“What Were You Wearing?”: UW Hosts Art Exhibit on Sexual Assault and Violence 


On Feb. 28 and Mar. 1, the University of Waterloo’s Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office (SVPRO) partnered with the Sexual Assault Centre for Waterloo Region (SASC) to feature an installation art exhibit in the Student Life Centre (SLC) titled “What Were You Wearing?” This display was based on the original 2013 survivor art installation at the University of Arkansas, inspired by Dr. Mary Simmerling’s poem, What I Was Wearing. 

“What Were You Wearing?” recreates submissions of the clothing that student survivors wore when they experienced sexual violence or assault. During its two day appearance, the Multi-Purpose Room in the SLC showcased a variety of clothing pieces, accompanied with the text from anonymous university students. In case you missed the exhibit, Oregon State University interpreted and recreated a similar virtual exhibit: forestry.oregonstate.edu

Stacey Jacobs, the Sexual Violence Prevention Project Coordinator, was largely to thank for the coordination of the exhibit. “As the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office, I think we all […] came together and decided that this would be beneficial for our campus and for our students and a way to move the conversation forward, […] specific[ally] victim blaming myths surrounding what you were wearing,” she said.

Jacobs and the SVPRO facilitated with SASC and have wanted to put together a display since before the pandemic, but this was postponed when in-person events were put on hold. Jacobs also worked with Amanda Cook, the Director of Sexual Violence Prevention Response Office. On their shoulders, the event came to fruition directly succeeding reading week, both with a passion and determination to bring awareness to sexual assault for UW students. “We know how common sexual violence is in our society, in our communities, including on our campus, so we don’t want to ignore that.” 

According to Jacobs and Cook, the exhibit works to debunk common myths about sexual assault, particularly the implication that what someone wears can be the cause of sexual assault. This myth was created by prevailing social norms on gender, self-expression, and sexuality and is used to blame survivors and justify perpetrators’ actions. “Sexual violence is one of the most underreported forms of violence across the board, and it is an experience that has so many biases and myths that surround it that also present as barriers for accessing support,” Cook said. This exhibit is meant to remind viewers that everyone has the right to wear what they please, and survivors are never to blame for their sexual assault. 

When the two of us attended on Mar. 1, the exhibit brought up a mix of emotions. Though walking through the wide range of clothing such as children’s pajamas, prom dresses, sweatpants, and hoodies, was impactful, it was the text that was the most heartbreaking. This included quotes like: “I was so excited, I really liked him. I thought he was a nice guy” and “I said stop. She laughed and said, guys can’t be raped. She didn’t stop.” These helped the viewers feel a stronger connection to the clothing in front of them. Evidently, we weren’t the only students who felt so emotionally impacted. 

“The word I would say that people have used the most is impactful. A lot of people are shocked, some people have gotten upset, but they’ve also said ‘of course I’m upset, this is a very upsetting topic,'” Jacobs said. 

Jacobs continued by commenting on the emotional reaction many students, ourselves included, had to the exhibit. While interacting with these feelings and conversations is difficult, it remains essential in striving towards sexual assault and violence awareness and prevention. 

Furthermore, Jacobs expressed the necessity for providing education, information, and preventative measures with fast approaching events such as St. Patrick’s Day. The holiday is well known for intoxication and party life on university and college campuses. Safety relies on prevention, including building healthy relationships and consent beforehand, limiting drug and alcohol consumption, knowing help lines, communicating with loved ones on your whereabouts, and staying in well populated areas as much as possible. 

Unfortunately, the reality is these events, and campus life in general, create elevated rates of rape and assault, and preventative measures aren’t always effective. Jacobs and Cook note that no matter what, “it’s not your fault”, and never will be. Please call (519)-741-8633, the 24 hour crisis support line of SASC, or contact the SVPRO at svpro@uwaterloo.ca if you have experienced sexual assault and wish to access support.