In Garden City Community College's Beth Tedrow Student Center, past a content warning for gender-based violence and a list of numbers of local resources, is a long wall of clothes — a white prom dress, a swimsuit, a large, thick University of Kansas sweatshirt, a little girl’s dress, bright red heels.
Every outfit stands for a sexual assault victim, each a recreated version of what the person was wearing when someone took advantage of them.
The display is the “What Were You Wearing?” art installation, an exhibit meant to combat the idea that a victim’s rape or assault could have been prevented were they wearing a more conservative outfit. The exhibit is a collaboration between Family Crisis Services, Garden City Community College, the GCCC Student Government Association and LiveWell Finney County Health Coalition, and will be open to the public from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays through April 20.
“We want to debunk the myth that it matters what you wear as to whether or not you get raped … One of the first questions that law enforcement, family, friends will ask a victim is ‘What were you wearing?’ And that just puts the blame back on the victim. And none of it is the victim’s fault,” said Debbie Lopez, a GCCC campus advocate from Family Crisis Services.
The original exhibit was inspired by the poem “What I was Wearing” by Mary Simmerling. University of Arkansas’ Mary Wyandt-Hiebert and the KU's Jen Brockman came across the poem at a conference in 2013, and soon after based the art project around its message. The two faculty members asked rape survivors to describe what they were wearing when they were assaulted and displayed their written responses next to a recreation of the outfit.
Lopez said Family Crisis Services advocates saw a version of the exhibit at training and thought it would be an impactful way to recognize sexual assault awareness month in Garden City.
The display at GCCC includes nine anonymous testimonies of student-survivors from colleges across Kansas and 11 recreated outfits. Among them are banners from the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic violence, Simmerling’s poem and a table with information for domestic violence support groups and Family Crisis Services. An advocate from Family Crisis Services also will be present at the exhibit for support or questions every day it is open from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Lopez said while she was at the installation, a visitor posed questions about a testimony from a male rape survivor, asking why he didn’t fight back. She said it opened up a conversation and ultimately a better understanding about the body’s fight, flee or freeze responses in a crisis and how, regardless of the situation, the assault is never the victim’s fault.
To Lopez, the installation was a great jumping off point for important conversations.
“We’ve had a really good response. I think it’s an eye-opener for a lot of people…” Lopez said. “People are starting to understand that we don’t blame the victim, that the person responsible is the person who is doing the act. And I think that we’re seeing people who are not only understanding that but will be more compassionate and more empathetic to victims.”
The installation is open to and intended for the public. Lopez said it was a community event that everyone could learn from.
“When someone has been raped, the feelings that are there are shame, guilt, anger. There’s that trauma that occurs…” Lopez said. “And people are afraid to come forward to say this is what has happened to me, because of the shame and the guilt and the question ‘What were you wearing?’
"And so hopefully, this will allow people to come forward or at least to start a conversation, whether it's with our advocacy program, whether it’s with friends or family … It’s important because no one should have to live with that shame and guilt when it really isn’t their shame and guilt. It’s what they’re feeling, but not because of anything that they did.”
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.