Victims of sexual assault often face questions about what they were wearing — as if that could explain the attacker’s behavior — but local university staff and victim advocates are collaborating to challenge that myth with an art installation.
“I think it’s really powerful,” said Letha Kelsey, associate art professor at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville Baraboo Sauk County, while looking through the exhibit during its opening reception Monday.
From a child’s sundress to a set of pajamas, clothing hangs on display at the campus administration building. Slips of paper accompany each outfit with excerpts from true stories of sexual assault. Nothing graphic, but enough to answer the question “What were you wearing?”
The university’s student affairs department worked with Hope House of South Central Wisconsin, the Sauk County Health Department and the Healthfirst Network to put on the exhibit in recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The art installation originated at the University of Arkansas in 2013 but has expanded, reaching UW-Platteville last year and Baraboo this year, according to Baraboo Student Services Coordinator Jennifer Walsh.
Hope House Teen Advocate Sarah Campbell said the display is about believing and supporting survivors of sexual assault — and ending victim-blaming.
“The important message is that it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing,” Campbell said. “The importance is addressing that myth that what you’re wearing is a factor in being assaulted, which it’s not.”
Using descriptions from stories provided by the University of Arkansas project, organizers picked out clothing from their own closets or from donations to use in the exhibit. Campbell said having something tangible helps people connect with the issue, especially if they have similar clothes or know someone who does.
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“It’s easy to disconnect from that when you’re just seeing words on paper, but when you see something that somebody might have been wearing and hear their story in that sense, it brings it home,” she said.
Karen Evenson, a campus mental health counselor who helped organize the exhibit, noted that assault victims can be any age and any gender, illustrated by the variety of clothing, “so I think that that’s important to sort of visualize too.”
Organizers plan to do this again, but they hope to incorporate local stories as part of future displays, Walsh said. After walking through the art installation, students and community members can write down their own experiences with sexual assault and drop it into a box just outside of the room. For added privacy, submissions also can be made anonymously online at urlzs.com/bHhV.
Walsh estimates about 75 students, staff and community members walked through the exhibit Monday. It will continue to be displayed during general campus hours through April 26 in room A-217 of the Umhoefer Administration Building.
Resources also are available at the exhibit to help people who have experienced sexual assault. Hope House offers a free 24-hour helpline at 1-800-584-6790. Students can access crisis services at 800-533-5692.