Clothesline Project raises awareness, gives survivors of sexual violence a voice

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Even all the way from the train station at the bottom of the hill, people can’t help but notice the forty-nine bright red, yellow, blue and purple shirts hanging outside of Parrish. Although they may look cheerful from a distance, these shirts tell stories of sexual violence in the Swarthmore community.

The shirts are part of the international Clothesline Project, founded in 1990 in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The idea behind the project is that women who have been touched by sexual violence can make a shirt that tells their story and then hang it on the clothesline to show other survivors that they are not alone. The Swarthmore project expanded to include men as well as women. Red shirts symbolize rape and sexual assault, blue symbolizes incest or child sexual abuse, yellow symbolizes domestic violence, and purple symbolizes violence because of a perceived queer or trans identity. White symbolizes murder, but the Swarthmore project did not receive any of those shirts.

Veronica Lim ’07, one of the organizers of the project, was the one who first came up with the idea. Nicole Belanger ’08 and Patrick Rock ’09 also helped. “I found out about the project through an organization that I am currently interning at called WOAR, Women Organized Against Rape,” said Lim, who learned about Sexual Violence Awareness Month from WOAR. “I realized I’d never seen anything at Swarthmore even acknowledging Sexual Violence Awareness Month. After contacting the people involved in organizing Women’s Month, we decided that this was important to show that our Swarthmore College community is not untouched by sexual violence.”

The project was funded by the Gender Education Office, and community members were able to make shirts either for themselves or for friends and family. There was an open t-shirt decorating session at the beginning of the week where about fifteen people made shirts, and for the rest of the week, supplies and shirts were made available on campus for anonymous pick-up and drop-off. “One of the three anonymous locations was a private room in Worth Health Center,” said Lim, “in case people didn’t feel comfortable decorating in their rooms.”

Belanger said that “I would love to see this project be continued at Swat in the future along with some other activities to acknowledge sexual violence in our community and the world at large.” Many Clothesline Projects around the world are ongoing, but as of yet, no decision has been made about the future of the project.

Belanger wanted the project to happen “because of the way that survivors are silenced with respect to sexual violence… I think many people, myself included sometimes, assume that these types of heinous crimes do not happen here or to people here. We assume that victims and survivors are some form of ‘other person,’ not someone we could possibly know. I think this allows us to be indifferent or at best, to feel sympathy in a distant way.”

The clothesline will come down over the weekend, but before then, said Belanger, “I hope that people will read all of the shirts in their entirety and that they will allow themselves to feel something in response. Whatever a nonsurvivor’s reaction is to the shirts, I hope people will try to imagine living /every day/ with the emotions and experiences described on the shirts. I hope that they will be angry. Most importantly, I hope that they will think about how they would support a survivor should the need ever arise.”

“I have gotten only positive feedback from people,” reported Lim. “Many have expressed that they didn’t know sexual violence was so close to us. I think a lot of people are thinking about the 49 shirts that were made, and the shirts that still have not been made, thinking about the size of our school, and knowing that the shirts were probably made by people they know, people they see everyday.”

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