Creating a space in which dialogue is encouraged and participants are free from victim-blaming, “What I Wore” is a new exhibit on campus that seeks to give survivors of sexual assault a place to express themselves openly and raise awareness.
The exhibit, open in the Student Union Art Gallery on the second floor of the LSU Library until April 29, has been in the works since December. The pandemic stalled its official launch to earlier this month, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Women’s Center director Summer Steib collaborated on the exhibit with the Lighthouse Program to teach about the widespread impact of sexual violence.
“We always knew we wanted to revisit this,” Steib said. “We felt this was something really powerful and that it was an opportunity for our campus community to engage in meaningful, challenging and change-worthy dialogue around sexual violence and how it impacts all of us.”
The Lighthouse Program sent solicitations to the Baton Rouge community at large, allowing anyone to anonymously submit a description of the physical clothes they wore at the time of the abuse, assault or rape. The exhibit features a total of 16 submissions.
In addition to showingcasing the clothes of survivors, the exhibit also features the Women’s Center Clothesline Project, a sign from the student-lead interactive performance “Resilient Body” and other interactive opportunities for students to come and learn about sexual assault.
“We really want people to be reflective about how this impacted them, what changes they’re willing to make, and maybe how this challenged a belief that they had about sexual violence,” Steib said.
Steib hopes that in people’s reflections during the exhibit, they see how sexual assault is not an issue of the past. It is ever-present, especially on LSU’s campus.
“I think each and every one of us plays a part in upholding rape culture in some way,” she said. “A lot of people think of these as issues that don’t impact them if they’re not personally a survivor or if they don’t know one. I think of the things that’s really powerful for me is that the majority of the outfits, whenever you look at them, you can go home and you could find the same exact outfit in your closet.”
In addition to trying to explore the commonality and community of survivors, the exhibit also highlights the intersectional nature of sexual assault, which was stressed by Lighthouse program coordinator Victoria Polk.
“I think this exhibit especially has shed a light on different ages and genders who tend to be affected, either directly or indirectly by sexual violence and assault,” Polk said. “We want to highlight the fact that we can tend to believe that a certain group tends to experience this type of violence. Really, it is anybody who can be a victim and survivor.”
Kinesiology and Spanish senior Paola Colmenares said she stayed in the exhibit for about 30 minutes, reading the story of each victim and staring at the street clothes hung on display. The most poignant outfit on display was a boy’s summer camp uniform.
“I thought the exhibit was really gut-wrenching,” Colmenares said. “It just goes to show you the range of situations that these people were in.”
Colmenares believes there is a stigma against sexual assault survivors and that there still exists a lot of blame for survivors based on what they wear. She said what makes the exhibit so powerful is how much it invalidates this belief.
“It just made me feel really sad to read about this person whose innocence was stripped away from them,” Colmenares said. “It just really put things into perspective that this could happen to anyone anywhere, no matter what they’re wearing.”
Deputy Title IX Coordinator for Training and Prevention Miranda Brown was present at the launch of the exhibit and spoke about her future plans and initiatives to help create more intersectional conversation on campus about sexual assault.
“The Women’s Center has been a huge help,” Brown said. “Summer Steib and I work really well together, and we’ve worked on serval projects together at this point.”
Sexual assault awareness has been at the forefront of LSU’s controversies since November 2020, when USA Today published an investigative report exposing the university’s widespread mishandling of sexual assault cases within the Title IX Office and LSU Athletics.
Since then, a 148-page investigation by law firm Husch Blackwell has been released, which included a list of 18 recommendations for the University to restructure its Title IX investigations. Only one has not been officially completed, though it is scheduled to be finished next spring.
By awareness increasing on campus for sexual assault, educating the campus population on consent and showingcasing the intersectionality of the issue, organizations like the Women’s Center and The Lighthouse Program are helping to create a safer LSU.
“What I Wore” is just one of the steps this campus is taking on a grassroots level to create awareness.
“We know survivors are going to come to the exhibit,” Steib said. “There were survivors who had pieces displayed on the wall that were here for the opening. We just hope that they see themselves reflected and that they see they’re not alone. Others have had similar experiences and what happened to them didn’t happen.” in isolation.”