LAWRENCE, Kan. — “What were you wearing?” is a common question victims of sexual assault hear when they tell their story, and it is the impetus for a new exhibit on the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence.
The timing is significant: the director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center said most sexual assaults on campus occur in the first couple months of the new school year.
The display of 18 innocent, and innocuous, outfits is accompanied by small, simple white signs detailing what the victim wore – in the victim’s words.
“Running shorts and a tank top,” reads one sign.
Another hangs beside a youth’s size shirt. “My favorite yellow shirt,” are the words on the nearby sign. “I don’t remember what pants I was wearing.”
“White T-shirt and basketball shorts,” reads a third. “It was always the same outfit. It was always after rec center league. I trusted him. My mom trusted him.”
— Rebecca Gannon (@GannonReports) September 13, 2017
The exhibit door carries a warning sign for all who enter – so far, almost 500 people.
“I remember being so confused,” reads a sign, “and just wanted to leave my brother’s room and go back to watching my cartoons.”
One sign hung next to a tank top and a pair of running shorts: “He kept saying how hot I looked and I kept making excuses to leave. He wouldn’t let me go.”
People kept coming into the gallery. Some wore dresses, other wore business suits. Students in athletic shirts and shorts walked in. Most stood in silence. Some had tears; tissue boxes were nearby.
“I saw it,” said Katie Myler, “and it just sent chills through my body.”
Kieran Regan said he came to the exhibit to better understand what other people have gone through – to empathize with his friends who are victims.
Then he saw a child’s dress on the wall.
“You get hit with the sundress” he said. “And they’re like, 6 years old. And I have a 5-year-old brother.”
Vanessa Sanburn made a special trip to the Union to see the exhibit: “I think the one that was hardest was the one with thee outfits,” she said, as she stood in front of it in a blue dress.
“It’s never about a person’s decisions about what they’re wearing or where they are,” she passionately said.
Katie Myler was in a black shirt as she read the signs. The display with an oversized shirt and basketball shorts resonated the most with her.
“I think it’s incredibly powerful,” said the KU student. “I think that more people should see it, because we should start to normalize things like this, because nobody wants to ever talk about it. And that’s why it keeps happening.”
Jen Brockman created the exhibit, which has been displayed on several campuses across the Midwest. She is now the director of KU’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center.
“It’s not about what we were wearing,” she said. “It’s the person who caused the harm. And that’s where we need to start focusing our efforts on – how do we stop harm before it happens?”
A partition separated a small writing desk from the gallery. A sign invited people to share their own experiences in a wire-bound notebook.
The exhibit runs through Friday, Sept. 15. In October, Brockman says the exhibit will be online.