The University of Kansas recently installed a powerful art exhibit, “What Were You Wearing?” in an attempt to send the message that a person’s choice in clothing is never, under any circumstances, a way to justify or explain sexual assault. The exhibit features 18 outfits that resemble the clothing worn by rape victims, each paired with a description of what the survivor had been wearing at the time of the attack. The clothing ranges from jeans and t-shirts to bathing suits to cargo shorts to a small child’s dress. The art installation is made possible by the KU Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center, and has been featured in other schools across the Midwest.
So let’s break that down: the outfits include articles of all types, ranging from the most “modest” pieces to a young girl’s dress. This is exactly why we need to dispel the disturbing myth that clothing plays a part in why women are raped and assaulted. Rape apologists try to strip survivors of their experiences and power by substituting the violence of the action with the clothes, actions, time and place, and drinking habits of the victim. Because of misogyny, male privilege, cultural norms, and incorrect understandings about sex and consent, many people still shift the blame from the attacker to the survivor.
But, “What were you wearing?” is not the only question women hear.
There’s also, “Why were you out walking alone?”
“Why didn’t you use your pepper-spray?”
“Why did you drink so much?”
“You hooked up with a random guy at a frat party, what did you expect?”
“Even if he was your friend, do you really think you should have been alone with him in your dorm room?”
“Why didn’t you call for help?”
“Why don’t you just report it to police?”
“Is it really rape if he was drunk too?”
And the list goes on.I remember my parents restricting what I wore during high school because they assumed “provocative” clothing would lead to negative attention, and even harm, from men. It left me feeling frustrated and powerless. Even now, my mom still makes snide remarks about some of my outfits, and I angrily try to explain to her that clothing has nothing to do with rape. Rapists are the problem, not clothing. Predatory men with no regard for consent are the problem, not crop tops. Men who see sexual assault as permissible because the woman was “asking for it” are the issue, not my shorts. I still argue with my parents about the problematic statements they make about assault because they unknowingly are contributing to and validating rape culture. It is exhausting to articulate that wearing a large sweater or jeans will not make a difference if a man decides I am so subhuman that I deserve to be forced to have sex against my will. I wish my parents could see this exhibit.
Since society refuses to listen to women’s sexual assault stories, and, more importantly, believe them, maybe seeing the clothing featured in the “What Were You Wearing?” exhibit will cause people to finally understand that rape is never about skimpy clothing; rather, it is always about control, humiliation, and hatred. I recognize that even the concept of such an exhibit is at least somewhat problematic because survivors should never have to prove or try to convince others that the rapist is solely to blame.
It’s unacceptable that it’s 2017 and people still aren’t willing to understand sexual assault. Victim-shaming is so pervasive that it starts at a young age. Girls should not have to be taught what’s “appropriate” to wear in order to avoid being catcalled, stalked, or raped. There is no formula a woman can follow to keep entitled predators from leaving her alone. The only way to stop rape is to hold rapists accountable and for men to realize that women’s bodies are off limits unless otherwise given consent. Even then, men need to realize that consent can be rescinded at any point during a sex act.
Preventing sexual assault should never be the woman or child’s responsibility. It is the responsibility of men to view women as equal human beings, not objects to control, manipulate, or violate.