What Were You Wearing?

The year 2017 was a turning point for perpetrators of sexual assault. One by one, we have seen the fall of many prominent figures across industries, from Hollywood to the US government. News channels seem to expose a new assaulter in the headlines every month. But in focusing all of our energy on the perpetrators, we neglect to address the treatment of victims. Many survivors of sexual assault convey that the way they were victimized after their assault was, in some ways, worse than the assault itself — so how do we deal with someone who comes forward about their assault?

Oftentimes, the first question that a bystander asks is “what were you wearing?”.

This question is the awful one that almost every survivor is forced to hear, as if changing from skirts to a pair of pants will protect anyone from sexual violence. Sexual assault is embedded in our culture, not in the outfits we wear — and an art exhibit on display at the University of Kansas does the perfect job of demonstrating this.

The What Were You Wearing exhibit at the University of Kansas is comprised of 18 survivors’ stories, accompanied by real outfits made to resemble the descriptions of what each survivor was wearing when assaulted. Outfits include a young boy’s yellow collared t-shirt, a short red dress, a young girl’s sundress, and a t-shirt and jeans. Created in 2013 by Jen Brockman, director of Kansas’ Sexual Assault Prevention Education Center, the exhibit draws inspiration from a campaign launched by a woman named Christine Fox, who asked her Twitter followers to post what they wore if they had ever been assaulted. Her followers quickly responded to her question, forming the basis of her campaign.

The exhibit demonstrates that survivors are never at fault, and that they are not alone; people are assaulted regardless of factors of age, gender, sex, and race. The exhibit also reportedly made people realize why we have to stop asking that question, even if the question comes from a place of innocuous concern. Lastly, the fact that the donated clothing came from faculty and students was an amazing way to show that survivors had support on campus.

The exhibit has also been displayed at University of Iowa and University of Arkansas, and has proved to be a creative way to get a simple, but extremely important, point across. Guidance Counselor Amy Killy, who introduced the members of the Consent Summit team earlier this year to the What Were You Wearing exhibit, said that “what’s really interesting about the exhibit is it [shows it] really doesn’t matter what you’re wearing… An act of violence and power [occurs] not because something you are wearing is too sexy. As you know I just think this is an emotional topic and that we have to see it as an issue of humanity and dignity, I think [the exhibit] is [a] sort of way to build our empathy and understanding around this issue.”

It’s imperative that we stop blaming the victim in cases of sexual assault.

By Revati Mahurkar ’19