Art Installation Gives Sexual Assault Survivors A Voice

Photo by Baxter Turain

Photo by Baxter Turain

Eleanor Bishop

In 2017, the What Were You Wearing art installation at the University of Kansas made national news for its blunt examination of the question so often used to blame victims of sexual assault for their attacks. Now, sexual assault survivors from Ohio University and the Athens community are getting a chance to make their stories known.


The original installation, organized by Jen Brockman of KU’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center, featured first-person stories of sexual assault paired with outfits inspired by the survivors’ account of what they were wearing at the time. While organizing OU’s What Were You Wearing? Survivor Art Installation, OU Women’s Center director Dr. Geneva Murray didn’t want to simply repeat Brockman’s work. 


“We wanted to make sure that we were focused on local experiences,” she says. “All of the stories that people will experience in the gallery are stories that are local, but we were guided by this wonderful conversation that [Brockman] had started, this wonderful challenge to one of the most persistent rape myths.”


The installation specifically challenges the idea that victims of sexual assault are “asking for it” based on the clothes they were wearing. It directly confronts the infamous question sexual assault survivors are often asked, “what were you wearing?”


Starting in June, sexual assault survivors in the Athens area could anonymously share details about their assault as well as a description of the clothes they were wearing through an online form that was exempt from OU’s mandatory reporting policy.


After descriptions were collected, Murray and Survivor Advocacy Program Director Kimberly Castor searched Columbus thrift stories for clothes that matched. They were conscious to represent survivors’ stories as accurately as possible. As well as a physical description, the online form asked for the size and gender of the clothes. 


“We didn’t want to just walk into a thrift store and grab what was easy to find,” Murray says. “We wanted people to really help us think very intentionally as to how we were selecting clothing.”


The clothing in the installation spans a wide range of ages, sizes and genders. OU apparel is heavily represented.


Every outfit is paired with a description which vary in length and content. Some simply detail the clothing being shown, others go into specifics about the assault and aftermath. 


One reads: “I was wearing a peach dress. It was above the knee with thick straps. I haven’t worn a dress since that night.”


By presenting stories of assault on an individual level, the installation strives to humanize victims.


“I think so often to try to demonstrate the magnitude of this as a problem we talk about ‘one in three,’ ‘one in five,’ ‘one in seven,’ ‘one in 71,’ and people can forget that there are people behind those numbers,” Murray says.


The installation was organized to be accessible to as many people as possible. Written descriptions are accompanied with braille and audio recordings are available upon request. 


Murray says the installation is for everyone, regardless of their experience with sexual assault.


“Survivor stories impact all of us,” she says. “I think knowing the reality of the survivor experience, the diversity of experiences, can help build empathetic responses.”


The What Were You Wearing Survivor Art Installation will be held in the Trisolini Gallery on the fourth floor of Baker University Center from Aug. 30-Sept. 13. On Wednesday, September 5at 5:30 p.m. in Baker Ballroom, a panel of experts will answer questions and respond to thoughts regarding the exhibit.