Sexual assault awareness: “What I Was Wearing” exhibit centers survivor stories

Each month, the Kruizenga Art Museum hosts a different special exhibit to coincide with the holidays of the month. For April, the exhibit was centered around sexual assault and spreading awareness on its different shapes, forms and impacts upon people who have experienced it. Hope College’s very own STEP organization—Students Teaching and Empowering Peers—teamed up with the art museum to put up the exhibition for the college and visitors. It was entirely filled with personal submissions from students on Hope’s campus who are survivors of sexual assault and was named “What Was I Wearing;” the exhibit gets presented each year with different submissions. The exhibit was only displayed for five days of the week before getting taken down, but its impact can still be felt. 

The exhibit featured six sets of clothing with corresponding notes written by those who submitted their outfits. The outfits ranged from skinny jeans to a simple sweatshirt and sweatpants combination to a basketball practice jersey. Each of the outfits came along with a brief story of their owner’s accounts of the sexual assault, and the raw vulnerability of the students was powerful. One included an extremely in-depth account of the actions experienced that ended with an impactful message to their assaulter: “I spent months blaming myself… And now I realize it was you. YOU took advantage of me.” Other pieces were briefer with their messages to the viewers, choosing to let the clothes speak louder than words. And there were also two small captions unaccompanied by clothing that were still able to portray depth to the audience. The ‘liar’ writes, “It was my first time ever being drunk. My first month at Hope College. Nobody believed me. Not even my mom.” They even included a simple wooden hanger at the end of the exhibit with the phrase, “For all the untold stories,” emphasizing that despite all those with the bravery to come forward and show their strength, there are still numerous cases unheard. 

Sexual assault is not an issue to be taken lightly and it impacts more people in society than the majority of people believe: men and women both. Legally, sexual assault is defined as any nonconsensual sexual act proscribed by an official law, which includes when a victim does not have the capacity or capability to consent. Unfortunate as it may be, sexual assault occurs almost anywhere in the world and often occurs at the hands of those considered trustworthy or friendly. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that a startlingly 81% of women and 43% of men experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault in their lifetime and that only includes those who came forward. A rising trend on social media earlier in the year reported that about 97% of women faced some kind of sexual harassment in their lives at some point. Sexual crimes often go unreported because victims experience disbelief or patronization for speaking out. 

The aim of “What Was I Wearing” was to “provide survivors of sexual violence on the Hope College campus a platform to speak their truth and share their stories.” STEP’s mission for sexual assault awareness month is to refute the idea that sexual assault only applies to what a person is wearing during the moment of the crime, but the exhibit does more; it proves that even on a Christian campus, people can still become victims of sexual violence. Hope College gives an annual security and fire safety report with the number of crimes filed through the college. The most recent report is from 2021 and over the past three years, 2018-2020, there have been a total of 18 rape cases compared to the 2018 report which had only 9 from 2015-2017, doubling the statistics. In the 2021-2022 year alone, four emails have been sent out thus far about sexual assault and stalking. 

Too often sexual assault and sexual violence have been disregarded and disbelieved by those around survivors, preventing them from speaking out. Offering survivors the space to express themselves and tell their stories is one of the ways we can do better to offer support. Even something like an art exhibition speaks volumes for those who struggle to find the right words or the spaces to feel believed. Speak out if something happens in front of you that you even question to be sexual violence, remember that you never know what someone has gone through, and advocate for better resources to prevent sexual violence cases from growing. 

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