Why Do We Need the Clothing Project?

The purpose of the Clothing Project is not to discourage modesty or to belittle those who choose to dress conservatively. The Clothing Project graphically and viscerally demonstrates that modesty does not protect people from sexual assault.

As people have looked at the “What Were You Wearing?” Clothing Project, which displays the outfits of 13 different survivors of sexual abuse at the time they were abused, we’ve gotten several variations of a central question. “Why are you doing this? Is it really necessary? Why did you focus on plain-dressing groups only? What is the point of this display?”

Growing up as a Mennonite, I heard about the need for modesty many times. Women’s modesty, especially. Over and over, people stated that women needed to properly cover their bodies at all times to prevent men from lusting after them. While not stated explicitly, the implication was that if women did their part to properly cover their bodies, men would not lust after them.

The display of clothing

I also believed that sexual immorality, sexual abuse, rape, and incest were rare in our circles. I believed that we were much better than the world around us. Worldly people were having one-night stands and dealing with sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. We were a holy, righteous people who were a beacon of purity and clean living.

Then, in my 20’s, I started learning the truth.

I learned that the rate of sexual abuse was much, much higher in our circles than I had ever dreamed. (The numbers are hard to pin down, but recent research suggests that as high as 48% of Amish, Mennonite and other “Plain” children may have experienced sexual assault.) I heard story after story of abuse being swept under the rug and never reported. I heard stories of victims being pressured to forgive their abusers and forbidden to talk about the abuse again. And even if abusers were caught and brought to trial, time and time again, they received support from the community while the victim got little support—or was even excommunicated for reporting the abuse.

And I also heard the stories of the women, teenagers, and even children who were accused of “asking for” their abuse. They were told that they hadn’t dressed modestly enough or hadn’t acted with propriety. Some survivors said that the church’s response to their abuse was as bad as the sexual abuse itself—or even worse.

And that’s why this display is so necessary.

The Clothing Project graphically and viscerally demonstrates that modesty does not protect people from sexual assault. All the outfits are modest and cover the body well—yet the person was assaulted anyway.

Shockingly, 10 of the 13 were abused at 10 years old or younger—as young as three months old! They were little children who probably had little to no understanding of sex, yet it was brutally forced upon them. Only one outfit is from an adult.

A 3-month-old infant outfit

The purpose of the Clothing Project is not to discourage modesty or to belittle those who choose to dress conservatively. Indeed, several of the women who worked on the project continue to wear modest, conservative clothing and Mennonite-style headcoverings.

The purpose is to demonstrate that victims of sexual abuse are not responsible for their abuse. Regardless of what they were wearing, the victims of sexual assault were not “asking for it” or “causing a man of God to fall.” The responsibility always lies with the abuser.

The purpose is to show that, yes, abuse happens in plain-dressing communities. It is not rare or the work of a few bad actors. It is rampant throughout the communities, and it must be stopped.

Because we don’t want any more 3-month-old babies to be scarred for life.

We don’t want to hear of any more teenage girls being accused of “asking for it.”

We don’t want any more children being assaulted.

7 replies on “Why Do We Need the Clothing Project?”

Beautiful. Thank you for this clear, concise expression of the truth. Thank you for caring about other peoples children. Thank you for removing all barriers of shame and false religious protections.

I think it’s also important to note that one of the outfits provided for the project belonged to a young boy, so clearly the abusers were not selective with regards to the gender of the victim.

Thank you for this explanation. It’s important to remember that this project is not statistically representative. In other words, probably more than 1 in 13 victims are male victims. Probably more abusers are female than are represented on the info cards. The ages represented here are a great representation, but maybe 6-13 year old victims are most common in real life, or whatever.

It’s a great project that is bringing much needed awareness to the facts that yes, abuse is common among those who are very conservative, and yes, the responsibility of abuse is always on the abuser, never the victim or what they were wearing.

I don’t know what to say. I was raised by a mother who sent my sister to change if her skirt was too short, or her neckline too low. Sis was sent upstairs to wash off makeup many times. I didn’t date much, so I wasn’t a target for her. Mom was raised a Southern Baptist, and by the time my daughter came along, she was even more determined to enforce her modesty code. She caught my six-year-old dancing to a Madonna video on TV, walked over, turned of the TV, and told my daughter she shouldn’t be dancing like that.

Through the years, I listened to her comment on what women wore on TV, and during the beginning of the Me, Too movement, she suggested that women who were abused by Harvey Weinstein and his ilk had been asking for it because of the way they dressed.

Mom never understood that women dress for other women, not men. (Men dress for other men, too.) If she were alive to read this article, she’d swear it was made up.

My 5 children were sexually abused at Grace Christian Fellowship in Bainbridge, NY from 1996-2002. They are 2 girls and 3 boys. The church claims they had no idea, and yet they KNEW this perpetrator was in the congregation. They excommunicated him eventually, but they knew about the abuse he did to his sisters for a while before they did that. I hold them responsible for not immediately banning this person and for also not informing the congregation when they first found out.

Thank you for this project. It is hard to see, yet so important. I was one of those children. I was dressed in a long dresses, a few inches above my ankles. Yet, I was told that I should have had a longer dress as I was “asking” to be molested. The man that spied on me, through my bedroom window, said that I should have known that people could see in and I was inviting him in. I was 12. I had no idea what it was he was doing, but I knew I didn’t like it. I wished that I had been educated beyond, “Dress modestly to protect yourselves.” That doesn’t work.

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