Clothes hang in a line along a corridor. On the right side hangs a red t-shirt and black gym shorts. The center outfit depicts a long sleeve blue and red striped sweater and baggy pants. The last outfit on the far left shows a long sleeve black shirt and black skinny jeans. Next to each outfit is a white paper square framed with an outer black square. The inner white square tells the story that goes along with each outfit. The photo is taken at a diagonal angle.
CARE showcases survivor stories and their clothing at their 5th annual "What were you wearing" exhibit. Apr. 19. Photo by Savannah Redl

Jacqueline Gomez entered the ‘What were you wearing’ exhibit quietly. She walked through the corridors in the low-lit room. She took her time viewing each piece of clothing.

“My clothes are in here,” she said. 

The Center for Advocacy, Response and Education, or CARE, at UNL has put on the “what were you wearing” exhibit for five years straight. 

“It is intended to dispel the myth and stereotype sexual violence is about what you are wearing,” Melissa Wilkerson, Director of CARE said. 

The exhibit showcased clothing survivors wore when they were assaulted. Each outfit had their personal story pinned next to it. Stories with a red dot indicated it was submitted by someone in the UNL community. 

Over 35 people anonymously submitted their stories. Gomez was one of them. 

Gomez said it was important to share her story because everyone has their own stigmas surrounding sexual assault. 

“Unfortunately, so many people tend to think this happens to a certain demographic. The whole ‘what were you wearing’ point of this showcase is to reflect on the fact that when so many survivors report it, they are often asked what they wore,” she said. 

The exhibit included stories from men and women of all different ages. There was a wide variety of clothes ranging from sweatpants to swimsuits to a military uniform. From an adult whose survivor story was from 1987 to stories next to clothes that would only fit a three year old. 

CARE military uniform 226x300 - Survivors share their stories at "What were you wearing" exhibit
The exhibit showcases it doesn’t matter what you are wearing. Apr. 19. Photo by Savannah Redl

Gomez said sexual assault can happen to anyone no matter what. She pointed out the military uniform and reiterated what the story next to it said: the person had a gun on them when they were taken advantage of. 

“It’s not about what you’re wearing. It’s a power thing,” she said. 

Wilkerson said this exhibit is important because it gives people a chance to recognize their own myths and stereotypes.  

“My generation grew up thinking that it was stranger danger. That’s not the case — 85% of people know the perpetrator,” she said. 

Wilkerson said CARE made sure the exhibit was inclusive of all identities. This came as a surprise to some people.

CARE Swim Trunks 226x300 - Survivors share their stories at "What were you wearing" exhibit
The exhibit featured clothing from many different ages and gender identities. Apr. 19. Photo by Savannah Redl

“Last night I spoke with a group of men who appreciated how inclusive it was. They walked in and expected to see stories only representing a certain identity,” she said. “So many people are finding different takeaways.” 

Omar Tinajero came to support his friend Gomez. He was emotional and said the whole exhibit was jarring. 

“Reading these stories, I could feel my face drop,” Tinajero said. 

Tinajero said he was always aware of the prevalence of sexual assault. However the exhibit, seeing them all in a row, put things into perspective. 

“These are just normal outfits,” he said. 

Tinajero urged people to see the exhibit even though it’s a hard topic. 

“It’s very uncomfortable, but that’s why people need to come. They need to see it and have this realization. It reminds you it happens a lot and it reminds you how horrible it is,” he said. 

Gomez shared why this exhibit is important to her. 

“It gives you an idea of who these people are and their stories,” she said. 

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center one if five women in the United States has experienced sexual assault. The NSVRC also reported that 81% of women and 43% of men reported experience sexual assault or harassment in their lifetime. 

Wilkerson has been putting on this exhibit since 2019 and everytime she assembles the exhibit she gets emotional. 

“Even setting it up is very impactful for us,” she said. “Every time we hang up a story or an outfit is not just a piece of paper. It’s not just clothing. It’s someone’s experience, their lived experience.” 

Savannah Redl is a senior journalism and broadcasting major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She was apart of an Pulitzer prize winning team at The New York Times tracking COVID-19 in U.S. Prisons. She hopes to continue doing important work in journalism.