“What Were You Wearing?” Exhibit Challenges Rape Culture

Taylor Isaac

More stories from Taylor Isaac

Trigger Warning: This article mentions instances of sexual assault. 

A Barbie nightgown, a baseball cap, a Bible camp shirt, and athletic shorts. These seemingly unrelated articles of clothing share one heartbreaking truth: all were worn by people while they were sexually assaulted. 

The outfits and others like them were part of the “What Were You Wearing?” survivor art installation in the MU Visual Arts Center earlier this month. 

Students and community members who had faced sexual violence were encouraged to share their stories and the details of their clothing at the time. Exhibit curators then recreated those outfits.  

Originally created in 2013 by leaders at the University of Arkansas, the exhibit strives to challenge the idea of victim blaming and to show that clothes do not cause sexual assault.  

Marshall’s Violence Prevention & Response Program as well as CONTACT Rape Crisis Center led the art installation in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness month.  

“I wanted to do things for sexual assault awareness month that I felt were really powerful and that gave a voice to survivors,” said program coordinator Alyssa Hager. 

The Apr. 11-13 installation, which selected 25 victims’ stories, featured detailed accounts from the victims. Many described assaults that occurred when they were Marshall students. 

Some 90% of victims are assaulted by someone they know, as was the case with one Marshall student who added, “Since my assault, I have suffered from flashbacks, nightmares, and immense guilt—like somehow it was my fault that I was assaulted.” 

Another shared a similar experience, describing violent and abusive dating behaviors with an ex-boyfriend.  

“I had never felt so disgusted with my body. I never want to picture myself in that moment again. It can be a memory for the girl I used to be instead.” 

Another student wrote of her violent attack at a campus fraternity as a freshman. This time frame is called the “red zone” and counts for 84% of female survivors’ reports, studies say.  

“He kept touching me even though I was telling him no and begging him to get off of me. At some point, I had to give in to him because I was so scared. I regret to this day not reporting it like I should’ve.” 

Among undergraduate college students, one in every three women and one in every five men experience rape or sexual assault, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.  

Still, sexual violence goes widely underreported by victims. Some individuals choose not to report because they fear consequences, did not think they would receive help or believed their attack was not important enough to report.  

This is an effect of “rape culture,” in which sexual violence is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Experts say examples of rape culture include statements such as:  

“You asked for it.” 

“You should not look like that if you do not want attention.” 

“Well, what were you wearing?” 

All these statements try to convince victims of sexual violence the attacks are their fault. 

Marshall student Ripley Haney said she felt that way after she was assaulted and raped in the back seat of her own vehicle.  

“Like most survivors, I disassociated from what happened and tried to normalize it,” Haney said in an interview last week. “It’s hard to believe that something like that can happen to you. You blame yourself, even though it is never your fault.” 

Haney had just begun her freshman year when she met Chase Hardin, a fellow student at the university and church-goer. The two set up a date to study the Bible at Ritter Park, a date that would change her life forever. 

Haney did not know her new friend already had a growing history with mistreating women and had been convicted of crimes related to a prior assault. The majority of undetected college rapists are serial perpetrators—committing an average of six rapes each, experts say—and Hardin was no exception.  

“I did not tell my parents or report it to the police until about six weeks after it happened,” Haney said. “I was not even going to report it because I did not want my parents to know, until a dear friend/mentor of my bible study group encouraged me to.” 

From then on, Haney went to the courthouse or the police station at least once a week for the next two years. She also filed a complaint to Marshall University’s Title IX office during this time.  

“From November to February,” she said, “Chase was freely walking around campus. He would follow me on several occasions. I never felt safe. I will never feel safe again on campus because of how I was treated.” 

Hardin was suspended from the university after his Title IX hearing, but was not expelled until his arrest. Then in August 2020, with Cabell County Circuit Judge Alfred Ferguson presiding, the trial began. 

 “I testified for eight hours straight with one 15-minute break,” Haney said. “It was physically and emotionally exhausting.” 

Haney said she had to answer a wide array of intrusive questions while on the stand.  

“I 100% understand why other women do not come forward,” she said. “It is emotionally taxing to tell your story over and over again with only the slight chance that it will end up in a conviction.” 

After hearing five days of testimony, the jury found Hardin guilty of two counts of second-degree sexual assault for the rape of Haney, but not in the case of another alleged victim who had come forward. In September 2020, Hardin received a sentence of 10 to 25 years in prison for each of his counts. Following his release, he will be on supervision for 30 years and will be registered as a sex offender for life.  

Earlier this year, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upheld his conviction. “The feeling I had was just pure relief,” Haney said. “Everything I had worked toward was finally worth it.” 

Today, Haney advocates for other victims. Next month she will graduate from nursing school with her bachelor’s degree, with plans to work in pediatric oncology as well as a sexual assault nursing examiner.