Founder of Lips Annie Brown, an online platform that reinvents what magazines for young women should be, shares with us what brought her to create this safe space for female expression. From her degree in Women’s Studies to her work for PlannedParenthood and Grameen Bank, her experience has consolidated her belief in a need for women to be able to can confide safely on their experiences.
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Hi Annie, can you tell us a bit about yourself and about Lips?
I have been working to create spaces of free expression for women* for over 10 years. The concept of Lips was born as a project for my Introduction to Women’s Studies course at William and Mary. Lips asked women in the campus community to send stories, poetry, and artwork expressing their sexuality for the publication. The zine served as an outlet where women could express themselves honestly and openly. Its existence empowered those who contributed and even those who didn’t. It created and claimed a space where female* voices were valid, valued, and, perhaps most importantly, were heard.
In 2010, I graduated from William and Mary with degrees in Women’s Studies and Economic History, and received highest honors for my thesis on the globalized business practices of Cosmopolitan Magazine. I also hold a degree in Gender and Development from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, where I worked with Humsafar Trust – a USAid funded HIV prevention program focused on the Hijra (Transgender) Community.
Previously, I served as Communications Lead at Planned Parenthood and Grameen Bank. I am currently writer for Future of Sex and Bitch Magazine and have been invited to speak at The Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality and The Absolute Sum Blockchain Hackathon at UCSD.
Lips is a sharing platform with a social mission: to improve the mental-health and self-esteem of its readers by providing a safe-space for artistic expression. We encourage open and honest expressions of the female* experience and provide artists a platform to share and sell their work.
Why start Lips now?
Although Lips has been a zine for the past 10 years, I decided to transition it into a web and mobile platform in 2018 for several reasons. First, our college chapters were having a difficult time maintaining funding for a print issue. With a globally recognized app, these chapters could host and gain support for their campus projects easily. Second, the evolution of blockchain technology for social impact projects has reached the point where it is viable for application to support the Lips mission.
Up until now, Lips has only been able to accept semi-anonymous submissions. We publish anonymously if asked and never disclose author information. This being said, the anonymity of the author is somewhat compromised by the submission process. Users would anonymously submit via a P.O. Box on campus, which they could drop into – this solution only works on a local basis. For a global solution, we decided to turn to cryptography.
Anonymity is important because it allows for women to express themselves freely regarding sensitive topics. In my experience, contributors are more likely to speak truthfully about uncomfortable experiences if given the opportunity to submit anonymously. Once the submission is well-received and celebrated by readers, contributors typically feel more comfortable submitting again with names attached to their work.
The cryptography presents us with the opportunity to have honest discussions on the Internet, rather than carefully crafted/photoshopped distortions of reality. Also, it allows women to claim authorship of their work, as well as be compensated without having to name themselves.
For young women, this could mean online expressive outlets that are not only healthier than current social media options, but also more participatory, fun and perhaps most importantly – cool.
Lastly, Instagram targets young audiences (12+), which means PG content for the rest of us. Many queer, feminist and erotic artists are often censored or deleted without warning from existing platforms. This makes the process from promotion to sale even more cumbersome and uncertain.
The combination of art, technology and feminist philosophy will propel Lips to be THE safe space for women* to share and record their art and perspectives, and a space where professional female* artists can promote uncensored works and profit from them.
What does “being empowered” mean for you when it comes to sexuality?
Empowerment means the discovery and acceptance of self, and the presence of self-love. No matter what your sexual preferences, practices, desires or lack there of, empowerment is the ability to be who you are without apology. As long as sexual acts are consensual, there is no reason to be ashamed or bask in self-hate.
As you’ve collected stories and creations of women about their sexuality, what has surprised you the most? And inspired you the most?
I have been surprised most by the need for this space. When I first started Lips, I thought I would get a few submissions at most. Since we began collecting entries 10 years ago, we have received over 5,000 submissions and expect thousands (millions!) more as we expand globally. When we think of art therapy, we assume that healing begins and ends with creation. However, the act of sharing is perhaps the most healing aspect of art. The sharing of Lips submissions starts discussions, and shows us that we are not that different or alone after all.
I am constantly inspired by the women* who share their experiences of sexual trauma, mental illness and self-hate via our platform, and share with me how Lips has improved their well-being. These women* keep me going in the face of discrimination and censorship.
How did it change your view on female sexuality?
Sexuality is often discussed as a variety of preferences. This is true. But what I have learned is that gay, straight, trans, bi, bdsm, celibate, etc. – when expressed through art, poetry, stories – there are more similarities than differences. When you submit to Lips, you are not asked to identify as a specific sexuality – as a result, it is often impossible to tell if a poem or piece of art was created by a heterosexual woman, a gay woman, a trans woman or even a heterosexual male written from the female perspective. This is important because it points to the fact that at the heart of sexual self expression is a desire to unapologetically be ourselves, tell our stories, be loved and love others – desires that are not relegated to one sexuality or another.
Based on what this project has brought you/taught you, what would be your advice to your younger self when it comes to your sexuality?
To not hate myself! So much time of my childhood was spent on self-hate, trying to be what others (the media, classmates, family) wanted me to be. At 30 years old, I still struggle to be authentically myself at all times. However, I can say that I appreciate the person I am, of which my sexuality is a large part.
***What’s with the asterisks? We recognize the gender binary as a social construct and welcome those all along the spectrum to join our community. Inclusion and acceptance are among our core values because diverse voices enrich our understanding and elevate the conversation, empowering and inspiring even more people. You go, girls*!