‘What Were You Wearing?’

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Displays like this will be part of the ‘What were you wearing,’ exhibit at the Reif Center sponsored by Support Within Reach. 

Survivor art exhibit at the Reif Center ponders whether wardrobe choices really provoke sexual assault?

“A Bohemian skirt and top. Nothing fancy. I’d worn that outfit a dozen times before. I always thought I was safe because I didn’t wear ‘those’ kind of clothes. I guess my rapist didn’t get the memo.”

Taking a bold look at the age-old myth that a sexual assault victim’s wardrobe choice contributed to their rape, Support Within Reach has announced the installation of its What Were You Wearing? survivor art exhibit at the Reif Performing Arts Center in Grand Rapids.  Support Within Reach (SWR) teamed up with MacRostie Arts Center to display reproductions of outfits worn by actual victims when they were sexually assaulted.  Accompanying each outfit is a narrative description provided by a victim survivor. From a young adult’s flannel pajamas to a preschooler’s brightly colored sundress, the message of What Were You Wearing? is clear: No matter what kind of clothes a person wears, no one deserves to be sexually assaulted.

The stories and clothing descriptions used to create this unique exhibit were contributed by students from the University of Arkansas, birthplace of the inaugural 2014 What Were You Wearing survivor art installation. Through personal interviews with University of Arkansas students, exhibit creators Jen Brockman and Dr. Mary Wyandt-Hiebert discovered the question, “What were you wearing?” was pervasive for most survivors of sexual violence. Each time a victim of sexual violence is asked what they were wearing, it heartlessly implies that she or he was responsible for the assault and could have prevented it.  Regardless of who asks, the question itself feeds the Rape Culture, in which sexual violence is considered a societal norm. This culture doesn’t teach people not to rape.  Instead, people are taught not to be raped.  

“At MacRostie Art Center, we have found that art can be a powerful way to approach difficult conversations within a community. We believe the What Were You Wearing? exhibit provides an important opportunity to consider the subject of sexual assault, which is often confined to the shadows,” commented MacRostie Art Center Executive Director Katie Marshall.

Since 2014, countless colleges and universities across the United States have created their own campus-based “What Were You Wearing?” exhibits. 

SWR After-Hours Advocate, Katy Carpenter explains, “This powerful art installation urges participants to understand that sexual violence is never about clothing—it’s about the offender’s need for power and control! The goal of What Were You Wearing? is to increase our community’s understanding that blaming victims for being raped or sexually abused only reinforces our society’s Rape Culture. If perpetrators of these heinous crimes aren’t held accountable, they continue assaulting other children and adults until one of their victims finds the courage to report the crime.” Carpenter supplied, “Due to victim blaming and the stigma of rape, sexual assault is the most underreported violent crime in our country. On average, only 25%-31% of victims report their assaults to law enforcement.”

The public is encouraged to visit Reif Performing Arts Center weekdays from noon to 5 p.m., to view What Were You Wearing?  There is no charge for this educational art installation, which is on display now until Nov. 1, 2020.

“We’re looking forward to installing this important exhibit in the Jerry & Shirley Miner Family Art Gallery,” said Reif Center Executive Director, Shantel Dow. She added, “What Were You Wearing? is a very emotional display of real-life stories. It is our hope that by supporting this exhibit and addressing this difficult topic, a great deal of discussion will take place throughout our community and beyond. We’re pleased to partner with Support Within Reach and provide an outlet for this survivor art installation.”

Funding from the Grand Rapids Area Community Foundation has enabled SWR to create a portable version of the What Were You Wearing? exhibit, which can be easily transported and installed, free of charge, at a variety of venues within Itasca County. SWR Interim Executive Director, Sherry Shadley relayed, “In order to change the ways in which our society views sexuality and gender roles, we need people to imagine themselves wearing these commonplace outfits while reading heart-wrenching narratives from the brave victim survivors who wore them originally. While clothing is easily shed, the impacts of sexual trauma is indelibly woven into the fabric of these victims’ lives.”

SWR is working with MacRostie Arts Center to secure funding to curate an Itasca County What Were You Wearing? multimedia exhibit. Tentatively scheduled for installation at MacRostie Arts Center in April 2021, Itasca County’s What Were You Wearing? survivor art installation will include opportunities for local victim survivors to share their stories and showcase their artwork throughout National Sexual Assault Awareness Month.  SWR is currently seeking survivor narratives and clothing descriptions from Itasca County residents who’ve experienced sexual violence. These stories can be submitted anonymously via email at Contact@supportwithinreach.org or mailed to Support Within Reach, 9 Willow Lane, Grand Rapids, MN 55744. 

Support Within Reach provides free, confidential services to women, children and men who have experienced sexual violence directly or indirectly. Sexual assault advocates are immediately available to provide in-person assistance to victims of sexual violence and their loved ones during regular business hours and after hours through SWR’s 24-hour crisis hotline. They provide the following services: basic one-to-one peer counseling and support, accompaniment during sexual assault medical exams and police interviews, advocacy during case prosecution, assistance with filing protective court orders and general safety planning, referrals to local therapists and prevention education programming for all ages. SWR’s crisis hotline is staffed by trained sexual advocates and volunteers, and remains open 24-hours/day, 365 days a year. Call (877) 747-5008 if you or someone you love has been affected by sexual violence.

For more information on SWR’s services or opportunities to bring the portable What Were You Wearing? exhibit to your community, please contact Sherry Shadley at (218) 326-5008 or email s.shadley@supportwithinreach.org.




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