Heal Her

2024 update: Lena Chen co-presents OnlyBans, created by sex workers and allies, as a digital game that shows the experiences of real sex workers facing online surveillance, social media censorship, and financial discrimination. Try it HERE or see the art show at Honor Fraser Gallery in LA, more galleries to be announced by the artists.

Heal Her is a global and interactive project headed by Lena Chen between L.A. and Berlin, second co-founder Annique Delphine in Berlin, and Mexican German artist Zarahlena Van Lunarem between Berlin and Mexico City. This year, the project is also represented in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Baltimore, London, Paris, and Utrecht. Heal Her invites women to share their survival stories, coping strategies, and experiences related to gender-based violence and trauma in a safe space of ritualistic storytelling, music, dance, and art set to engage in collective healing. In between travels and performances, Lena met us at a café in Berlin to answer a few questions.

Your group literature uses carefully chosen words in regards to different communities. Is language important to your healing work, and do you think appropriate thoughtful language can bring different communities together?
Language can be very imprecise, especially when working across different cultures. I try to use inclusive, non-judgmental language in order to be welcoming toward a wide range of people. The project name does, however, use gendered language: it is called Heal Her because it originated from my own experiences as a woman-identified survivor and those are the communities that I feel most capable of serving. Nonetheless, the project is open to people of all gender identities.

Do you feel certain communities have more access to healing from gender-based violence or even more access to education about recognising and defending themselves against this type of violence? 
It is a privilege to even have these conversations out in the open. I often consider how access to resources affects people’s ability to heal. As a trauma survivor myself, I know it can be difficult to even get to the point where you recognize you need support. Awareness and the healing arts are methods to address violence, but education is how we can prevent it. Thus far, Heal Her has been very focused on treating trauma after it has occurred. A goal for the future is to engage more youth and address issues such as intergenerational trauma in order to get to the root of violence.

Besides language, how do you gather different communities and how do you reach out to them?
Our facilitators come from very diverse backgrounds – some are artists and activists, others are trained therapists. Many belong to or do work with communities that are not well represented in the mainstream dialogue on sexual violence. I have personally reached out to people in my network who are interested in this work. Some are existing contacts from my work as a feminist activist in the US. Others are more recent acquaintances from my work as an artist in Europe. In Los Angeles, I spent two months doing field research and meeting people from different communities in order to ensure that the circle I convened would represent the diversity of the city’s inhabitants.

Have you experienced resistance from certain communities or a fear of speaking up?
I’ll never know who doesn’t attend the events or feel comfortable coming forward. The best we can do as feminists and as a society is to be empathetic toward those who do speak and create an environment where no one has to fear being shamed for their experiences.

Do you feel that the current mainstream feminism is trying to embrace and speak for all survivors everywhere?
It’s important for conversations to include people of all backgrounds and gender identities, but we should also recognize that we have our differences and every individual’s experience, struggles, and privileges are unique. For example, while we are all affected by capitalism, some of us are more vulnerable to exploitation than others. It’s much the same with gender-based violence.

What do you think would be a good way to transfer parts of the healing work and the sexual violence prevention work to the aggressors, and to men in general?
For any meaningful change to happen, we have to engage men as well. For that reason, I hope there are men who would be willing to host men-only circles that support healing for male survivors and perpetrators of violence.

And do you feel men get enough help speaking up on the sexual violence made against them or in front of them?
There is so much shame around sexual violence in general. I think that male survivors need unique support and outreach because much of masculinity is premised upon not asking for help or displaying emotional vulnerability. When young boys internalize ideas of invincibility, it can become damaging to not only themselves but to society at large.

What do you make of the toxic masculinity we see every day at school or at home, in the media, music, movies?
Usually, we learn how to process our emotions through the relation to a primary caregiver. So a boy grows up with a role model, especially a male role model, who demonstrates that being vulnerable, sad or hurt are valid emotions to express, that sets him up for life. However, there is a collective delusion that men don’t get hurt, that they don’t get sad, and nobody wants to break that delusion. […] There are very few spaces where men can express their emotions. […] We look at media for how we are supposed to behave, all major male characters are tough-seeming and behave in a certain way… it is a whole number of factors, I don’t have a solution for it as my work primarily deals with women’s experiences, but I recognize that if one really wants to deal with the issue of violence against women, we have to deal with the violence that has been done to men. And I don’t necessarily mean physical violence, but the process of stripping emotions away from men, that is violent, it is very subtle and it builds up over time, but what it does is it leads to this cumulative effect. There are lots of hurt people out there, a lot are men, who then perpetuate that hurt upon other people, some are survivors themselves and have nowhere to seek recourse for their trauma. So Heal Her is only half the conversation and I’m hoping that it’s the beginning of something that would make it safer for men to come out and talk about their experiences.

More about #HealHer here.

Portrait of the co-founders Lena & Annique
Both photos by Annique Delphine
Interview by Nadia Says, originally published in Fourculture Magazine in 2017.