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Revealing clothing, drinking too much — how Utah blames survivors of sexual assault

“What Were You Wearing?” exhibit at Dixie State University
Markee Pickett
Dove Center
“What Were You Wearing?” exhibit at Dixie State University

For many survivors of sexual assault, the emotional toll can last a lifetime — and it doesn’t just stem from the attack itself. According to Torrey Sullivan, the sexual assault program coordinator at the Dove Center in St. George, many survivors face criticism for their own actions — like the clothing they wear.

“We do this exercise where they write down some of the victim-blaming that they've heard,” she said. “And what we saw a lot of the time is that it was more triggering for them to be a victim-blamed than the actual assault.”

During Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the Dove Center is highlighting the issue in Utah, and part of that awareness is expelling the myth that clothing invites sexual assault. Along with the Women’s Resource Center at Dixie State University, the Dove Center opened an exhibit called “What Were You Wearing?” In it, survivors’ stories hung beside the clothing they wore when they were assaulted.

Warning: this conversation contains a description of sexual assault. If you or someone you know need assistance or resources, you can call Utah’s 24-hour sexual violence crisis and information hotline at 888-421-1100.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pamela McCall: Can you elaborate on what victim-blaming means?

Torrey Sullivan: It is essentially blaming the victim for the crime that happened to them. For example, [insinuating] that what the survivor was wearing was the cause of the assault, which we know was not the case. It's usually about power and control, and we need to hold perpetrators accountable.

PM: Could you elaborate on that and how that informs victim-blaming -- why that dynamic occurs?

TS: So it is having power and control over another human being that is typically the cause of a sexual assault, not because of what survivor was drinking or what they were wearing. And by blaming the survivor, it's diminishing the focus. The focus should be on the perpetrator and not the survivor who didn't do x, y, z.

PM: How does it affect victims of sexual violence when they are actually blamed for the crime that's been wrought upon them? 

TS: It affects them greatly. I do a sexual assault support group, and we do this exercise where they write down some of the victim-blaming that they've heard. And what we saw a lot of the time is that it was more triggering for them to be a victim-blamed than the actual assault. So once they get that, they suppress their feelings, and it affects them for the rest of their life.

PM: Do some women carry that with them, thinking that it actually was their fault? 

TS: Oh yes, all the time. I don't think I've met a survivor who at one point didn't have those thoughts.

PM: Can you share a victim's story with us to bring this into focus?

TS: I can actually read one for you. So it says, "We've been dating for a few months. I wasn't ready to have sex and I told him that straight up. He said he'd respect that, but he consistently pushed my boundaries. I was taught that boys will be boys and that it's the girls' responsibility to keep them in line by dressing modestly and holding high standards. So I didn't recognize his forcefulness and manipulation as abuse. In fact, I spent years believing everything was my fault. It was Sunday, and my dress was modest and pretty with a floral pattern. I had thought that rapists were scary old men, strangers who took advantage of vulnerable girls in sketchy bars or dark alleys. I never thought my handsome, popular, charming boyfriend would be the one to rape me."

PM: Nationally, around a third of sexual assault survivors report the crime to law enforcement. Here in Utah, the rate of reporting drops to 11%. Why do you think that's the case?

TS: It's hard to say for certain why we have these rates, but I think it has to do with our culture here in Utah because a lot of us don't want to believe that this is happening. And so the lack of talking about it can backfire on us. We have a religion here in Utah that's pretty prominent. Not to say that they are the problem and all, but individuals don't want to talk about consent and sex. They want to turn a blind eye to it.

PM: To that end, what ultimately needs to happen in Utah to eradicate victim-blaming and ultimately rape and other forms of sexual violence?

TS: I think that there's a lot of work to be done here. Nationally, one in four women will be sexually assaulted. In Utah, it's one in three. Most likely you or someone you know, someone in your family, a close friend or an acquaintance has experienced sexual assault. So we should all have some sort of education and awareness in regards to this topic because it affects so many of our loved ones.

KUER Morning Edition Associate Producer Leah Treidler contributed to this report.

Pamela is KUER's All Things Considered Host.
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