Nfld. & Labrador

Gander exhibit aims to dispel the myth that clothing promotes sexual violence

What Were You Wearing? at the Gander Arts and Culture Centre features the stories of 18 women who were sexually assaulted — and the clothes they had on when it happened.

What Were You Wearing? features stories of women who were sexually assaulted — and the clothes they had on

Eighteen outfits line the walls of the art gallery inside the Gander Arts and Culture Centre. Each one tells a story of a woman from the central region surviving sexual violence. (Martin Jones/CBC)

What were you wearing? It's a question often asked survivors of sexual violence.

It's also the title of an exhibit currently at the Joseph R. Smallwood Arts and Culture Centre in Gander.

The exhibit, curated by Cara Transition House and Violence Prevention Gander and Area, is a collection of clothing worn by women during a sexual assault. Each outfit is accompanied by a story about the events surrounding it.

Lori Oram, one of the organizers of the exhibit, says the idea that clothing choices have any connection to sexual violence is a long-standing misconception. (Martin Jones/CBC)

Lori Oram, the executive director of Violence Prevention Gander and Area, says the link between clothing and violence is an example of victim blaming — and nothing more than myth.

"If you look around the room you can easily see that all different types of clothing are here, all different types of experience and all different sizes of people," said Oram. "We just want to reinforce the idea that clothing does not cause violence. The person that does the harm causes the violence."

A bright orange lunchbox sits in stark contrast to the clothing exhibited on the walls. This story involved an elementary school student — a sobering reminder that sexual violence affects people of all ages. (Martin Jones/CBC)

There are 18 individual outfits and stories in What Were You Wearing? All of the stories were donated by women in central Newfoundland. The idea for the collection quickly spread by word of mouth.

Maybe they'll start viewing sexual violence in a different way so that we're able to encourage, support and believe these survivors of sexual violence.- Lori Oram

"What really struck me was that it was so easy to get the stories which shows the prevalence of this issue," said Oram.

"It also shows these survivors were willing to come forward and they felt empowered to try and make a change and to try to dispel the myths around sexual violence."

The teenager who wore this dress was sexually assaulted at her high school prom. She was afraid to tell her parents because her dress was ripped during the attack. (Martin Jones/CBC)

While Oram is proud of the display, she says the original plans for the collection did include stories from other genders.

"We were really hoping that we would have gotten all gender perspective in this exhibit," admits Oram. "We're looking forward to maybe having this event in the future and having that perspective."

The exhibit is intentionally not staffed allowing the public to experience it all without interruption, said Oram; the exhibit can be an emotional experience for some but a necessary challenge to the idea that clothing choices and sexual violence are connected.

This is the outfit won by a 15-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted by two older students. When she told the principal, she was told that boys will be boys. (Martin Jones/CBC)

"We want them to view their own biases and beliefs about sexual violence and look at these stories, look at this clothing, and see how maybe their perceptions may change a little bit," said Oram.

"Maybe they'll start viewing sexual violence in a different way so that we're able to encourage, support and believe these survivors of sexual violence."

While the stories included in What Were You Wearing? are profoundly personal, Oram hopes they will start important conversations with younger generations.

The exhibit challenges the idea that clothing plays a role in sexual violence. 'What were you wearing?' is often asked survivors of sexual violence. (Martin Jones/CBC)

"Some parents are bringing their teenage children in here to start that conversation about consent and sexual violence and how important it is to support and believe and encourage others," said Oram.

"I think it's the next generation that we really have to focus on changing their perspectives."

The exhibit runs until Thursday.

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