'What Were You Wearing?'

Museum exhibit opens up minds


In the past few months, well-known women and men have been coming forward with their own experiences of being sexually assaulted. Most of us are appropriately enraged at the men who commit sexual assault and understand the only question that matters is whether there was affirmative consent before any sexual activity. But victims of rape are too often blamed for the crime or not believed. Survivors are frequently challenged with questions: "Were you drinking?", "What were you wearing?", or "Why were you out so late?"

Recent exhibits at a museum in Brussels and the University of Kansas (sapec.ku.edu/what-were-you-wearing) are providing stark reminders that someone's clothing choice neither causes nor prevents rape. "What Were You Wearing?" recreates the outfits worn by people when they were sexually assaulted based on statements from the survivors. The items include pajamas, tracksuits, dresses, a police uniform and a "My Little Pony" t-shirt. The people in our community who work with survivors of sexual assault know that what survivors were wearing often includes items like children's pajamas, ragged jeans and t-shirts, prom dresses and work uniforms, pretty much the clothes we all wear.

When someone tells us they were sexually assaulted, many of us react by trying to distance ourselves to protect against the possibility something terrible happened to our loved one or that it could happen to us. We blame the victim: what did she or he do to have that happen to them?

Or we don't believe her: "She's exaggerating," or overreacting to "regretted sex."

Believing survivors is crucial and leads to preventing other sexual assaults. A victim who is taken seriously and believed when she or he first discloses is more likely to report to police and more likely to seek medical treatment and counseling. A victim who is not believed, or blamed for the crime, is less likely to report it or to seek help. The rapist is likely to continue committing more assaults because most perpetrators have multiple victims.

Understanding affirmative consent is one of the keys to avoid victim blaming. Consent means both people agree, whether to touching, kissing, hugging or intercourse. Consent must be clear and enthusiastic - a smile or nod, a verbal "yes," or an enthusiastic kiss or hug in response. Silence or lack of resistance to a request is not consent. Pestering someone until they finally agree to sex is not consent. Giving in is not consent.

Sex with someone yesterday or that morning doesn't mean the person has given consent for sex now. And, of course, a person who is unconscious from alcohol or drugs or asleep cannot consent to sex. Sex with someone who is incapable of giving consent is rape. The only way to know for sure if someone wants to take part in sexual activity of any kind is if they say so.

If someone tells you they were sexually assaulted, take a breath and start by being supportive. Say, "I'm sorry this happened. I'm here for you." Avoid asking questions. Let them tell you as much as they are willing to tell. Offer to take them to the hospital or the police.

Encourage the victim to call the Community Against Violence hotline. We have trained advocates to provide support and information or to accompany survivors to the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner's (SANE) Unit for medical care. Unless the victim is a child, neither CAV nor SANE will report to the police without the victim's consent.

Malinda Williams is the executive director of Community Against Violence, Inc. (CAV) which offers free confidential support and assistance for adult and child survivors of sexual and domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking; community and school violence prevention programs; re-education BIP groups for domestic violence offenders; counseling; shelter; transitional housing; and a community thrift store. To talk with someone or get information on services available, call CAV's 24-hour crisis line at 575-758- 9888. TaosCAV.org.