“What Were You Wearing” Art Exhibit Explores Rape Culture’s Persistent Question

Content Warning: descriptions of gender-based violence

In September 2017, Kansas University (KU) held the “What Were You Wearing?” Student-Survivor Art Installation in the student union. The exhibit centered on displays representing sexual assault survivors’ answers to this persistent question regarding their attire at the time of the attack. It was inspired by the poem, “What I Was Wearing…” by Dr. Mary Simmerling. The full text of the poem is shared at the end of this article. The exhibit contained 18 outfit displays, accompanied by survivors’ stories.

One of the most impactful aspects of the installation is the direct confrontation of a pervasive rape culture myth. Participants come face to face with the embodiment of this myth, the question ‘What were you wearing?’ They can see themselves reflected in the clothing and the stories. We hope this experience helps to change attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs surrounding sexual violence and victim blaming,

says Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center, Jen Brockman.

All images by Kansas Photographer Jennifer Sprague

Brockman and her colleague Dr. Mary Wyandt-Hiebert were inspired by Simmerling’s poem in 2013 and it was the catalyst for the first of these installations at the University of Arkansas that year. Brockman explains seven Midwest schools have hosted the exhibit. At KU, students selected stories from the exhibit’s traveling Installation Packet and donated clothing to re-create the outfits as described by survivors. It’s not a coincidence that this display was held during the beginning of the fall semester — this is when the majority of campus sexual assaults happen.

I saw it and it just sent chills through my body … 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,

Katie Myler, a patron of the exhibit, told KSN.

The exhibit has been well received, Brockman conveys, even though it’s not “an easy awareness project to experience. It is definitely work to read the stories and sit with what this damaging phrase looks like in reality.” She says survivors have shared feelings of comfort and validation and expressed that the art exhibit “helped to normalize what they were wearing and remove some of the guilt they had been carrying.”

This exhibit seems especially timely in the current political climate when Education Secretary Betsy Devos has set aside time to meet with both men’s rights activists and a rape denial group in relation to the topic of campus sexual assault. Just as “What Were You Wearing” came to a close, Devos rescinded Obama-era Title IX guidelines and introduced new guidance, which affords schools substantial flexibility in how they handle campus sexual assault cases.

“This [guidance] is a mess. This is only creating confusion and may lead to systems that in effect punish survivors,” National Women’s Law Center President and CEO Fatima Goss Graves told NBC. She explained the new guidance could discourage sexual assault reports and even allow for the accused to question an accuser in a trial setting. She referenced a footnote in the new guidelines that states, “The standard of evidence for evaluating a claim of sexual misconduct should be consistent with the standard the school applies in other student misconduct cases,” such as cheating or plagiarism. U.S. News reports that some colleges and universities have already stated they will not change their policies, while others are ready to review Devos’ guidelines.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reports that an estimated 11.2 percent of all graduates and undergraduates experience rape or sexual assault. In response to Devos’ actions, the National LGBTQ Task Force and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) pointed out that LGBTQ students, students of color, and students with disabilities are more likely to experience assault.

KU’s “What Were You Wearing” installation will go online in October 2017 and Brockman hopes to see it spread to other campuses and organizations. She and her colleagues have put together an Installation Packet for interested groups.

“There is no cost associated with the project, but we do ask that folks partner with their local gender-based violence victim and survivor advocacy program to co-host the Installation,” she conveys. If any readers would like to learn more about this opportunity, please contact Jen Brockman directly at jenbrockman@ku.edu. You can also follow the KU Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center on Twitter @KU_SAPEC. Mary Simmerling’s poem is below.

What I was Wearing

was this:
 from the top
 a white t-shirt
 and round at the neck

this was tucked into
 a jean skirt
 (also cotton)
 ending just above the knees
 and belted at the top

underneath all this
 was a white cotton bra
 and white underpants
 (though probably not a set)

on my feet
 white tennis shoes
 the kind one plays tennis in
 and then finally
 silver earrings, and lip gloss.

this is what i was wearing
 that day
 that night
 that fourth of july
 in 1987.

you may be wondering
 why this matters
 or even how i remember
 every item
 in such detail

you see
 i have been asked this question
 many times
 it has been called to my mind
 many times
 this question
 this answer
 these details.

but my answer
 much awaited
 much anticipated
 seems flat somehow
 given the rest of the details
 of that night
 during which
 at some point
 i was raped.

and i wonder
 what answer
 what details
 would give comfort
 could give comfort
 to you
 my questioners

seeking comfort where
 there is
 no comfort
 to be found.

if only it were so simple
 if only we could
 end rape
 by simply changing clothes.

i remember also
 what he was wearing
 that night
 even though
 it’s true
 that no one
 has ever asked.

Julia Travers is a journalist and writer. She’s on Twitter @traversjul.

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