Art Exhibit Displays Rape Survivors’ Clothing To Challenge The “What Were You Wearing?” Narrative

It is a phrase that has been worryingly used far too much colloquially and within the justice system when it comes to rape cases: “what were you wearing?”. It is part and parcel of the rape culture that places the blame on the victim for their attire (especially women) and fails to reinforce that rapists are responsible and accountable for their own criminal actions.

The phrase is often used in the case of women who are raped as it hints at some sort of lack of morality on their behalf, as if wearing, for example, a short skirt, is what caused some uncontrollable man to take advantage of her. But the truth is, people who are raped wear all sorts of clothing, proving that this ridiculous excuse is just another tool of a patriarchal system that goes out of its way to protect the male reputation (as we have seen in the infamous cases of college student Brock Turner and former Florida college football player Jameis Winston).

With the current #MeToo movement giving way to organizations like ‘Time’s Up’ which are becoming a cultural force to be reckoned with in the workplace, it’s past due time for the narrative to shift in the direction it should have been in the first place – placing blame on the perpetrator and leaving a victim’s attire out of the equation entirely.

A new art exhibition is challenging the thought and cultural discourse around the “what were you wearing?” phrase by displaying various items of clothing next to a description of a survivor’s ordeal, proving that people wearing a wide variety of clothing (including full-length, baggy items) can become victims of rape.

What Were You Wearing? | Molenbeek

The Maritime Community Centre in the Molenbeek district of Brussels, Belgium displayed 18 items in total in an exhibit that was based on a similar exhibit displayed at Kansas University. The University exhibit ran in September 2017 and included statements from students who were raped and shared their ordeal. The Community Centre in Brussels told Refinery29 that they found it difficult to find people who wanted to talk about their experiences.

They said the intention was “to create a tangible response to one of our most pervasive rape culture myths,” according to Delphine Goossens, Molenbeek prevention service’s project manager.

“The belief that clothing, or what someone was wearing, ’causes’ rape is extremely damaging for survivors. This installation allows participants to see themselves reflected in not only the outfits, but also in the experiences of the survivors,” she said.

The exhibit hopes to challenge people’s assumptions about the details of a rape case, especially when narratives in society easily place blame on a victim’s attire, or the other common go-to blame item, how much alcohol they consumed. The organizers also wanted those who come to see the exhibit to think deeper about how this issue seeps into other areas of culture and life, especially when it comes to the messages given to girls as they grow up.

“We still tell our young girls to pay attention to what they are wearing, but we still do not teach our boys not to abuse. We would like people to understand that every woman could wear what they want and they shouldn’t be attacked. That’s what the exhibition shows: no outfit can prevent rape,” said Delphine.

What is most shocking about the clothes on display, aside from the fact they vary in size and shape and even include pajamas, is the items most obviously worn by young girls and women. It reminds viewers of the far-reaching effects of this criminal act.

In an article written about the Kansas University display by Julia Travers, she says the name of the original exhibit came from a poem titled “What Was I Wearing” by Dr. Mary Simmerling, which you can read in full on her Medium piece.

The exhibit was put together by Jen Brockmen, Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center, and her colleague Dr. Mary Wyandt-Hiebert. The first installation inspired by the poem was displayed at the University of Arkansas in 2013 and has since been seen at 7 Midwest colleges.

“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,” Jen Brockman explained about the exhibit.

What Were You Wearing? | Jennifer Sprague

Julia Travers mentioned the focus on college rape cases that came under the microscope over the past few years in the United States during the Obama administration, and again became the subject of news headlines when the Trump-appointed Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, rescinded the Obama-era rules that were created to better deal with and prosecute perpetrators of rape.

This move has caused an outpouring of anger over advocates who saw modest gains in the movement to better understand this issue and how we can see more victims get the justice they deserve. Nevertheless, it is thought-provoking art like the “What Were You Wearing?” exhibit that can help shift cultural narratives and attitudes about the issue of victim-blaming and rape as a whole.

Jen Brockman says it is “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 also added that there have been victims who have been able to shed some of the guilt they carried from seeing such a powerful statement from this exhibit.

Rape culture needs to be demolished, and while we definitely need better legislation, support systems and judicial advocacy in place, culturally and socially speaking there needs to be a huge change in how we talk about blame, shame and sexism. You can see more images and statements from the “What Were You Wearing” exhibit, taken by Kansas photographer Jennifer Sprague, by heading over to Medium and Refinery29.


One Comment

  1. The referenced phrase, used to silence and dismiss rape victims, is one of the issues brought to the fore in “Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise,” a new film I directed and produced. It addresses rape culture in an authentic and powerful manner. It will be released in April.

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