Seeing their stories: Annual display lends voice to sexual-assault victims

  • Published
  • By Christopher Decker
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- The Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Sexual Assault Prevention and Response team wants to dispel a myth. This myth is that a person’s outfit is an invitation for sexual violence.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month and one of this month’s signature events was the “What Were You Wearing?” exhibit. What started as a single event at the University of Arkansas in 2014 has grown into hundreds of annual exhibits throughout the country.

Last year, Team Wright-Patt had one of its own for the first time and Hollie Kiehn, the 88th Air Base Wing sexual assault response coordinator, helped develop it.

“We had a lot of people that felt like it was an amazing opportunity for stories to be told,” she said. “I think that for people that have not personally been affected by sexual assault, there can be a disconnect. We know that it happens in society, but we don’t know what it looks like. Providing this exhibit with the stories and the clothes really helps connect those dots and makes it real.”

The SAPR office has worked on this project for months. It starts by soliciting for people to share their stories. It’s an anonymous retelling of a terrible moment in the life of a victim.

“They tell their personal experiences of sexual assault, specifically what they were wearing at the time of the assault,” Kiehn said. “Some people just share very basic details. Some people share their entire experience.

“What they went through with law enforcement and the court system, how they were not believed, how they were asked by multiple people what they were wearing at the time of the assault – even though that has nothing to do with sexual assault. It’s a very common question that’s asked of survivors when they come forward.” 

Once enough stories were gathered, the SAPR team started collecting outfits to match the stories. It’s a lengthy process that includes raiding the closets of event organizers, hunting through clothing racks at the Airman’s Attic and partnering with a local Goodwill.

The team is meticulous in its preparation. Organizers constantly referenced a multipage checklist of clothing items and bounced concerns off each other as they gathered. Was the shirt blue-green or just green? Were there holes in the jeans? Which franchise was on the hat?

“We’ve even gotten creative with paint and sewing machines so that we can provide the most accurate replication of what they were wearing,” Kiehn said, “so that it accurately reflects what happened in that moment.”

Eventually, all this work was put on display to the public. 2024 marked just the second year Wright-Patterson has hosted the event and lessons learned from year one were already incorporated.

The original cobbled-together exhibit was upgraded with purpose-built hangers that allow the ensembles to drape properly. The addition of wheels mobilizes the piece to be displayed at other locations by request.

The exhibit itself is sobering. Three black walls each adorned with a half-dozen stories. Some are short. Some are more detailed. None would be considered light reading. They use phrases like:

 “He was a Master Sergeant when I was wearing this. Today we are both Staff Sergeants.”

“After I was sexually assaulted, I felt like what was the point of life.”

“I was 17 and it was a long time before I told anyone because I thought I would get in trouble.”   

“I was a child at the mercy of an adult.”

Each of these traumatic moments is accompanied by a set of clothing draped over a hanger:

  • A combination of shorts, T-shirt and ballcap that can be seen on young men just about anywhere in America.
  • A set of business casual women’s clothes very common in a large professional workforce like Wright-Patt.
  • A teenager’s boy band T-shirt and jeans.
  • Airman battle uniforms with two chevrons on the sleeve.
  • The Disney princess nightgown of a small child.

The display does more than just dispel a myth. The victims in these stories are anonymous but the clothing provides a strong visual to the accompany the tragic words.

It doesn’t take much imagination to picture these same outfits hanging in the closet of a friend or a partner. Of a son or a daughter. And it’s far easier to believe statistics like half of all women and a third of all men in the U.S. have experienced sexual violence with this diverse and very common array of outfits to accentuate to point.

“Oftentimes, for victims of sexual assault, the biggest kind of re-traumatization that occurs within telling their story is that they're not believed,” Kiehn said. “And so by having it on display, it provides an opportunity to bear witness to their story. To do it in a setting where people do believe. It allows them to be heard.” 

And thanks to the diligent work of the Wright-Patterson SAPR team, these anonymous victims can not only be heard, but seen.