Survivors of sexual assault at the University of Florida are reclaiming the four words often used to discredit them: “What were you wearing?”
In a new art exhibit, they powerfully lay out their answers – pajamas, jeans, sweatshirts and overalls – and in doing so, fight off the blame society tries to cast onto them.
The installation was curated by Lazaro Tejera, a fourth-year biology student who oversees the Gender and Sexualities in Medicine Committee as part of the university’s American Medical Student Association Chapter.
When Tejera found out about the visual project, first launched by the University of Arkansas in 2013, he knew he had to bring it to life at his own school.
“I thought: I have the power, I have the support. Let me reach out to a group on campus that I know to help me with this,” he told CNN.
He contacted members of STRIVE, a peer education group focusing on interpersonal violence, and began planning the exhibit last November.
The team set up anonymous online submission forms and received over 36 entries, 12 of which became the clothes displayed at the event.
“Though every story was not used to create an outfit for the installment, we did print out booklets which included all submissions and are available at the exhibit,” Tejera explained.
Walking through the gallery, attendees get a glimpse of the horrors lived by those who have been assaulted, written in their own words. Their pain is magnified by the popular implication that they could have avoided attack if they had made different wardrobe choices.
“I was wearing overalls and my favorite T-shirt,” says a note next to a corresponding outfit. “I went inside with them because it was summer and I was hot, and they said they had lemonade. I never wore overalls again.”
Through these examples, the exhibit illustrates how survivors can often feel helpless about the circumstances that led to their assault. And by speaking out about their experiences, they address the notion that they are somehow responsible for what’s happened to them.
“For me personally, it’s definitely been eye-opening to the realities of sexual assault,” Tejera said. “You hear about cases of assault every so often in the media or friends, but to read all of those submissions and physically recreate them through clothing made me realize that this really can happen to anyone, anywhere, by anyone.”
The exhibit will run at the University of Florida through the end April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Tejera hopes to make it an annual event on campus.