting, because no one was holding my perpetrators accountable. I wanted people to look at these photos and realize, “Holy shit, this is rape culture. I’m in it. I’m a part of this.” We are all willing participants, we all act within rape culture, rape culture is our society. So, what’s my position and place in it? How am I situated in this? Like, you’re involved in it you’re either helping us or you’re ignoring us. What’s your choice going to be? And hopefully it can inspire them to start asking questions, start coming to meetings, start talking to people. That’s the other thing that’s been really interesting about this project is I’ve had people that I’ve never met before come up to me and ask me questions like, “What? Why did you do this? What can I do to be an ally?” or “I’m in a frat but I feel really conflicted, what can I do?” They’re asking me all the right questions and that just makes me so goddamn happy because this conversation needs to happen. People cannot be afraid to ask questions like this. And people cannot be afraid to do their own goddamn research, too. Go on your computer and look up shit.

Whenever people try to come at me about how frats are so important to our community – go to the fucking Olin library and grab yourself a couple copies of the old Argus papers from the 90’s, and the 80’s, and see what kind of history your frats have. You know, in the fucking 80’s, the 1980s, there are clippings of the Argus where apparently survivors would do take back the night rallies – they would have all these dogs and do these rallies, they would walk by Psi U and all the brothers used to stand outside of the house and scream “Rape the whore!” and they used to throw things at them. There are articles about how DKE and Psi U one year completely trashed the fuck out of a whole floor in Olin causing thousands of dollars in damage. There’s stories about DKE calling people the N-word. There’s just a whole history of that shit – do your research! Do your research and see that there is a whole history of violence here. You can’t really deny it once you know the facts, so just do your research. Start trying to think differently about this whole situation.

People need to realize that we all need to work together to hold people accountable for the shit that they do because I’m really tired of seeing survivors alone holding their perpetrators accountable. It’s really sad to me how so many of my friends who are survivors who chose to speak out, myself included, have been sued. Dearly punished for doing so. If one thing bothers me is that a lot of people always come up to me and are like “Why do so many survivors not talk about it?” Hello!? Look at what happened to me! There are real fucking consequences for this shit, I lost my house, my friends, I lost so much money because of Eclectic, because of doctor’s visits and medication, I got put in a fucking psychiatric ward. Eclectic’s house manager lied to the administration and told them I wanted to set people on fire – which never fucking happened! All of this, because I decided to speak up against the man who raped me.

I have a friend – her rapist is filing a fucking harassment suit against her for speaking. I have friends who are getting accosted by the university trying to get them to shut up. Survivors don’t speak because they don’t want to.  They don’t speak because they know that there’s real shit that could happen that could ruin their lives.  So the way that we can fix that is by giving them safe spaces to speak out.  Look at the speak out event from last year – that was only supposed to last an hour. It lasted three. It lasted three hours because the second the survivors came into that room, and they saw that a whole group of people were standing there, listening and being respectful, and not victim blaming – They started grabbing at the mike.  We only had four or five people who were scheduled to speak, and just more and more people just started grabbing at the mic as they finally saw a space where it’s like ‘Oh My God, if I speak here no one’s going to really hurt me – I can say it.  Say something. It’s going to be okay.’

Ever since I spoke out, the amount of survivors who have reached out to me, on campus and not on campus and Facebook friends who I’ve never met. Survivors from all over; the second I started being really public about this shit. I think I console one survivor per week, or something like that. I’ve talked to so many because they see me and they think, ‘Oh god, this is finally someone I can talk to and she’s not going to attack me – I’m going to be safe.’ It’s so sad when people ask why survivors don’t speak –there’s no such space but if we give them a safe space then they will.

I get so frustrated – I got my whole life twisted upside down, all because I wanted Eclectic to send an email to my rapist to say you’re banned from the house, don’t come in. And if I didn’t have a No-Contact order they would have brought him to my house. It would have happened. That’s the only reason why he was not brought into the house. It’s so fucked up because it they wanted to bring him into this house after I told them he raped me, after I told them he raped multiple women on campus. Literally, he would use Psi U as a space to scope out victims. He would target women who were very drunk and alone. That was his signature move. If anyone saw him dragging or badgering or harassing or holding you, or leading an extremely intoxicated girl and she was alone – his brothers weren’t going to stop him. In fact, they were going to encourage him; because that’s what they did with me. I’ll never forget that shit – he dragged me up on stage and started kissing me and his brothers just started patting him on the back, all clapping and cheering for him. Then he assaulted me. One of his friends, not a Psi U brother but from Alpha Delt, was his witness, and the thing that he said was, “She was into it.”


