What Were You Wearing?

“‘Thinking people would have found a way to stop it if they didn’t want it is victim-blaming, and it is as ridiculous as telling a victim of a robbery that they would have stopped a robbery if they really didn’t want it to happen’’ - Female student from Northern Illinois University.

                                                                   Photo courtesy of Project SHHH7214

Sexual assault has become a main topic of conversation within the past few years, especially in the past year because of the Harvey Weinstein accusations. However, sexual assault is not a new issue- it never has been. “One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their life,” according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. The approach and attitude we have towards sexual assault has improved, but there’s still a stigma attached to it and that stigma prevents survivors from coming forward. There’s a variety of questions sexual assault survivors face when they come forward and these questions perpetuate the stigma.

Why didn’t you come forward earlier?

There are common themes when someone answers this question. Fear of retaliation, especially if it’s someone with power over you, loss of career prospects, damage to their reputation, and conflicting emotions about a person they viewed as a friend or mentor. With these themes in mind, it’s easy to see that “victims are less likely to report sexual assault when they have a close relationship with the perpetrator.”

What were you wearing?

This implies that the sexual assault victim was asking for trouble or just “asking for it” when in reality, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. This question is one of the most commonly asked and in 2013 this question was challenged through art. Dr. Wyandt-Hiebert and Ms. Brockman were moved by the poem "What I was Wearing" by Dr. Simmerling and wanted to create a visual representation of the poem, in 2014 the first “What Were You Wearing?” Survivor Art Installation was displayed at the University of Arkansas. Starting September 2013, Dr. Wyandt-Hiebert and Ms. Brockman interviewed student-survivors from the University of Arkansas to get descriptions of what they were wearing when they experienced sexual violence. Peace At home Thrift Store donated the clothes for the installation.

                  Photo courtesy of The University of Kansas Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center

Why were you alone that late at night?

Rather than focusing on the fact that they were the ones who were assaulted, this question implies that the victim put themselves in a situation to be assaulted. It makes an excuse for the perpetrator. Why should it matter if that person was out late at night? Does being out later in the night make it okay to do that to someone? The answer is no; no matter how late it is sexual assault and sexual harassment is never okay.

                                                                  Photo courtesy of Dr. Doug Weiss

Have you ever had sex with anyone else?

This implies that what happened is not a big deal. But this question ignores the heart of the issue - the lack of consent. Having sex with someone else is the choice of the partners involved, both of the partners - not just one. Sexual assault is a big deal and this question undermines the weight a survivor may feel after the incident. Instead of undermining or trying to explain what happened away, it’s important to support them and to listen to what they want to say. It’s important to make sure they feel like they matter - because they do.

Did you try to fight them?

This implies that the survivor consented - in some twisted way. By asking this question, it also implies “did you fight hard enough,” which shouldn’t even be a question. You shouldn’t have to fight this because this shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

                                                                  Photo courtesy of The Julian Center