Every 98 seconds, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted, coming out to be around 321,500 for anyone 12 years of age and older on average every year.
While women — one out of every six — experience sexual assault at higher rates — one out of 33 — than their male counterparts, no one is immune to sexual assault.
This issue, among others, is why the feminist union at the University of Central Arkansas decided to bring awareness to victims of all ages and genders and the acts perpetrated against them during the “What Were You Wearing” survivor art installation.
The exhibit originated at the University of Arkansas in 2013 and was created by Jen Brockman and Mary Wyandt-Hiebert, inspired by Mary Simmerling’s poem, titled the same, which talks about the clothing items she was wearing — a white cotton T-Shirt tucked into a jean skirt — when she was assaulted on July 4, 1987.
Moved by the poem, the duo wanted to put together a way to create a visual representation of Simmerling’s poem, impacted themselves, thus coming up with the exhibit.
“The intent of the installation is to create a tangible response to one of our culture's most pervasive sexual assault and abuse culture myths,” Bri Vongvilay, with the union, said. “The belief that clothing or what someone was wearing ‘causes’ sexual assault is extremely damaging for both survivors and our community. This installation allows participants to see themselves reflected in not only the outfits but also the experiences of survivors.”
The exhibit opens on Thursday and will continue through April 4 at the Blackbox Gallery in the Schichtl Studio Arts Center on the UCA campus.
“We want this to be an event where people can gather together and articulate the topics in a safe and understanding environment,” Vongvilay said. “I hope it teaches people as well as informs them and gives them some knowledge.”
She said oftentimes — she’s heard the defense herself — people excuse the behavior of the assailant, putting the blame on the victim by insinuating their assault was the product of their clothing choice.
“With this, we’re just trying to show people on campus that the myth of what you’re wearing doesn’t apply to anything,” Vongvilay said.
The Log Cabin Democrat had the opportunity to visit with Vongvilay and union member Bryttani Bartlett as they were setting up in the gallery on Wednesday.
As the duo pinned the varying clothing items onto the walls of the room, ranging from khaki cargo shorts to prom dresses to pajamas and sweatshirts, the weight of each victim’s story was palpable.
Bartlett told the LCD that each were direct stories from university students, some of the outfits being the articles the individuals were assaulted in, others a direct representation.
“It’s sad and it’s very upsetting,” she said.
One wall even showcased a military uniform, brought in by UCA student Franchesea Avila, who served as a gunner’s mate in the U.S. Coast Guard and was sexually assaulted in 2006.
She said she attends class in the building and saw a flier for the exhibit. Feeling compelled to tell her story, Avila dropped off her ensemble, complete with bars and other achievements.
Avila's tattoos are clearly visible. She said while in the military, she worked with ammo and described herself as a “bad-ass chick.”
Due to the seriousness of the uniform, the 41-year-old said she felt people needed to see that even strong women go through sexual assault encounters.
“I’m a decorated war hero, and it didn’t matter,” she said.
Events like the exhibit, she said, are important because they show just that — it doesn’t matter what someone is wearing.
“It brings to light that people are wearing clothes,” Avila said. “People always say, ‘Well, she shouldn’t have been wearing that,’ or, ‘Their skirt was too short,’ or whatever. These are sweatpants, these are uniforms, these are dresses that are hard to [get through]. It doesn’t mean there are any barriers.”
She said the exhibit will bring visual impact to those who, unless it happens to them or a family member or friend, just don’t understand the numbers of the significance.
“My No.1 goal for this is that victims know that we stand in solidarity with them,” Vongvilay said. “To let people know we are with them, we’re standing with them, we support them.”
The exhibit is free and open to the public but the union is encouraging guests to bring optional donations — including juice boxes, books, journals, sketchbooks, small fleece blankets, hygiene products, sports bras, everyday household goods — for two local nonprofits partners: The Children’s Advocacy Alliance and the Women’s Shelter of Central Arkansas.
“This exhibit being free and open to all is phenomenal, moreover, this group is going above and beyond giving back directly to us and the Women's Shelter,” Leia Smith, with CAA said. “I can't express how amazing that is and awestruck I am by the kindness and thoughtful action being taken at UCA right now. These students aren't just talking about a problem, they aren't just sitting on it, they're raising awareness and items for the victims of abuse in this community. Can we just stop for a minute and celebrate that.”