First of all, what does that mean? Second of all, even if I was into kissing him, I was not consenting to anything else that happened when we went into the basement. So I don’t understand why that testimony matters. He had sexually harassed me in public – in Psi U – and two other times before that. And no one intervened, except one time my friend came out of the bathroom and she saw him trying to lead me upstairs and she yanked me, like, “No, this is not happening.” But his brothers? They did not give a shit. Same thing with Eclectic. He groped me in Eclectic too, and they didn’t care.


Credit for this photo goes to Karmenife Paulino and Tess Altman at Reclamation.


A: So, I understand the Reclamation as both a role reversal and a reclaiming of these spaces –so why, out of all types of clothing, did you choose to dress in bondage/BDSM style clothing?

I guess, because it’s clothing that I feel both extremely confident and extremely vulnerable in. Especially with a project like this – being that exposed in that space. You get treated a certain way. The whole project is about role reversal and dominance, and since my body was involuntarily weaponized 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 you think of a sexually confident, powerful woman, the first thing that comes to me, to my mind, is a dominatrix.

I was also intrigued to do this because I online date a lot, and I get a lot of messages from a lot of different people, and I’ve noticed these white, Wall Street guys, who have been in fraternities, are into this shit. This one dude, the Wall Street type, he offered one hundred dollars an hour to step on his face. Just stepping on his face. It’s like, I would step on your face for free and you’re going to pay me money? And then he deleted his profile and I was so mad because I had my AT&T bill out, ready. I was so excited, I was like, ‘I’m gonna pay my bills, yes, let’s do this.’ I thought it would be really, really interesting and really important to be dressed up as a dominatrix, because women who dress like that in those spaces are demonized, and are labeled. “She’s easy. She’s this. She’s whatever,” but deep down inside, they’re into that weird, pervasive shit too.

You’re demonizing somebody for what they’re wearing, but here you are doing some fucked up shit. Behind the scenes – it’s this whole play on things – so I was like, ‘No, I am going to bring the whole, sexual confidence power thing right to your face.’ And you’re going to fucking respect me. That’s why it as really, really important for me to be wearing that in those photos. I am wearing something that would usually deem me a target in those spaces, and would deem me less intelligent, less classy, slutty, asking-for-it… all that bullshit. In those pictures, they’re completely respecting me and worshiping me.

That’s one of my favorite pictures in the project – the one where one model is kissing my foot and I’m standing and smiling. It’s my favorite thing because everything is completely switched: I’m wearing what the fuck I want, I’m showing off my body, and I’m still this powerful, all-encompassing being, and you are worshiping me. It’s a complete shift because when people look at those pictures and they see that whole reverse thing they have to think, ‘Oh, fuck, what really happens? What really happens inside those walls? What would really happen if she walked into that house wearing that?’

It was so important to me to wear something that exudes sexual confidence, especially because I’m a woman of color. Because women of color are seen as sexually deviant from birth. That shit is in the black community like, “Oh she’s fast!” I hate that shit. I hate that shit so much. Women of color are always demonized for owning their sexuality; for example, look at fucking Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” single. People freaked the fuck out – “What about the children? What about our children?” Bitch, she’s not their mother, and even if she was, who cares? It’s her body! That’s her act! That’s her body, she’s doing what she wants with her body, why the fuck you care? But Kim Kardashian can Break The Internet and, like, everybody is praising her, “She’s so beautiful!”

It was really important for me to wear something like that because not only is there not a lot of artwork like this, but there needs to be more artwork with women of color survivors, with survivors of color. I wanted to wear that because I’m so tired of being looked at like I’m degrading my community for loving my body, for being comfortable in my own skin, why are you judging me for what I’m wearing? This is how I choose to present myself, and at the end of the day I’m tired of black bodies being viewed as vulgar; I’m tired of big breasts and big hips and thick thighs being viewed as too much.

All the comments I’ve got are like, “You know you’re showing off so much cleavage.” Like, well, yeah! I have huge boobs – if I don’t wear a turtleneck they’re going to be fucking out there and at the end of the day, why is that a bad thing? So you can buy breasts, you can buy porn mags and shit but when I choose to show mine off and feel comfortable with mine – why is that a problem? It’s just really important for me as a woman of color to be wearing something that exudes sexual confidence because I’m tired of black respectability politics, and I’m disgusted with how women of color are chastised for owning their sexuality. However, men of color who rape women… Where is their chastisement? Where is their punishment? That’s the shit that really pisses me the fuck off because I’m sick and tired.

