Making Visible Anne Vetter
"Why do men unfollow me and then continue to watch my Instagram story? I don't get it."
I posted this question on Instagram for all to see at the end of August.
"Men are truly so fragile," Anne Vetter replied, "They want to consume you but without validating you."
I decided Anne would be a great person to interview for savoircare. I’d seen some of the custom portraits she paints and I already admired her photography. Anne’s passionate about using art to tell stories in accessible ways. She's talented at scrutinizing rituals as they appear in our daily lives. "I want to be able to see what isn't easy to see," she says. "To make visible the invisible."
And that includes systems of power.
Little did I know that Anne had written an entire anthropology thesis on hookup culture at Colby College.
"Fun fact about me (and my Virgo rising) is that I technically did three senior theses," the 24 year old informs me. "I wrote an ethnography and a poetry collection and put together a show of my photography."
Anne was struggling with undiagnosed PTSD from rape her junior and senior years and work was her coping mechanism. "I am really proud of that work and what it taught me," she says. "I looked at why people continue to have sex with people they don't like and have sex that isn't good.”
Was writing the thesis uncomfortable? Anne examined her own "seemingly inexplicable need to do things in hookup culture” despite her better judgment, things that “only made her feel more conflicted" (Vetter 16). “Writing it was so scary,” she admits. “I wrote from a personal perspective and was literally turning in chapters to my advisor that described my sex life. But I think the process gave me a really good skill set of analyzing how my quotidian activities disrupt or reify structures and systems."
In one passage, she describes how straight women would go up to her and flirt at a party:
I see men watching from the sides looking hopeful for something to happen, maybe for us to kiss, undress. I think back to what my friend said to me, months ago, about how if we as women don’t have the power to access the space unless it’s given to us by men, of course it’s gonna be weird. It hits me that, while I may be liked and welcome for other reasons, to some extent my ability to be in that space comes down to my queerness, just as my ability to not be in spaces has come down to my queerness. It depends on how it benefits those most embedded in whichever space (72).
Anne is incredibly self-aware. “As a queer trans Jew,” she says, “I feel like my whole life is political!!! I'm constantly trying to reconcile the overlap of those identities, especially how they are complicated by wealth privilege and access to whiteness.”
It is important to Anne to be open and share her individual embodied experiences of violence. “Yet I am white. I am wealthy. And in almost every space I enter, I am perceived as a cisgender woman,” she acknowledges. “I believe this makes it just as imperative for me to share the moments where I did not experience violence personally in my body, but where I have learned to look for it. Learned to look for the ways I was culpable” (15).
Her thesis is a call to white women, especially to white straight wealthy women, to decenter their individual experiences of violence and to understand how they are also culpable in perpetuating larger systems of violence (11).
Anne admits that she has felt shame and guilt at times: "Neither are productive emotions when left alone but they can be catalysts" (81). “Something I am trying to do with my activism is get the fuck out of my own head and just act,” Anne says. “It's so easy to theorize and question, it's much harder to move."
I think Anne has a gift for encouraging young people to tell different stories - stories that “validate ways of crafting sexual subjectivities that are more equitable and affirming for all” (6). She is well aware that the native ethnographer, “the ethnographer coming awake in her own community” has a deeper responsibility to “treat shared knowledge with respect” and “reciprocate knowledge with knowledge.” For Anne, ethnographic knowledge must be a catalyst for change. “I believe it is my responsibility to continue the discursive chain of question asking and knowing-producing,” she asserts (86).
When other students found out what Anne was researching, many offered up stories. She recalls she received texts from people “she barely knew” with “intimate details and confessions” (10). I read Anne’s entire thesis in one sitting.
It reminded me of how, throughout my adolescence, my grandmother had often asked me when I was going to hook up with certain friends.
"Grandma!" I would laugh. "Don't say that."
"It doesn't have the connotation you think it does."
In her thesis, Anne writes that she initially couldn’t collect “a single definition of what a hookup actually is” from either literature or her interviews (31). So she asked around to see how people get others to leave a party or go home with them. She collected: Where you going after this? / Wanna go back to my room? Where are you walking from here? I’m headed that way, I’ll walk with you. / I’ve been learning this new song on my guitar, you should come hear it. / Wanna leave here? / Where do you wanna go? / Wanna go listen to this album (or watch this movie or see this whatever object) in my room?
“No one’s asking if someone wants to go hookup” (31).
How is the ambiguity of the hookup part of the appeal of the term? “Kathleen Bogle argues that ‘individuals are able to share with others that they did something sexual without necessarily specifying what happened.’ Students can wield this vague term to shape their narrative of sexual encounters to their advantage” (33).
According to Donna Freitas, "an apparent lack of emotional involvement" is intrinsic to the experience. As such. Anne notes that “allowing emotion to enter a hookup is a social transgression; to be unemotional and unattached is socially valued. To maintain social power, students have to find ways to disconnect with themselves and have the kind of sex that is socially validated” (55).
Anne was initially asking questions about pleasure for this project because the sex she was having made her feel unseen and unimportant. “It was a dulling of connection,” she writes. “To use Robert Jensen’s terms, I wanted to feel fully human. I thought I could do that by embedding myself more in the system, by fucking more socially powerful men, by becoming more attractive, by beating the system. Yet, Jensen argues ‘to be fully human is to reject a system that conditions your pleasure on someone else’s pain.’ Literally, my pleasure, my sexual pleasure is contingent on a system that further perpetuates white supremacy (82).
