CENTER VALLEY, PA -What were you wearing? Not to the grocery store or to class, but when you were sexually assaulted. A loaded question survivors of sexual violence are often asked with a tone of suggestion they invited their attack...
"It is a question that comes up a lot in these situations and it’s completely absurd as related to the situation. I think that puts the focus so on the victim, it puts the blame on the victim and it doesn’t really leave room for external factors when thinking about sexual assault," says RISE Club member, Elise Schaffer, "It’s so very personal and you can stand in front of the clothes and you think, oh this is an outfit that I have in my closet. That’s kind of crazy to think about and it’s really relatable."
Now Penn State Lehigh Valley is inviting others inside their Community Gallery, where outfits are being posted up on the walls in an attempt to break down a sexual violence myth.
"This project is hoping to dispel the myth that the clothing that you were wearing had anything to do with what happened to you.," explains PSU-LV Campus Nurse Marissa Ketcham, "You are not a victim--you are not victimized because of the outfit that you are wearing, it has nothing to do with what you’re wearing and you’re only re-victimized when you’re asked that question. Having the clothing in front of you really shows that that has nothing to do with what happened to you. It wasn’t something that could have been stopped because you had a different outfit on, if you had changed your shirt that day, if you changed your shorts, that wasn’t--you didn’t invite this to happen. And we wanted people to see it and be able to know that it really has nothing to do with that and to not blame yourself for that and we hope that question isn’t asked of victims if they do experience something."
The powerful exhibit features anonymous survivor stories displayed alongside clothing their stories describe. Penn State Lehigh Valley students with RISE and the art club have been acquiring and installing the pieces with care and courtesy...
"It says, what were you wearing? The first time I was wearing jeans, and a blue t-shirt.," Schaffer reads one of the stories posted in the Community Gallery, "The next time, years later, I was wearing jeans and a blue t-shirt, I wear blue sometimes when I kick-box or when I need to be assertive. Even today, I’m wearing blue because they don’t get to take my voice, my favorite color or my ability to say no and mean it. These are mine." Elise Schaffer tells PBS39 News Tonight Reporter, K.C. Lopez, "I know I have this outfit in my closet and it’s so powerful for someone to take ownership of what’s happened to them and use that to fuel their voice and be an advocate for situations like this. So this story is definitely my favorite."
With the goal of giving survivors a chance for their voices to be heard...
"I initially thought that the exhibit was called what was she wearing but then I found out it’s called, “What Were You Wearing?” And if you read through some of these stories, they are both female and male cases as well," says Thomas Mikhail, "Being a male, to open up about sensitive topics, we feel like we are losing part of our masculinity, unfortunately, as part of that. It happens. But whether people open up about it, is up to them."
Initially created by the University of Arkansas’s Jen Brockman and Dr. Mary Wyandt-Hiebert in 2013, the project was inspired by a poem; written by Weill Cornell Assistant Professor of Research Integrity in Medicine, Dr. Mary Simmerling.
"When you read it, it just seems so--very, kind of calm and matter of fact, and this is what happened," says Gallery Director and Arts Coordinator, Ann Lalik, "They’re absorbing it and processing it as they’re reading it and you can hear the tone in their voice, how it drops at the end with that revelation that there’s this double standard."
And so instead of asking what were you wearing, these students hope that by featuring this exhibit, new questions will rise…
"How are you holding up? How did this affect you? Is there anything I can do to help?" questions Schaffer.
"Hey, how are you? Do you need someone to talk to? Even if it’s not me directly, can I link you to somebody?" asks Mikhail.
"Asking how someone is, asking if they need resources, if they have people that can help them, if they have people they can talk to," says Ketcham, "If they know--if they do want to look into pressing charges, knowing how to do that, or knowing that there are other options besides that; there are still things they can do."
The exhibit will be on display until December 14th with a panel discussion, titled “From a Perspective of Healing: Art and Social Service in Dialogue,” being held from 12:15 to 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, November, 14th. The artist reception will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14, at Penn State Lehigh Valley. The exhibit, panel discussion and reception are free and open to the public.
This exhibition and events are supported through partnerships with the Crime Victim’s Council of the Lehigh Valley, Turning Point, Penn State Lehigh Valley Office of Student Affairs and students in RISE and Art Clubs.
Got a news tip? Email K.C. at KCLopez@WLVT.org