I have a lot of issues with the students of color community here because I’m going to these Black Lives Matter protests and seeing rapists there, and seeing rape enablers there – how the hell can you Say Black Lives Matter? When you say Black Lives Matter, you’re basically saying black men’s lives matter, you know? Because you’re not talking about black trans people, and you’re not talking about black survivors of color. You’re just talking about yourself and that just really bothers me. So you will fucking come after a woman for what she’s wearing, but when you hear that your boy rapes somebody you’re going to immediately say that she’s lying, immediately demonize her, immediately use whatever the fuck she’s wearing to say she’s asking for it. That also doesn’t make any sense; what does asking for it look like? Because no one asks to be raped – that’s such a weird concept to me, it’s like, no one asks to be abused. Do you ask to get shot by the police? It’s really funny to me whenever black men come at me and it’s like, “Oh, how do you expect me to treat you when you’re dressed like that?” and I’m like, “Isn’t that what the police say to you?”


Credit for this photo goes to Karmenife Paulino and Tess Altman at Reclamation.


 Like, “You’re wearing a hoodie, you look like a ‘thug’?”

Exactly, it’s the same shit. And it’s so ridiculous to me, like ‘Wow, you are literally treating me like I am some kind of package.’ Like, what I wear is for you to decide what the fuck I’m here for you to do – I wear what I wear for me. It’s all for me! Like, it has nothing to do with you. It was really important for me to wear something that what exuding sexual confidence and extreme dominance and power, because I wanted to feel so powerful. People can look at those pictures and say whatever the hell they want about my body or say, “Oh, she shouldn’t be wearing that,” but I am the one in control, they can’t take the control away from me. That’s the whole point. I also wanted other survivors, especially survivors of color and women of color, to be able to look at this – at the end of the they day they’re going to try to get you on anything, so wear whatever the fuck you want as long as it makes you feel powerful and confident. Fucking wear it, fucking do it.

I originally got something else to wear for that but it was basically the same thing, it was a dominatrix catsuit with latex and stuff and I was really excited about it – of course, I ordered an extra-large just to be safe and… on what planet was this thing an extra-large? I have no fucking idea – I tried to put it on and I was just like, this is hard! This is so bad!  My thigh is supposed to be the size of an arm or something? I don’t really want to use this. What is this? It was an extra-large, you know? And that’s the fucking annoying thing because to be told that I’m asking for it because of the way my body is – is crazy. This is just how it is. And women of color’s bodies are just picked apart – that’s why I was excited to do this, because I’m not the one being fetishized here. I’ve never been in a position like that before – ever. I’ve never known what the fuck that feels like. And even though we are simulating the idea of this, you guys are never going to know what the fuck this feels like, because in order to feel fetishized you have to be dehumanized.

And no one was dehumanized in this project – at all. I always told them, like “I want you guys to look like you’re uncomfortable but I don’t want anybody, anybody to feel that way at all.” I felt like I was really, really lucky to work with Tess, I was really lucky to have the guys that I had, to have them volunteer as models, and the people who came as bystanders. I was very lucky to have such a great group of people. It was just extremely important to be that I did everything I could to make sure that everyone felt safe and felt comfortable, especially with a piece like this – because that’s what this project is supposed to lead to. To produce conversations and new forms of critical thought that leave people feeling more safe, and more comfortable, and working harder to make each other feel safer and comfortable. And even though I put a lot of thought into doing that, it’s not hard! It’s not difficult, you just ask questions like, “Are you okay with this?” Same thing with consenting affirmative sex – “Do you like this?” “Is this too much?” “Do you want me to try something else?” You ask the other person, to make them feel comfortable and valued. I didn’t have to go out of my way to do that, and that’s the thing.

I want to show people that if you, if everybody just started taking the time to do this shit, to ask questions and really start holding people accountable – so much would change. The whole onus for change would no longer be resting on the shoulders of the people who are suffering from this. I was a survivor, and having to be the one to always call people out… all the shit that I did last year like the speak outs, the flyers, meetings with Roth, meeting with Farias; even though those were issues I was passionate about, those weren’t necessarily things I wanted to do. I didn’t want to speak with Roth. I didn’t feel comfortable at the speak outs, I did not feel like telling a whole fucking lot of people about everything that happened to me. I don’t like hosting all that shit about Eclectic everyday on my Facebook page. I don’t like doing this shit – but I do it because I have to; because who else is going to do it? Who else is going to hold these people accountable?

Like, the whole reason why I even really started pushing to denounce Eclectic for what they did to be was because they did the same thing to my best friend, and because he and I were both in the same meeting he wanted to ban the man who drugged and assaulted him, I wanted to ban my rapist. They all did that shit to me first. I had a complete nervous breakdown and collapse. It was really bad. And then my friend starts to speak and they did the exact same shit to him, they started yelling at him, they were like, “Well, why were you with him then? Why did you invite him over? Why did you ___?” All this fucking crap. Long story short, my friend had to drop out of college, and he was supposed to graduate that year.