So when did Anne realize that vulnerable anthropology was an important tool for community change? At her thesis defense.“[W]hen I looked up after reading the last paragraphs of Questions about belonging and saw the looks of recognition on students’ faces,” she writes. “Nothing I was saying, it seemed, was something that they didn’t already know. All I did was name it. Yet, I could not have named what I named without having undertaken the ethnographic process. It took almost a complete year of intensive question asking to begin to know what I have begun to know” (85).
What I now know from Anne's thesis is that "attractiveness is inherently tied up in a fluid, public, and visible social system; it is located both in the body and outside of it" (42). The system that makes it normal for men to treat women a certain way has tendrils in a larger violence. Therefore, “pushing back” can destabilize the system (and open space for more destabilization) because small transgressions are still transgressions (83).
You can access her thesis here:
Vetter, Anne, "It’s not you, it’s— Hookup Culture and Sexual Subjectivity" (2017). Honors Theses. Paper 852. http://digitalcommons.colby.edu/honorstheses/852
Keep reading to learn more about how Anne pushes back.
RS: How did you decide to become an ethnographic artist?
AV: I studied anthropology and still consider a lot of my work ethnographic, but ethnographies are hard to read and hard to find. But, I didn't always know I could be an ethnographic artist. On November 10th, 2016, I knew I would be an artist. Trump had just been elected and while I wasn’t surprised, I was hurt. I was scared. I wanted to wallow in my fear and feel helpless; I didn’t know what else to do.
RS: Who did you have dinner with that night?
AV: My Black Radical Imaginations Anthropology class had the honor of eating dinner with LaToya Ruby Frazier, one of my favorite artists and thinkers. There were 10 of us at that table with her. We took turns asking her questions. I don’t remember what I asked, but I remember her answer. I wrote it down: "It’s time to use art as a weapon. If you are an artist, you have to use your gifts now. Do not give up your gifts; do what you’re good at, whatever that is. It’s about the kind of heart you have going into your work." LaToya Ruby Frazier’s words changed the way I understand myself and my aspirations.
RS: What’s something that people never believe when you tell them?
AV: I'm not a top. No matter how I dress, every single person, especially women and femmes, that I date expects me to be a top. In fact, I am queen bottom. I think it's because I am so self-assured - people take that for forward. I don't know if you can put this kind of answer on your website, but it's true.
RS: What do you actually find romantic?
AV: Responding to a moment and to a person as they actually are, as opposed to following what we've been told is romantic. I dated this guy who thought his life was a movie, and he would do shit like have Bossa nova music playing when I came over and then immediately hand me a drink and then start going down on me because I think that's what he thought was romantic, but if he had actually paid attention to what I wanted, it would have been none of that. At least the drinks were good. Don't get me wrong, I'm an extremely romantic person and love giving and receiving flowers and all that good stuff. It just has to be real.
RS: What have you been inspired by?
AV: I'm mostly inspired by pre-Raphaelite paintings, especially the paintings John William Waterhouse did of nymphs and witches. I love poetry - Tracey K. Smith, Diane Seuss, and Sylvia Plath are some of my favorites. I just read The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan and holy fuck I was crying the whole time. My favorite movie is Dirty Dancing and I challenge you to find me a scene that turns me on more than the scene where Baby and Johnny fuck for the first time. Another favorite scene from a movie is in The Royal Tenenbaums when Margot gets off the green line bus and time slows and Nicco is playing. Wow. I hate that both of my favorite scenes are about white, hetero love but at least Baby is a nice Jewish girl.
RS: Best concert you've been to?
AV: Solange. It changed my whole idea about what art can be and what an artist can do.
RS: What do you think young artists need?
AV: MONEY. I swear to God, there are no resources for young artists. I am really lucky in that my family can help support me as I begin my career. I live and eat at home, allowing me to use the money I do make to make more art. That's not common. [Capitalism] makes me feel like what I do isn't a legitimate career.
RS: You mentioned you grew up backpacking and are a wilderness first responder. You'd spend time in woods and ponds creating imaginary worlds.
AV: Yes! I think that's what I still do - I dream. I create dreamworlds with my art. Also, my parents totally knew what was coming. They would set me up with some paper and paints, and come back and I'd be naked, painting myself.
RS: What do you appreciate about nature?
AV: Scents - bergamot, jasmine, ocean air, evergreens, mud. I like mud in general, I love the feeling of walking through mud. And swimming in really cold water. If you get the chance to swim, swim.
RS: What's a day in your life like?
AV: Somedays, I am painting. Somedays, I work as an assistant to an artist in San Francisco, doing research. There is no typical day in my life right now. I spend a lot of time researching different magical communities and rituals around me, trying to figure out how to get access. At the same time, I'm constantly trawling Tinder looking for people to model for me.
RS: You met the person for whom you made two music videos on Tinder?
AV: It's SUCH a great way to meet people.
RS: What is your magic project about?
AV: Who has it, where to find it. I'm hoping to photograph the aftermath of spells. Part of the project is about trying to capture what can't be captured. Because you can't see magic, you feel it. It's been an interesting process.
RS: What are the main challenges of that?
AV: Being brave enough to actually leave my studio and put myself in the unknown. It's so easy for me to make work about people I know, but showing up to a random equinox ritual is terrifying to me!
RS: You also find colour-correcting photos challenging.
AV: I'm not great at it, and it takes me FOREVER. I will spend like an hour looking at the same photo, trying to figure out if it's too magenta or too red. Who cares?
Anne is based in the Bay Area but if you are a witch or a coven or ANYONE who practices magic anywhere, shoot her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She’d love to talk to you.
// website / insta / new music video / thesis //