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Culture & Society

“What Were You Wearing?” Exhibit Explores Sexual Violence Myth

The installation at Texas A&M’s Memorial Student Center is on display through Dec. 20.
By Caitlin Clark, Texas A&M University Division of Marketing & Communications November 19, 2019

In the James R. Reynolds Gallery on the second floor of Texas A&M University’s Memorial Student Center, a collection of outfits hangs from the walls — jeans and T-shirts, swim trunks, a sequined prom dress.

Together, they illustrate stories shared by survivors about what they had on when they were sexually assaulted. The exhibit, titled “What Were You Wearing?,” aims to shatter the myth that sexual assault can be attributed to a person’s choice in wardrobe.

The 15 outfits on display are based on descriptions given in stories collected from U.S. college students.

“Button-up short sleeve shirt with blue jeans,” reads a placard next to one outfit. “He was my best friend’s boyfriend’s roommate. My friend told me it was okay to crash on their couch after we had all been drinking. She told me the roommate was ‘cool.’ She told me to just get over it.”

Next to a pair of running shorts and a T-shirt: “I had been working out, so Nike shorts and a large T-shirt. I’m sure I smelled bad, I even remember thinking that… think about how bad I smell. Because I needed to think about anything but what was happening to me.”

One survivor describes different assaults at different periods of their life — a flowered child’s dress hangs among the three outfits.

Joshua Carley, a visual arts sophomore and director of the Reynolds Gallery, said the exhibit takes aim at the stereotypical question that is often asked of sexual assault survivors.

“It doesn’t matter and it shouldn’t matter what the victim was wearing, because a crime is still a crime, and victim-blaming isn’t an excuse for it,” Carley said.

The clothing on display was donated by the Aggie community. Carley said the outfits correspond to real stories of sexual assault that were compiled by the University of Arkansas for the first “What Were You Wearing?” survivor clothing installation. The student-run MSC Visual Arts Committee – which selects the exhibits displayed at the Reynolds Gallery – chose to highlight stories that demonstrate that sexual assault is an unfortunate reality that can happen at any point in a person’s life.

The corresponding outfits displayed next to each story are also representative of clothing worn by the average college student, Carley said.

“Really any student on our campus can read a narrative and look at the clothing and relate in some way or see themselves in the narrative,” said Denise Crisafi, Ph.D., the coordinator for interpersonal violence prevention for the department of Health Promotion.

“What were you wearing?” is an outdated question rooted in biases, Crisafi said, adding that what people should be asking is, “How can I help you?”

In addition to the clothing, panels throughout the gallery provide information about how to report anonymously, report directly to the Department of Civil Rights & Equity Investigations or make a criminal report. Visitors can also learn more about confidential support services and ways to become involved in prevention efforts.

Crisafi said the university offers several programs and training opportunities, including the Green Dot Bystander Intervention Program. Green Dot educates Aggies to become active bystanders and gives them the skills to intervene appropriately in high-risk situations. The STAND Up workshop provides information about mitigating the short- and long-term consequences of experiencing trauma. Crisafi said it’s all part of Step In Stand Up, which is Texas A&M’s campaign against sexual violence.

Crisafi hopes “What Were You Wearing?” helps students understand that sexual assault is an issue that’s taken seriously on the Texas A&M campus.

“In order for us to create meaningful change, we want to make sure that this is a conversation starter for students, that students know that this is an issue that we take seriously on our campus, it’s an issue we’re willing to talk about, and it’s an issue that we’re willing to help individuals with should they want that help and reach out,” Crisafi said.

Mary Compton, program coordinator with the MSC Visual Arts Committee, said visitors who read the statements next to the clothing will understand that the outfits represent real people who survived something traumatic.

“It’s not easy – I think walking into this gallery requires a lot of self-reflection because you identify with the outfits on the wall, so that is something that requires us to ask a really serious question of ourselves,” Compton said.

For Dr. Nancy Downing, a forensic nurse and associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Nursing, it’s a powerful visual. Forensic nurses specialize in interpersonal violence prevention, intervention, investigation and post-trauma care, often working with people who have been sexually assaulted

“It really resonates with me as a forensic nurse, because I see survivors of sexual assault wearing all kinds of clothing,” Downing said. “Honestly, most of the time it’s things people were wearing in their own home to be comfortable.”

Downing said perpetrators of sexual assault are oftentimes individuals who are known to the victim – like a friend or someone they trust. Unfortunately, she said, victims are sometimes still blamed. Asking what someone was wearing, even if the intent isn’t to be harmful, can still feel that way to a person who was assaulted, Downing said.

“If somebody tells you they were sexually assaulted, the most important thing to do is be there with them and listen,” Downing said. “Show them that you believe them, show them that you care about them, help them understand what their options are.”

“What Were You Wearing” is on display at the Reynolds Gallery through Dec. 20.

Media contact: Lesley Henton, 979-845-5591, lshenton@tamu.edu.

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