The thing that scared me was that after he left, they literally pretended like he was never there. He was the vice president of the Eclectic society and they pretended like he was never there. When I saw them do that, I was like, “Oh, my god. If I don’t say something, this is going to happen again.” They did this to me, and I was dedicated member for three years; what the fuck is going to happen if someone gets assaulted at a show or something? What is going to happen if we get a member, someday, that rapes somebody in the house? What are they going to do for that person? If they did that shit to me, they are going to ruin that person. I can’t. I can’t let them do this. What’s crazy is that the house manager of Eclectic targeted me and my friend, and lied to the administration saying that we wanted to kill people. Back then this guy was a good friend, we had an apartment together the summer prior to this – I thought he was my close friend. I begged, “Get rid of him. He’s going to keep hurting people. Get rid of him.” They refused to do it, they thought I was overreacting. We emailed the fucking friends of Eclectic, the head alumni of Eclectic, we sent an email telling him everything that had happened, told him of a hazing incident that happened the year prior that I ended up having to fix, everything. They didn’t do shit. They didn’t do shit. And I begged them.

So tell me how this semester I come back here, and someone tells me that the house manager, that fucking house manager that I begged them to get rid of the semester after he had gotten me out of the house, he raped a pledge. And he has raped multiple women on this campus. Hearing that information made me so viciously angry because this was the one case of I-Told-You-So. I didn’t want to be right. She’s going to have to live with this for the rest of her life and it didn’t need to happen. Y’all could have banded together and been like, “Sorry, man, you need to get out of here.” Because he fucked up – he lied about everything; he basically told the administration that I wanted to kill people, that I wanted to set the house on fire.

They showed me the email. He didn’t mention the meeting. He didn’t mention that I was threatened with the presence of my rapist. He didn’t mention anything. He just basically said that I was crazy and all this shit. Even though he knew I was dealing with the rape and all this fucked up shit. They knew all of that – they basically showed him that he could do this in this house and get away with it. That’s why rape enablers really need to be held fucking accountable.

This is why this project is really, really fucking important to me because it shows people that we are all in this shit. We’re all participants, and we need to really think about how the fuck we are playing a part in this shit. All these people in Eclectic thought that they didn’t do anything wrong because they did nothing. That’s a problem. Inaction breeds violence. I don’t know how many times I said that to them, “Inaction will breed violence, you are turning this place into a platform for violence.” And they overlooked me completely, and now, look! Look at that. He raped somebody the semester after he kicked me out; that’s not a fucking coincidence. He’s been assaulting women left and right because y’all showed him – “You know, if you want to do this type of shit… we don’t care. We’re not going to intervene.” That’s what they showed him. So of course he is going to be doing this shit in this house.

And that’s what bothers me about these fucking spaces. You have a responsibility. Just like when you invite someone into your room, and if they drink too much and die, it’s on you! Because you’re responsible for the safety of the people you invite into your room. So why can’t that idea expand to the whole fucking house. It doesn’t make any sense to me – you have a responsibility to do the right fucking thing and if this is your community space, you can’t be inactive. I’ve really wanted this project to show people, ‘No, really, you need to make a choice,’ because being inactive is making a choice and it’s a choice that leads to further manifestations of this violence. I really needed people to see their involvement. People really thing that unless they’re actually, physically the ones raping somebody, that it has nothing to do with them. It has everything to do with you! Your reactions to this shit, your interpretations of this shit, the questions you ask – all of that comes together, and you are a part of this.

You need to step it up – that’s what everyone in this community needs really when it comes to sexual assault, because I am sick and tired of only seeing survivors really putting in the work. If everyone made an effort, a lot of shit would change – the whole sort of dynamic of this conversation would change because if more people held rapist and rape enablers accountable, then more survivors would feel comfortable to speak up. The whole plague of silence and being forced into silence; that would shift completely. It’s so frustrating – it’s like, “God damn it, just do something!” I hear the way that people react to these conversations, and that’s why I was excited, because I feel like artwork can tug at different things that conversations can’t.

I can talk to you about this as many times as I possibly want to, but I’m probably going to get a different reaction with you by showing you a picture, where you kind of have to deal with your own internal shit. With something so fucking serious and such an epidemic – not only at Wesleyan but across the entire country – it’s like, we need to have different modes of conversation with this, we need to have discussions, speak outs, we need to have art. I also wanted to use this project to inspire survivors to find creative outlets for their pain because it’s life changing. It brings you closer to being in your own body, which is so fucking important because even after I was raped I repressed it for two, three years. I did.

I did not remember it, but the way my body was reacting to certain things… I thought I was going crazy. Why is this happening to me? I started feeling detached from myself physically. I gained sixty pounds freshman year, I would have panic attacks, I would have tremors, I would have night terrors – and then after the memories came back it got even worse. I had anxiety induced vomiting – I had all kind of shit just happening to my body and I just felt so disconnected and imprisoned by it at the same time.

