Editor’s Note: This article describes an installation about gender-based violence.
“But what were you wearing?”
The Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences (MSASS) is currently exhibiting the “Hearing the Silence” installation, which will be held from April 2 through 8 in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
“Hearing the Silence” was conceptualized in response to a question commonly asked to victims of sexual harassment and assault: “But what were you wearing?”
“Hearing the Silence is a radical act of empowerment, advocacy and personal reflection of our culture’s implicit and explicit support or defiance of rape culture,” said Laura Voith, Assistant Professor at MSASS and key contributor to the exhibit.
The display utilizes both physical representations and written word. Twenty-four mannequins are displayed wearing clothing representative of 24 sexual assault survivors who answered the question: “What were you wearing?”
“[This question is] often used against the victim [or] survivor to unfairly cause them to carry the blame,” Voith said. “This exhibit challenges that notion and poses the question to survivors to show just how commonplace their outfits are, and so those attending can see themselves in these outfits.”
Jackie Diaz, a first-year medical anthropology major, attended “Hearing the Silence.” Diaz is a self-described “early-bloomer,” and began exclusively wearing sweatpants and oversized shirts to combat unwanted sexual attention.
“One of the exhibits was about someone who was assaulted while wearing an oversized shirt. This particular exhibit had an exact copy of my favorite t-shirt,” Diaz said. “I wear it all the time because it’s my way of getting attention without getting that [unwanted attention]. But this person wore that shirt and it made no difference.”
Kristina Soja, the Executive Aide to the Dean at MSASS, is an “avid supporter” of the installation.
“It is a powerful statement about the perception of sexual violence, and how victims are marginalized by societal expectations. ‘She was asking for it,’ ‘she didn’t say no,’ ‘she liked it;’ how often do we hear those loaded words?” Soja asked. “To me, the exhibit [empowers the] voices to those who have been silent, and begs the question, ‘What more can be done?’”
“Hearing the Silence” also includes excerpts from popular written media sources which emulate the discourse surrounding sexual violence.
“The ‘chatter wave’ is a powerful experience to sit with,” Voith explained. “It is amazing how the smallest act of kindness in instances when survivors disclose [their sexual assault experiences can] go a long way.”
Diaz found this part of the display particularly reassuring as an ally to sexual assault survivors.
“It’s hard when you are the only person who knows about something like this, because it’s not your secret to tell,” Diaz said. “There’s a constant voice in your head panicking, ‘What if I’m not saying the right things? What if I’m doing more harm than good? What if they told the wrong person?’ Having some validation that I am doing the best I can is very helpful.”
The exhibit is a project of Collective Action Through Social Justice (CATSJ), a group formed to increase the visible social advocacy of MSASS. Voith is a founding member of CATSJ.
“[CATSJ]’s mission is to educate, advocate and engage the [MSASS] and Cleveland community in transformative dialogues on social justice from a social work perspective,” Voith said.
“Hearing the Silence” is CATSJ’s second installation of the Arts in Action series. The series uses art as a unique medium to facilitate dialogue regarding difficult issues.
“The most important thing I had to realize is that every day is a healing process,” the chatter wall stated. “It is brave to speak out, but that doesn’t make you a coward if you don’t. Silent or not, activist or not, we are worthy”
Other events for Sexual Assault Awareness Month are set to take place, including “Take Back the Night” on April 5 and “Justice on the Mic” on April 6.
The University provides resources for self-care and support. University Counseling Services can be contacted at 216.368.5872 and email@example.com. The Confidential Student Advocate at F.S.M. Center for Women can be contacted in person, at 216.368.8639 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center provides a 24-hour text or call hotline at 216.619.6192, or chat online and has more information on their website.