‘What were you wearing?’

High school exhibit exposes power behind words and healing in sexual assaults

By EMILY WEAVER
Managing editor
Posted 4/29/22

Sixteen-year-old Ava Thomas survived multiple sexual assaults growing up, but no one ever asked her what she was wearing when it happened.

“I personally have never received that question …

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‘What were you wearing?’

High school exhibit exposes power behind words and healing in sexual assaults

Posted

Sixteen-year-old Ava Thomas survived multiple sexual assaults growing up, but no one ever asked her what she was wearing when it happened.

“I personally have never received that question because I didn’t tell people about what had happened until many years later,” she said.

It’s a question survivors are most often asked -— and a query that makes them feel like victims all over again.

Thomas used that question to present a sexual assault awareness exhibit inside the media center of her high school, Western Harnett, this month. And the question came with honest answers from 43 victims.

“(I was wearing) a blue flowered Homecoming dress, my favorite out of the two I looked at. I used to love both him and that dress. Now I can barely stomach looking at either,” read a survivor’s note in the exhibit taped under a flowing skirt with blue flowers.

The exhibit showcased examples of outfits worn by survivors at the time of sexual assault and the survivor’s recounts of the event.

Next to a plain white tank top was another answer:

“(I was wearing) running shorts and a tank top. I swung by his place on the way back from my run. He kept saying how hot I looked and I kept making excuses to leave. He wouldn’t let me go.”

After hearing multiple stories from others she knew, others in her own school and community, Thomas felt compelled to do something. She could no longer keep her own abuse a secret.

“I feel like if I can come forward, it would help other people to feel more comfortable sharing their story and finding comfort in maybe my words and the words of others,” she said.

Thomas wanted to share messages with two groups of people through her exhibit. She wanted to tell the ones, who never experienced sexual assault or abuse, that asking what a survivor was wearing silences a victim and empowers a perpetrator.

And for the ones, who survived it, she wants to say, “you are not alone. It can happen to anyone and ... there are resources and people who are happy to help you.”

“The clothes one wears is not an excuse for the crime done to them,” read a sign in the exhibit.

Thomas started working on her project more than a year ago. It all started when she was challenged to make a difference in a college information session. She remembered an old poem and a recent TikTok video on the subject.

She went to work.

Thomas emailed a thrift store about getting clothes for the exhibit. She conducted her own research and made the pamphlets herself — 15 in all and packed with information on recognizing sexual abuse and how to get help in English and Spanish.

She encountered a lot of roadblocks in finding survivors to share their stories. Then, she found Jen Brockman who did the first “What were you wearing” exhibit at the University of Arkansas in 2014. Thomas amassed more than 50 entries and narrowed them down to 41 from that initial exhibit, applicable to her age group. Two local students, including herself, added to her collection of heartbreaking stories.

Thomas spent two afternoons setting up the exhibit with black paper backdrops, command hooks, clothes, pamphlets, signs and tape. The exhibit was up through the month of April.

“I wanted students and teachers, more than anything students to come through and read it and to understand,” Thomas said. “I’ve had children cry and I’ve had multiple people thank me. I’ve received hugs from people I don’t know and people took the information pamphlets ...

“All I wanted was for at least one person to know that their words have an impact and that they’re not alone. And I think I’ve hit more than one person ...”

Thomas plans to offer the exhibit again next year and hopes to start a club where people experiencing sexual assault can feel free to talk without stigma.

Thomas is a junior at Western Harnett High School. She is a varsity cheerleader and is playing a lead role in her school’s production of the musical, “Cinderella,” which premieres at 7 p.m. Thursday. She is a treasurer in the Future Business Leaders of America, a secretary in the Beta Club, a treasurer in the HOSA-Future Health Professionals Club and is vice president of the poetry club. She is also a member of her school’s FEMpower Club, Upward Bound program and the Harnett Health Sciences Academy.

After high school, she plans to go to Yale or East Carolina University’s Early Assurance Program in Medicine to get her pre-med degree on the way to becoming a pediatric psychiatrist.

Email Thomas at 1925emarldfun@gmail.com for more information on this subject and the resources she found to help those in need.

Emily Weaver can be reached at eweaver@mydailyrecord.com or at 910-230-2028. 

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