When I started finding my creative outlets for pain… I started writing, I wrote a memoir last year; I wrote, directed, and performed a performance art piece about sexual assault and accountability, and now I’m doing this. Each time I do something like this I feel like I am getting a piece of myself back, and especially with this project. When we were taking pictures in Eclectic, I can’t really describe what it felt like to feel powerful at that place again.

I didn’t think I could ever feel that way.

When I was in front of Psi U, at one point I started smiling because, there was a moment and were taking pictures and I was like, “I feel really beautiful right now, I feel really powerful right now.” There were days where I just couldn’t walk on High street because it was just too painful and would consume me inside. So to be back in that space and to feel powerful – that really was not… like even though I had been planning that project for months I had no idea that it was going to make that much of an impact on me. It’s actually changed my life. It really kind of propelled me to be more in control. I definitely feel that after this photo project happened I am more in control of things. I felt much more alive.

I was so anxious, wondering what was going to happen to me after I graduate, where am I going to live and what am I going to do? And after this project happened I felt so confident in myself and so powerful. I’m going to fucking figure it out. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but honestly, if I can go through the shit that I went through at Wesleyan and then make something like this I think I’m going to be good. I always tell everyone to find some sort of outlet for your pain, you can find a creative one – it could be anything. It’s just about spending time with yourself making things is so important. Especially a protest like this, where my body is the centerpiece, my body is the vehicle of power in these pictures.

I haven’t felt that way in a very, very, very long time. My body has always kind of felt like a symbol… like, I felt like this thing meant to get used up. I grew up in an abusive household and then I came here, and in the second month I was assaulted. Then this whole Eclectic thing happened. I was literally so depressed because I was convinced that I was put on this planet to be abused and used by people. Like, that’s what my role is.

That’s why when I would go on dates with people and they would abuse me… it was sad because even though I hated what they were doing to me, it felt familial to me, I felt comforted by the fact that I was used to things like that. That’s horrible.  That’s just so terrible and so to be able to create things and use my anger and my pain as motivation to create things help me see that I’m not here, I’m not put on this planet to be abused. I’m put on this planet to be celebrated. I can make my own happiness and at the end of the day, all of the shit that happened to me – that’s just a reflection of my attackers. Yes, I was raped, and it’s something that I’m going to have to carry with me for the rest of my life but it says nothing about me as a person. It says nothing about my intelligence, it says nothing about my sexuality, it says absolutely nothing about me, but it says everything about my attacker. It says that he’s selfish, that he’s a monster, that he’s a sadist; it says everything about him.

Same thing with Eclectic – I blamed myself for what they did to me for so long, because I was like, “How the fuck could I have been so stupid? To love these people and give them everything?” But that was on them. They chose to do that and at the end of the day I’m not going to beat myself up for loving people. I’m not going to beat myself up for not predicting what they were going to do, because in order for me to be able to predict what they were going to do I’m going to have to think like them, and I don’t want to be that selfish ever again. I don’t want to play on privileges. I don’t want to be so goddamn despicable. Everything they did to me shows you how they are.

How I choose to pick myself up and continue on after this kind of trauma says everything about me and my resilience… so, I guess there’s that.


Credit for this photo goes to Karmenife Paulino and Tess Altman at Reclamation.


So, do you think that these spaces in Greek societal life can ever be transformed or do you think there’s really no future for it?

Not frats. Definitely not. In terms of all male dominated spaces, I don’t think so because when you’re given a club and you’re given privileges just because you’re a man – and men already have so much damn privilege in society – theres no way that you’re not gonna belittle people who aren’t of your gender. Looking at Psi U, and DKE, and Beta – you’re literally given this house because you’re a dude. You’re given this house, where all you and your guy friends have this incredible space, privacy, you get to do whatever the fuck you want in it; and all the rest of us who come to visit are at your mercy.

Making them coed is a start, but if there is no real agenda to really be focusing on this shit and holding people accountable there’s really no way. Even if it is coed it needs to fucking go because if there’s no agenda and there’s also no system of accountability or communication in that space then that’s a serious fucking problem if you can’t do that. Maybe, I don’t know – I’d like to think there is a chance for change but until we get to that point I think it’s just smart to just not have them and to give those houses to student groups or to make them more communal.

That would make more sense to me because at the end of the day when you have spaces like that there is always going to be a power dynamic – even when I was in Eclectic before all this bullshit happened there was a power dynamic. My close friends who I love so dearly would come to visit me and they hated it there because they get treated like shit. Even though they were my guests, they were treated like shit by the people who were members. Because: “This is our house.”

