What Were You Wearing?

When an incident of sexual abuse is covered in the media or discussed among people, there is often a question looming about – what was the victim wearing? It stems from the idea that by wearing certain items, one can more likely be a target of sexual assault. A miniskirt, a low-cut top, a tight red dress – wearing any of those can put you at risk! But assaults happen, regardless of what one was wearing. An exhibition at Ohio University is trying to show this, using the medium of art.

An exhibition titled “What Were You Wearing?” was organized from August 30th in the Trisolini Gallery at Baker University Center. The exhibition, inspired by the poem “What I Was Wearing” by Mary Simmerling, asked participants to give descriptions of the clothes they were wearing when they were sexually assaulted. Several participants from Athens, Ohio came forward with their stories – some even brought the exact clothes they were wearing at the moment. These descriptions and clothes were then recreated into the outfit worn by the victim; displayed in the gallery.

Every wall in the gallery was filled with installations of clothes next to their description. These were clothes that most college students wear on a daily basis – a wrinkly white t-shirt, an old pair of blue jeans, a sports jersey with the university’s name, a band tee, a pair of colorful shorts. The exhibition presents the idea that anyone can be a victim, no matter what they wear. So far about 500 people have visited the exhibition and many of them shared how emotional it made them on social media. One display, of a small pink dress, was submitted by someone who was assaulted when they were only 9.

The exhibition highlights the rape culture prevalent on college campuses and in our society by questioning victim-blaming. The months from August to November are often known as the “red zone” because there is a spike in cases of sexual assault on campus. According to a report by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, this is the time when more than 50% of the sexual assault incidences occur. At a time like this, having a dialogue with the community about casual practices that contribute to rape culture – lack of intervention from bystanders, the camaraderie of rape jokes, the false sense of security that victim-blaming gives – is imperative. While most universities often organize programs to raise awareness among their students and faculty about consent, art such as this can also be used to have conversations that can be difficult but necessary.