We’ve heard the statistics before. One out of every five women will experience some sort of sexual assault during her college years. For men, one out of every 71 will experience sexual assault during his college years. In 90 percent of sexual assault cases, the victim personally knew the perpetrator.
When I hear these facts, they fall on partially deaf ears. It’s certainly not because I don’t care, nor is it because I lack sympathy for the victims of sexual assault. I think these facts lose their potency for two reasons: they’re repeated representations of reality, and following from that, they’re becoming a part of reality.
I’ll explain what I mean with a simple analogy from my childhood. During middle school, I stayed indoors and played on my computer a lot, to the point where I had no virtually no friends other than my virtual friends. These virtual friends, of course, weren’t my friends in the truest sense of the word. They merely filled the gap of the real-life friends I lacked.
Over time, though, I began to think of them as my real friends. No longer virtual, they were whom I referred to when my mom asked who I was hanging out with. (She meant in the physical world, but I let our miscommunication slide.) These virtual friends were substitutions for something that was real; but they were representations for so long that I mistook them for actually being real. They became a part of my own reality.
To tie up this analogy, we’ve seen these statistics on sexual assault for so long now that they’re not representations for reality anymore, but have become pieces of reality. For many of us not affected by sexual assault, including myself, the numbers have, in a sense, become more real than the people they represent. They’ve taken the place of people, and numbers are less compelling than people.
How do we put people in the foreground again, and would that make a difference in the meaningfulness of sexual assault education?
I believe so, and the Clothesline Project here at TU is putting my belief to the test. They’re making people real again.
A national movement that started in Massachusetts in 1990, the Clothesline Project “is a visual display that bears witness to sexual violence.”
Taken straight from their website, the Clothesline Project upholds four central purposes: “To bear witness to the survivors as well as the victims of violence; To help with the healing process for people who have lost a loved one or are survivors of this violence; To educate, document, and raise society’s awareness of the extent of the problem of sexual violence; To provide a national network of support, encouragement, and information for other communities starting their own Clothesline Projects.”
Concerning the actions of the project, “During the public display, a clothesline is hung with shirts. Each shirt is decorated to represent a particular person’s experience, by the survivors themselves or by someone who cares about them.”
Here at TU, the Clothesline Project is currently being conducted by the Advocacy Alliance, which is “a multidepartmental effort at TU to end violence on our campus.”
The Advocacy Alliance includes the Dean of Student’s Office, TITAN, Alexander Health Center, TU Counseling and Psychological Services, Greek Life, TU Athletics, Campus Security and others.
One of these “others” includes S.A.V.E., or Student Alliance for Violence Education. S.A.V.E., recently founded as part of the Psychology department’s Psychology of Trauma Action Project, upholds a purpose similar to that of the Clothesline Project: to raise awareness on the emotional, physical and sexual abuse surrounding sexual assault.
The current president of S.A.V.E., senior Emily Farrar, said “We’re the undergraduate version of the Advocacy Alliance. The AA is run primarily by graduate students and faculty, whereas S.A.V.E. is run by undergraduates and is for undergraduates here. But we work with the AA to help with the Clothesline Project.”
As far as who can make Tshirts, Farrar said, “Anyone affected by sexual violence or who knows someone affected by sexual violence who wants to share their story can make a Tshirt. It’s really just a way to empower these victims and to shed the stigma surrounding sexual assault.”
She’s referring to the unfortunate belief held by many people that somehow “the victims asked for it,” which is not and will never be true.
“Sexual assault is becoming a much bigger issue now,” Farrar said. “With media covering these assaults more frequently, and with more people speaking out about their experiences, this project is just a way to continue spreading this awareness.”
When I asked about her involvement, her answer was simple: “This is my way of preventing the isolation victims of sexual assault endure after the incident. I had friends who struggled for so long coming to terms with the trauma they faced. I don’t want anyone struggling alone.”
As far as the t-shirt designs go, Farrar said, “Really anything can go on them. It’s a chance for those affected to personally come to terms with their assault in whatever form that takes.”
It should be noted that the names of perpetrators cannot go on the shirts, nor can names of the victims if a friend or family member is making the shirt.
S.A.V.E. and the rest of the Advocacy Alliance hosted a T-shirt decorating event on Wednesday, October 14. The shirts will be hung up on Dietler Commons and in McFarlin this Wednesday and Thursday, and later on Friday on the New U at the Homecoming Tailgate event.
“We’re currently hosting bystander intervention training for undergraduates, graduates, and faculty,” Farrar said. “We have a four hour course and a ninety minute course that will teach students and faculty to recognize behavior that may lead to sexual assault. It teaches students how to intervene specifically and effectively in different situations, something that Haven doesn’t do. I encourage all students to try it out.”
Her comment about Haven reflects a deeper resentment held not just by her, but by essentially every single person who completes the tutorial. This is a problem, and it’s a problem that stems directly from the cause I mentioned earlier. Haven is ineffective because it puts people in the background, which makes for a very meaningless and boring tutorial.
The Clothesline Project, I hope, will be the antithesis of Haven; it will be real, with real people and real experiences expressed on real, tangible T-shirts. It’s not a virtual reality, just like sexual assault is not. Like its T-shirts, the project is fitting, and I hope it sends a message more meaningful than any online tutorial ever can.