It goes to your head. It happens to people in Eclectic because we are given this house. We are initiated into this place and we get these privileges. Literally, we’re given this giant house to do whatever the fuck we want in, and we control everything and if you’re not a member you’re basically at our mercy. I feel that spaces like that can get really dangerous real fucking fast. In order to have a space like that, that’s really running smoothly, and isn’t becoming a vehicle for violence and oppression, you need to be having these conversations. Constantly. And you need to be initiating members who are going to take this shit seriously. And you need to implement systems for holding members accountable and punishing them, or de-brothering them, or whatever, if they do something wrong.

That’s the other thing too – it’s so hard to hold people accountable when you are supposed to view them as family. There are so many things that the members of Eclectic have done; for example, there was this one Eclectic member – white dude, rich, all this bullshit – and whenever he got drunk he would say shit that was just not okay. One time he was on a balcony, and he just kept saying the word “fa**ot” over and over again. What is this!? Stop! I look around, and I see other people on the balcony, and they look really uncomfortable. It was just really horrifying to see. I walked up to them and I was like, “Hey, I wanted to say that I am a member and I am so sorry that you had to see this. I hope you understand he doesn’t represent everybody here and I’m going to talk to him later because this is unacceptable.”

I guess he heard me because he comes and said that I shouldn’t speak for him, ever. I was like, well maybe if you stop saying this bullshit I wouldn’t have to apologize for you. I was like, well why do you wanna say that? Instead of me telling you why it’s wrong, why do you wanna say that word? Do you know where that word comes from? Do you know that fa**ot is the twigs that they used to use to burn homosexuals alive back in the day?

I told him, “You can say that word all you want, but if someone calls you that, you are never going to know the fear and the pain that comes with that word. And neither am I. Because we’re not gay.“ Why do you feel like you can say this? That’s the thing with Eclectic, it’s always that it’s how someone is – and that’s how it is with frats too. This whole emphasis on tradition…but your traditions are shit! Your traditions are fucked up! No, just because it’s a tradition does not mean that it’s okay. Honestly, I think that they should all be gone until certain things are implemented to make sure they can run smoothly – and even that is going to take a while because in order for that to happen the administration needs to get it’s shit together with how it handles sexual assault, racism, and gender violence, transphobia, all this shit.

These spaces feel like they can get away with this shit because the administration lets them get away with that shit until something happens where they have to. And it’s literally its last minute when they decide to intervene. It fucking bothers me – the fact that I went to Dean Farias and begged him, begged him to shut Eclectic down. I told him even if we can’t do an investigation they’re going to start pledging soon. I told them I was a member for three fucking years – I know which rooms they do that shit in, I know what the process is. I have people in Eclectic right now that can tell me when the days are. Just send public safety –

The last time we had a pledging event, it was one of the worst things I think I ever witnessed in my entire life. It just went completely left.  It stopped being a pledging event and started being a complete hazing torture session. It was really fucking weird.

The beginning of pledging night you get kidnapped by Eclectic, and then you’re brought back to the basement and blindfolded, and then we lead you upstairs and it’s supposed to be a party. I remember when I got kidnapped, it was fun. It was hilarious and a really good time. I enjoyed it. So that’s what I thought this was going to be. Then, all of a sudden, I see members lighting people’s blindfolds on fire! One, this girl, takes one of the long light fixtures and starts smashing it on people’s legs. Another person ran around just screaming rape epithets.

I just froze.

What the fuck is happening? My sister was pledging and she freaked out and she ran outside and I ran after her and I took care of her. I spent the whole night just kind of walking around campus by myself, so disgusted and not only with what happened but also with myself because why did I freeze? Why didn’t I say anything in the moment? I saw what they were doing and it was horrible and I couldn’t open my mouth. Part of it has to do with the fact that I have P.T.S.D, but I think a lot had to do with the fact that the people who were committing this violence was my family. When you’re in a space like that, your first incentive is to protect your family. That really bothered me – they were not the ones who needed to be protected in that moment – it was the pledges. I did not step in, I did not do what I needed to do.

I held an emergency meeting, I sent an email to everyone. I was not letting the next pledging step happen until we talked about what happened last night, and someone had the nerve to say it should only be to the people who are involved, like: WE ARE ALL INVOLVED. We all were, including myself because at the end of the day I may not have hit anybody or done any of that shit, but I saw you do it and the fact that I didn’t say anything about it – that’s a problem. A serious fucking problem. It bothered me because I was the only one who called the emergency meeting, I was the only person leading it. No one seemed to care. If I would not have done anything, they would have completely swept it under the rug and not talked about it.

I told Dean Farias that something needed to be done.

That was the pledge semester where the girl got assaulted. The university could have stopped that – it’s frustrating because of course it feels like these spaces get away with everything; the university lets them. Until something horrific happens, and then they’re like, ‘Okay, well, now I guess we should probably do something.’ No, you could have really done something beforehand and you chose not to. I think they should all go, and those houses should be given back to the community. Why don’t we have one of those houses be a whole Queer Resources Center? There is only one room in the University Organization Center and that’s not enough.

