Photographs by Debra Hale-Shelton
Allison Vetter, Henderson State University’s Title IX coordinator, is shown with a sari in an exhibition about clothes that sexual-assault victims wore.
Monday, April 16, 2018
ARKADELPHIA -- A little girl's sun dress, long-legged blue pajamas and a brightly colored sari are among the clothes on display in an art exhibition seeking to dispel the notion that sexual assault happens only to women and then only to those who are immodestly dressed.
Henderson State University and Ouachita Baptist University, located across the street from each other in Arkadelphia, are simultaneously showing multiple items from a traveling exhibition titled "What Were You Wearing?" through Friday.
"I was wearing a sari. The same thing I wear most days," one sexual assault survivor recalls in a display reading at Henderson. "It was what I was comfortable in. It reminded me of home, of my family, of my identity. Now, it reminds me of him."
Beside those words hangs a brilliant pink and golden sari, an elaborate garment worn by many women in southern Asia. The lightweight cloth is draped so that one end of the fabric forms a skirt; the other, a head or shoulder covering.
Nearby hangs a small, short-sleeved child's T-shirt with a soccer player depicted on the front.
"My favorite yellow shirt," is what the victim recalls, "but I don't remember what pants I was wearing. I remember being so confused and just wanting to leave my brother's room and go back to watching my cartoons."
Another survivor recalls wearing a "Bohemian skirt and top" when she was assaulted. "Nothing fancy. I'd worn that outfit a dozen times before. I always thought I was safe because I didn't wear 'those' kinds of clothes. I guess my rapist didn't get the memo."
Inspired by Mary Simmerling's poem "What I Was Wearing," Jen Brockman and Mary Wyandt-Hiebert created the exhibition in 2013 at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
Simmerling's poem, written in the early 2000s, recalls what she was wearing that night in 1987 when she was assaulted: a white shirt, a belted jean skirt "ending just above the knees," white tennis shoes, white underwear, silver earrings, lip gloss.
For the exhibition, Brockman, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center at the University of Kansas, and Wyandt-Hiebert, director of RESPECT at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, got volunteers to share information on what they were wearing and what happened when they were sexually assaulted.
The clothes on display are not those the victims actually wore but are re-created to represent those described, Allison Vetter, Henderson's Title IX coordinator, said last week. "These are real stories and real people."
Each campus is displaying different clothing and stories in the exhibition, taking place during Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Ouachita's is in the McClellan Rotunda. Henderson's is on the first floor of the Huie Library. Admission is free.
Identified only as "a university student," each victim is anonymous. The gender also is not stated, though it sometimes becomes apparent through a victim's story and clothing.
"Our goal is to bring awareness to the reality of sexual assault -- that it does not discriminate based on gender, age, or even what you were wearing," Ashlee Giles, Ouachita's student complaint coordinator, said in a news release posted on the colleges' websites.
"This is an uncomfortable topic to discuss, so sometimes it seems easier to assign blame than to truly grasp the complexity of the situation," Giles added.
The clothes on display are incredibly diverse. Among them are jeans, a minidress, a Grateful Dead sweatshirt, running shorts, long-legged pajamas and a little girl's plaid dress, the kind she might have worn to church services.
"I think this shatters that myth," Vetter said. "It's not about what you're wearing."
Simmerling's poem, printed on an exhibition program, ends with these two stanzas:
if only it were so simple
if only we could
by simply changing clothes
i remember also
what he was wearing
that no one
has ever asked.
State Desk on 04/16/2018
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