What were you wearing?

WC Desk:

A University of Kansas art installation called “What Were You Wearing?” aims to shatter the myth that sexual violence is caused by a person’s clothing. (Jennifer Sprague)

A powerful exhibit is taking on one of the most pervasive victim-blaming sexual violence myths — and the prejudice that survivors face. “What Were You Wearing: Survivor Art Installation” pairs 18 outfits with stories from real sexual assault survivors about their experiences. The exhibit, which appeared this month at the University of Kansas, is intended to “confront and disrupt” the myth that sexual assault is provoked by someone’s dress, says Jen Brockman, the creator of the exhibit and the director of KU’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center. “We wanted students, or anyone, to walk into the show and to see themselves reflected in the outfits,” she explains, “and put the blame where it belongs, which is on the person who’s caused the harm.” Brockman hopes that such exhibits help create a counter-narrative in regard to victim blaming: “Instead of asking, ‘What were you wearing?’ we want to ask, ‘How can we help?’”

The Survivor Art project first began in 2013 at the University of Arkansas, and has since traveled to a number of universities. To create it, Brockman collected stories from survivors and then sought out donated clothing to match the descriptions. The stories are poignant and painful. One woman wrote: “A sun dress. Months later, my mother would stand in front of my closet and complain about how I never wore any of my dresses anymore. I was six years old.” Another said, “Khakis and a dress shirt. I had to give a presentation that day in my communications class. They took my clothes at the hospital during my rape exam. I’m not sure what happened to them.” The display had a powerful impact of the students who attended. “I think it’s incredibly powerful,” observes KU student Katie Myler. “I think that more people should see it, because we should start to normalize things like this, because nobody wants to ever talk about it. And that’s why it keeps happening.”

Brockman, who plans to create a virtual installation online later this year, says that prompting such conversations can help foster greater empathy for survivors and combat victim-blaming. “Participants can come into the gallery and see themselves reflected in not only the outfits, but also in the stories,” she explains. “To be able to create that moment in this space where they say, ‘Wow I have this outfit hanging in my closet,’ or ‘I wore this this week.’ By doing this we could hopefully reveal the myth that if we just avoid that outfit then we’ll never be harmed or that somehow we can eliminate sexual violence by simply changing our clothes.” According to Brockman, the exhibit has also had a powerful impact on survivors: “When survivors come through, what we hear expressed often is validation. It’s not the clothing that causes sexual violence, it’s the person who causes harm. Being able to find that peace for survivors and that moment of awareness for communities is the real motivation behind the project.”

To read more about the “What Were You Wearing?” exhibit in the Chicago Tribune, visithttp://trib.in/2eZg8zA

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