Early last Thursday morning, a red t-shirt was found taped to the ground outside of Parrish Hall with the words “Dean Braun is responsible for letting my rapist graduate. There is nothing else I can do but try to ignore it. Happy Sexual Assault ‘Awareness’ Month” written on the front. Hours later, at 8:00 a.m., however, the t-shirt was removed by Public Safety Officers at the behest of administrators concerned about the potentially triggering nature of the shirt’s message. In past years, t-shirts have been hung at the college during the month of April as a part of the Clothesline Project, a national campaign to spread awareness and support for survivors of sexual violence. This year, however, the project was notably omitted from Sexual Assault Awareness Month programming. Since last Thursday, the t-shirt, as well as its removal, have been the subject of speculation and debate, inciting conversation around the freedom survivors have to vocalize their experiences, the contested impact of the Clothesline Project on awareness-raising efforts, and the challenges of healing in a community that has drastically altered its sexual misconduct policies in recent years.
“The Clothesline Project has been a longstanding national project that’s happened for over 30 years at different college campuses,” explained Nina Harris, Violence Prevention Educator and Survivor Advocate at the college. “When I first came to Swarthmore, it was already happening and they gave opportunities for survivors and allies to make t-shirts that communicated messages around their experiences with violence. It was color coded. There were a series of different colored t-shirts that represented different types of violence, so there was violence around sexual orientation, sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and incest. There were a variety of shirts and mediums, and people had the opportunity to create their own, and then they were hung in front of Parrish.”
Last spring, however, at the request of survivors who found the process of publically displaying experiences of sexual violence to be highly triggering, organizers of Sexual Assault Awareness Month decided to alter the Clothesline Project significantly, transforming it into a digitized archive instead of a physical installation. While survivors and allies were still given the opportunity to create t-shirts, these shirts — as well as all of the shirts retained in the Title IX Office from previous years — were displayed in a slideshow of photos broadcast during specific hours on the TV in Shane Lounge.
According to AnnaLivia Chen ‘18, who has been a member of the college’s Sexual Assault Awareness Team for the past two years, the digitization of the project represented a clear deviation from the way in which Clothesline Projects are traditionally presented, this more discrete iteration of the event was better suited to current survivor needs.
“There are many people whose voices are not as loud as shirts on Parrish Beach who struggle with the event for a variety of legitimate reasons,” Chen said. “Many survivors do not want to participate … and find the display to be extremely triggering and unavoidable for the week that the clothesline is up. Some feel that it’s an okay way to express emotions but that there is then no way to follow up and no way to support others, for example if there is another survivor whose shirt they identified with and want to try to make connection there.”
Harris expressed similar concerns.
“What was difficult about the Clothesline Project in the past was that it was this very singular event that happened in isolation, and the message there is triggering, and then I’m just going to go about my day and go to class,” Harris explained. “The reason that the Clothesline Project shifted last year was because voices were included that didn’t feel okay to go publicly to push that or say that.
As Harris explained, through consultations with individual students, as well as anonymous letters from survivors, staff in the Title IX Office received a significant amount of feedback, expressing concerns about the project’s upsetting nature and requesting that the shirts be taken down.
This year, in light of these complaints, the Title IX Advisory Team came to the controversial decision to remove all iterations of the Clothesline Project — digital or otherwise — from the college’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month programming. Instead, organizers chose to replace the project with a number of less public, more intimate opportunities for sharing experiences and building connections within the survivor community, many of which were open only to survivors. These events include “Voices of Healing,” a gathering in the Scott Amphitheater for survivors and allies to share stories; “Speak Out,” a chance for survivors to share their experiences with the wider community; a storytelling workshop led by a facilitator from StoryCenter; and an allyship workshop, as well as the survivor meals, which are regularly scheduled throughout the year. According to Chen, these smaller events, which are focused more on creating spaces in which survivors can voice their experiences, describe their processes of healing, and build a network of support within the survivor community, have a number of advantages.
“With Nina and other professional staff present for all three of these events, people were able to follow up if they needed support from trained professionals,” Chen explained. “This also created a space for survivors to identify with each other and make meaningful connections – three of my closest friends were made that night.”
Nevertheless, Chen’s positive experiences with the revisions to this year’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month programming are not representative of the full dimensionality of survivor experiences on campus. Many current survivors and alumni have since expressed discontent with the discontinuation of the Clothesline Project, particularly on social media, citing the ways in which the project’s removal may serve to diminish the effectiveness of Sexual Assault Awareness Month programming. As made clear by the language of the t-shirt taped outside of Parrish last Thursday, on which quotation marks are placed around the word awareness, some survivors believe that specifically the awareness-raising aims of the Clothesline Project have been left void in the Title IX Office’s new programming, despite the several replacement events scheduled.
According to the National Clothesline Project website’s description of the project’s goals, “It acts as an educational tool for those who come to view the Clothesline; it becomes a healing tool for anyone who makes a shirt — by hanging the shirt on the line, survivors, friends and family can literally turn their back on some of that pain of their experience and walk away; finally it allows those who are still suffering in silence to understand that they are not alone.”
For many, these consciousness-raising and solidarity-building features of the project are achievable only because of the project’s public nature. On Facebook and YikYak, several survivors at the college explained that by physically symbolizing the multitude of diverse experiences that fellow students have had with issues of sexual violence, the campaign reminded survivors that there were others who had suffered in ways similar to them. Several individuals also explained that the “in your face” nature of the Clothesline Project forced the community at large to become aware of the sheer magnitude of survivors associated with the college, something which is lost in more intimate, secluded events, which can be perceived as dictating the way in which victims are allowed to express themselves.
According to Chen, however, these criticisms are not representative of the realities of the new programming.
“While this may sound like it is still trying to silence hardship and anger that is not true in theory or in practice,” Chen explained. “During our first year of Voices of Healing, people shared stories with every range of emotion: despair, depression, hope, anger, resentment, bitterness, support, thoughtfulness, panic, and more. Before Voices, we had a dinner for survivors who had already signed up to speak and we also had a gathering afterwards in the Women’s Resource Center for anyone who attended to decompress, debrief, and do anything else they needed to take care of themselves.”
Ultimately, according to Harris, the divergences in planning from year to year reflect simply the changing needs expressly articulated by survivors on campus. As these individuals change over the years, so too will the programming and policies supported by the college to facilitate healing and raise awareness.
“At the end of the day, it’s not for me to tell survivors how they want to experience their pain,” Harris said. “While I don’t think the people who have organized in the past have reflected the voice of all survivors on campus, I’m lucky to have a position in which i can talk to people confidentially this is how this policy works out it didn’t feel right. We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘What can we do to make this better?’”