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.
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.
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.