I just see so much potential for those houses and then I see what they’re doing with it and its crap. I was talking to someone who was unsure about shutting down Eclectic and I was asking them what else Eclectic gives to this community other than a space to hold concerts in? They were like, “Well…” You can’t say anything, and that’s a fucking problem. It’s an even more serious problem when you not only contribute nothing but you provide a dangerous space. People need to understand when you are a member of those communities you have a fucking responsibility. You get a lot of privileges but you have a huge responsibility too and people in these spaces don’t see that.

All those Psi U brothers? They had a responsibility to be there for me. I was in their house. I was just a fucking kid, and it was their job to make sure that I was going to be safe in that space. Instead of fucking doing that, they encouraged him to become my rapist. My rapist flourished into becoming an incredibly sadistic serial rapist and a lot of that had to do with the fact that he was in a space that not only told him that women were there to be objectified, but gave him all the tools to do it. That other girl that he assaulted? He did it on the dance floor inside, in front of everybody and they didn’t stop him. They were all making fun, like, “Look, he’s getting his dick sucked on the dance floor. Isn’t that funny? Isn’t that nice?” She was so drunk she passed out on the couch and woke up in the middle of the dance floor to him assaulting her in front of everyone and she had no idea what the fuck was going on.

That’s all the women that I know that he’s attacked, all of us. He literally finds women who are clearly really drunk, really vulnerable, and the second they’re left alone it’s fucking over. Especially because he knows that if I do this shit my brothers are not going to intervene, they’re not going to fucking care. And I found out last week that his friend who was also in Psi U is also a rapist. It attracts that kind of crowd. And, basically these are the spaces where parties on campus happen so the rest of the student body is going to go there. That shit is so scary for me.

I’ve talked to Psi U brothers and told them that they can’t look me in the face and say that they didn’t know what he was doing! I remember, he had a signature move with girls, it was like a headlock, he’ll put his arm around you, so it looks like he’s talking nice to you but he will maneuver you around – he’s a very tall man, so that’s what he used to do with me. I’m just like, y’all saw this! Y’all saw him grabbing my ass, pushing my head and trying to kiss me, y’all heard me say no. All of this – so how are you going to tell me that you didn’t know that this dude was up to something? How are you going to tell me that this isn’t a situation, when you are encouraging your brothers to go have sex with women who are clearly too fucked up to do anything!? That’s fucking crazy to me.

I really just think that they should all be gone. In order for it to be a safe space there are all these changes that need to be made, and I don’t see them. Until the administration really starts – wait, no, until some people in North College are fucking out of here, like Dean Rick, Dean Farias – like the fact that he’s the director of title IX is so fucking scary to me. I tell survivors all the time, if you have to meet with him, bring somebody. Bring somebody because if you’re alone with him, he will dead ass patronize you and ridicule you, and victim blame you.

He told me that if anything happens to anyone in Eclectic it’s my fault! He said that to me. And then I told him that he didn’t give a fuck about rape survivors, and he looked me in the eye and said, “It’s funny you say that, because we are the ones who expelled your rapist, so if anything you should learn to be grateful.”

“Can you say thank you? Do you know how to say thank you? Why don’t you try saying it now?”

Like, what the fuck is this? Are you serious? When people talk about these spaces changing, it’s ridiculous to me because these spaces are founded on this bullshit. They’re shaped by this bullshit and they need to be destroyed. And we need to remove certain people from the power structure of North College, because they’re simulating this shit too. It all needs to change and until that happens it needs to be shut down because I’m tired of seeing the damage that this does.

It bothers me when people are like, “It’s so boring on campus now. I don’t have a space to go party.” Think about it – so you didn’t have a space to go party a few years in college, versus someone suffering sexual assault and dealing with that trauma for the rest of their life. At the end of the day, why would you want to party there? And that’s a whole other play on privilege too – most of the people complaining are the ones who aren’t afraid when they walk into a space like that because they know they aren’t going to be targeted.


Credit for this photo goes to Karmenife Paulino and Tess Altman at Reclamation.


 So, any other projects or collaborations that people should be on the lookout for?

Yeah – I applied to several writing grant applications in the hope that I can get funding to work on my second book, which is going to be a collection of short stories about my experience with online dating. And I’m really excited to be doing this because I’m sick and tired of seeing these articles about “This girl has gone on this many Tinder dates, here’s her story!” and they’re all white. Wow, her story may be crazy but she never has to deal with intersectionality. It’s in my face everywhere, but especially when you go on a date with somebody. I think it’s important to hear stories from the perspective of a woman of color, and especially from one who is not monogamous.

