Clothesline Project raises awareness about gender violence, but has its share of critics

Students take in the Clothesline Project.
Students take in the Clothesline Project.

With spring slowly approaching, many students were excited finally to see the white adirondack chairs on Parrish Beach. But from March 31 to April 4, the colorful t-shirts of the Clothesline Project were the Beach’s main attraction.

According to an approximation by Worth Health Center Director Beth Kotarski, for the last 15 to 20 years, the college has engaged in the Clothesline Project in accordance with April’s designation as Sexual Violence Awareness month. A national organization, the Clothesline Project focuses on ending violence against women. As a way to commemorate the painful experiences of survivors and allies, the college adopted the organization’s focus by hanging T-shirts with stories, thoughts or phrases written on them by anyone who wants to participate. T-shirts were color coded by type of assault, and both open and closed T-shirt decorating sessions took place.

According to Acquaintance Sexual Assault Prevention Coordinator Alexander Noyes ’15, only a few students attended the open session, which he said was expected because many survivors — who make a “vast majority” of the project’s t-shirts — prefer privacy. Both of the closed sessions, he said, were well attended.

“These individual monologues are placed in a public space, where people are invited and encouraged to read their stories,” Noyes said. “Having the shirts in front of Parrish places them front in center on campus, and many people take the time to read all or a few of the shirts as they go about their day.”

For some students, though, the presence of these shirts had an adverse effect.

“Clothesline is definitely empowering as an idea, and I really value and appreciate that people are able to write publicly about their thoughts on something so stigmatized and so traumatizing,” said Ariana*. “But for me, even just seeing the shirts as I walked to class, without even reading them, forced me think about things that I don’t want to confront at that time.”

Two other students, Jen* and Jamie,* agree with Ariana and were uncomfortable with how public and unavoidable the T-shirt display was.

“I do appreciate and commend individuals who experience trauma, identify as survivors and are able to write their story in large letters for the campus to see,” Jen* said. “However, there exist among us those who are still dealing and processing traumatic experiences. Seeing those words on my walk to and from class all week forced me to think about challenging events in my life — and it wasn’t on my own terms.”

Jamie, a former ASAP facilitator, added that seeing the shirts “opens the wound a bit more,” and Ariana agreed that the project was a trigger that affected her functionality throughout the week.

“The idea of the shirts’ being triggering to those who have experienced sexual violence is not new,” Kotarski said. “A few years back, we talked quite a lot about triggering and even did research on triggering events as related to sexual trauma. What we learned was that, while graphic discussion of trauma certainly did have the ability to trigger a memory, triggers are readily found in ‘ordinary’ life such as smells, sounds, sights, or places.”

She added that resources such as Counseling and Psychological Services, Violence Prevention Educator and Advocate Nina Harris and ASAP are available.

This year’s Clothesline Project came on the heels of several well-publicized sexual assault cases over the past year. Despite the recent prevalence of discussions about sexual harassment on campus, no major changes were made to the week’s basic structure. Noyes said that although ASAP coordinators had last year’s events in mind, the annual event’s mission has always been the same.

But while the project itself was the same as in previous years, two new workshops accompanied the weeklong display. The ASAP coordinators try to hold innovative events every year.

“This year, we chose to look locally, and thought that AORTA and HollabackPhilly were two organizations that had interesting, relevant and important projects combating sexism and gender-based violence,” Noyes said.

The first event, entitled “Institutionalized Patriarchy: Framing Our Resistance,” was conducted by Esteban Kelly of The AORTA Collective — a group that is “devoted to strengthening movements for social justice and a solidarity economy,” according to its website. The workshop focused on dismantling patriarchy, and participants explored issues such as daily instances of patriarchy in forms such as white supremacy, the gender binary and situations on campus.

“I think we managed to share some great insights to situate, contextualize and unpack the ways that patriarchy and male supremacy are supported by and serve to reinforce other systems of oppression,” Kelly said. “People felt committed to supporting healthy, feminist models of organizing and supporting friends, their communities, and even themselves. We raised the issue — but didn’t get too far due to time constraints — of how to engage other groups on campus with the work of challenging male supremacy, and participating in ongoing educational spaces about it.”

Rochelle Keyhan of HollabackPhilly — the local branch of an international movement with the goal of combating street harassment — held a workshop entitled “Breaking the Silence: Resisting Street Harassment.” After giving an overview of street harassment, particularly in Philadelphia, Keyhan welcomed attendees to share their own stories.

“I feel like the organizers this year really confronted norms and scripts that perpetuate rape culture head-on,” said Ben Wolcott ’14, who attended both workshops.  “I grew a lot from the Confronting Patriarchy workshop, the HollabackPhilly discussion and from reading the shirts on Parrish Beach. I have a tremendous appreciation for all of the logistical and emotional work that went into folks planning and participating in the Clothesline Project.”

 

*Ariana, Jen and Jamie are all pseudonyms for individuals interviewed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *