‘What Were You Wearing?’ exhibit gives voice to sexual assault survivors

The "What Were You Wearing?" survivor art exhibit provides a tangible response to one of our culture's most pervasive rape myths: that victims are somehow to blame because of their clothing choices. The outfits featured are recreated from the real stories of survivors in the Manhattan-area community. (Conrad Kabus | Collegian Media Group)

“What were you wearing?”

This question often faced by victims of sexual assault is the focal point of a gallery currently on display in the Kansas State Student Union. The exhibit displays the clothing and stories of survivors on campus in order to bring awareness to the realities of people affected by sexual violence.

Gabrielle Hull, masters in public administration and research assistant at the Kansas State Center for Advocacy, Response and Education, said she was inspired to bring the exhibit to K-State after seeing a similar installation at the University of Kansas during a statewide conference last May.

Hull said the title of the gallery is intended to call attention to victim blaming that some survivors of sexual violence face when they attempt to speak out.

“That’s a question that’s so often asked, not just by people close to us, but by society,” Hull said. “’Were you wearing a short skirt? What were you doing that night that made you get in that situation?’ Calling the gallery that was just so, when people walked in, they knew that this question is always circling around us as survivors.”

Inspired by a poem by Mary Simmerling, assistant professor in research integrity in medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, the first “What Were You Wearing?” art installation was displayed at the University of Arkansas in 2014. Since then, the installation has spread to universities nationwide, encouraging survivors to donate the clothing they were wearing at the time of their assault along with their story.

The “What Were You Wearing?” exhibit comes to K-State almost two years after the filing of two Title IX lawsuits against K-State in 2016. The lawsuits claimed the university did not adequately respond to the rapes of three K-State students.

Polly Nations, sophomore in social work and vice president of Wildcats Against Sexual Violence — who organized a No More rally earlier this month — said she believes this gallery gives a voice to silenced victims by allowing them to freely tell their stories.

“When you first take a moment to sit down and write your story out, and it doesn’t have to be sent out to anybody, but just you writing it out is so powerful,” Nations said. “Just to know that you had the courage to put your story out there means a lot to people who are going through this situation and who have gone through this situation, and it shows that no one else is alone in this. You’re not the only person this has happened to, and there’s a bunch of great resources that are out and available to help you.”

According to CARE’s website, one in five women and one in 16 men experience sexual assault in college, but more than 90 percent of survivors on college campuses do not report their assaults.

Hull said many students are not aware of the services provided by the K-State CARE office, all of which are completely confidential.

“We want to give that power back to the survivor to decide what they want to do,” Hull said. “We have advocates that go to court with folks. We can go and give support while they’re getting medical services, and we can do that academic advocacy with the academic access center and the Office of Student Life, too.”

Shanese McGregor, CARE survivor advocate, said the most important thing to do when talking with a friend or loved one who has experienced sexual assault is to simply listen and believe them.

“If somebody feels that strongly about your friendship or your relationship to tell you that, you should listen,” McGregor said. “You should listen to what’s going on and ask how can I help you, how can I assist you, things like that. And then let them choose what they want to do, because someone has taken all their power away and their control away from them, and all you’d be doing is giving that power back to them.”

Overall, Hull said she hopes people viewing the gallery understand that sexual assault is an issue that affects all people, no matter their age, gender or body type. She said she believes that this exhibit will not only help survivors feel supported, but also shed light on an issue people may not have thought about.

“The hope with the installation as a whole is that we hope survivors feel heard, validated, believed, all of those things,” Hull said. “When you walk in that room and see so many types of clothing reflected, from men’s clothing to children’s clothing, along with a wide range of female-identified clothing, that you know this happens to everyone. We’re all here on campus and we’re all supporting each other.”

The exhibit will be on display March 16 through April 6.