It’s also so interesting to me because dating can be really scary when you’re a woman of color! You can become fetishized to the point when you’re attacked because at the end of the day, you’re black. What are you gonna do if I hit you? Call the police? I’m not. I’ve gone on dates with men who have suddenly started hitting me for no reason and it has a lot to do with the fact that I’m a woman of color so I’m disposable to them. I’m not here to be used by them and it’s so irritating to me how I’ve said stories to some of these people and I get: “Why do you keep going on dates?” That’s not the right question! Oh yeah, I knew this guy was going to be a complete fucking psycho so I went on a date. No, I had no fucking idea and I’m going to keep going on dates because those men hitting me, that’s on them, they chose to do that. I didn’t instigate shit. They were inspired to do that because as a woman of color, what is my defense going to be?

I’m excited to work on this, but in order for me to really look into it I have to look at how my position plays into this world too. I have to recognize that I have to deal with a lot of crazy shit when I go on dates because of my skin color, yet I don’t have to deal with a lot of things because I have light skin privilege. And some of the things that men will say to me because I’m light skinned, as if we’re in cahoots together is crazy. One guy told me, he was stroking my face, and he told me that I was the darkest that he’d go. Wait, what? Hold up, let’s revisit that statement – why did you need to say that? Why did you need to say that to me?

He says to me, “You’re blowing this out of proportion – it’s just, you know how they are!” Really?! And he tells me all of these generalizations completely based of off racism. And to think that he was comfortable saying that to me. Oh my god.

Hopefully, I can write this book, and I would love to become a bestselling author because I would love to use that money to fund writing programs. The reason why my writing has been able to evolve is because I’ve been lucky enough to get scholarships for writing programs – I’ve had access to all these workshops and I would love to fund workshops for women of color, trans people – these are the stories we need to hear. These are the stories that are most silenced and these are the stories we don’t say. I’m sick of seeing cis people playing trans people – there’s a new movie called the Danish Girl and the leading man is Eddie Redmayne. You already have an Oscar, and you’re not trans!  This is a story about real life, about trans life, and the main character is being played by a cis person.

That’s like having a movie about my life and they casted Jennifer Lawrence to play me. She’s never gonna know what it’s like to be me just like I will never know what it’s like to be trans!

And that’s why I want to fund writing workshop programs, because you shouldn’t need to have money to have access to good books and computers. You shouldn’t need to have money to tell your story.

Another project I’m excited about is basically this, this “Destroy Him” campaign. Lately, I get a lot of nasty messages from men on online dating, and I’ve decided that if you’re going to be nasty to me I’m going to fucking annihilate you. So I’ve been responding to people and toasting them, and people have been responding well to these screenshots – so I took screenshots and combined it with my artwork. I’m going to make a book which is a huge compilation of my artwork and see if I can send it to a publisher who may turn it into some kind of flip book thing. I think that would be incredible because I want to show women that this whole being nice bullshit? It’s crap; it’s a ploy to get you to be more malleable, it’s bullshit.

The first words out of your mouth should be “Fuck you.” People always say don’t be a bitch – no, be a bitch! Like, be nice but if someone disrespects me, if they’re going to say some misogynistic shit to me, I’m going to end you. They’ll ask me questions and say shit to me because they feel entitled. Lately, some of my friends have been clapping back at people and all I can think is that this is what needs to happen. Don’t take anybody’s crap. You’re life gets so much better when you stop wasting your time with people who aren’t worth it.

I’m excited to link back up with my friends in New York, and I’m sure there are going to be other things that happen. I’m still going to be running Survivor Support Network when I graduate. And one of our goals is to create events that stimulate creative outlets for survivors – because, after your body has suffered such horrific trauma, to see that body create something you’re proud of and that you love. It’s a really incredible feeling, and it makes you realize that what happened to this body happened, but it doesn’t consume me, it doesn’t encompass it entirely. It’s hard to get to that point, but finding creative outlets and making this performance art was probably what saved my life.

People are like, “Oh, you’re going to be couch surfing?” and all this shit. I’m just like, I survived four years of this place… I think I’m going to be okay.

I’ll figure it out.

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2 thoughts on “Karmenife Paulino ’15: On Reclamation and Other Things

  1. Yin

    Too bad she victim blames eclectic members and other people that she knows are survivors of sexual assault

  2. interested reader

    Wow, incredibly powerful and courageous! I am so sorry for the abuse, the rape culture at Wesleyan, and the complicity of the adminstration. Hopefully, your voice will embolden others to speak and act to make Wesleyan a safer community. As for the administration, it is unconscionable that steps were not taken to prevent the abuse and hazing that occurred after your pleas for them to act. If for no other reason, it seems they would be motivated to reduce potential liability which appears considerable.

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