What Were You Wearing? is a clothing exhibit that was opened to the UNB community Monday morning, with the aim of debunking the many myths surrounding sexual assault.
The exhibit, which will be in the upper atrium of the Student Union Building from Feb. 12 to 16, is open for everyone. Featuring the stories of numerous sexual assault survivors, their words hang beside the outfits they were wearing when the assault took place.
Co-organizer and UNB nursing student Emily Tingley was inspired to bring this exhibit to UNB after seeing a video of it being done at another university. She brought it to Maggie Forsythe, the Campus Sexual Assault Support Advocate, and UNBSU LGBTQ councillor Jackie Toner.
Tingley said she wanted the exhibit to contribute to dispelling rape myths, but also to give many sexual assault survivors the opportunity to share their stories anonymously if they wished too.
“This just gives them an opportunity to kind of take their voice back without actually having to speak on their own behalf,” said Tingley.
Speaker Rice Fuller, the director of counselling services at UNB, references a survey done with over 1000 UNB students in 2016. The survey was used to analyze attitudes towards sexual assault and experience with sexual assault.
The results showed that not only had one in five students experienced some type of sexual assault since arriving at UNB, but there were also troubling statistics of endorsements of rape myths among students.
Two myths that are particularly relevant to this exhibit are: it is usually only women who dress in a “promiscuous or suggestive” manner that are raped, and that a woman who dresses in skimpy clothes should not be surprised if a man tries to force her into having sex.
“For these two myths, a full 25 per cent of UNB students indicated some endorsement of them. And as you can guess, unfortunately, men were significantly more likely to endorse these myths than women or people who identify as LGBTQ,” said Fuller.
The very existence of this exhibit completely reverses these myths. The clothing items hung up are numerous and unique. The outfits include dresses one might wear out with friends or pyjamas that one would wear to go to sleep.
The stories found alongside the outfits are just as diverse. The survivors tell of being assaulted by their partners—ex and current—a relative, a friend or a complete stranger. In any case, these stories and their corresponding outfits all serve as a powerful example that there is nothing a person can wear to justify sexual violence
Forsythe spoke at the opening of the exhibit, and talked about the responsibility of someone’s assault being so often placed on the victim of that assault.
“These are stories of survivor-hood in a world that silences and minimizes sexual violations. So it takes bravery to stand up and say, ‘Me too—this has happened, and it is not okay,’” said Forsythe.
She noted that women in particular are told they should do numerous things to avoid being assaulted, including guarding one’s drink to avoid being drugged or to travel in packs.
But she points out that, as many of the stories in the exhibit show, sexual assault perpetrators can be people one knows and trusts. This can worsen the feeling of shame and loss of trust in people that many survivors experience.
“The outfits are literal representations of the way a person looked at the time of their assault, but they are also a symbol of strength, of resilience and rejection of the shame that is so deeply ingrained,” says Forsythe.
Tingley encourages students to see the exhibit, provided it’s okay for their mental health, and said that students who want to seek help for sexual assault should reach out to Forsythe, who will be providing office hours in the SUB as extra support.
“If it’s good for your mental health and you are really interested, and even if you don’t know a lot about the topic, I would really encourage people to come and see it,” said Tingley.
Photos by Maria Araujo.