Monday, April 10, 2006

Controversy? At Smith? Never.

This is sexual abuse awareness week, and the Clothesline Project is up at Smith. The display of something in the neighborhood of 400 tee-shirts, decorated by survivors and supporters, seems to be causing more controversy this year than in years past.

The Project is up in a very central location, surrounding the lawn across from the library and next to Seelye, one of the main academic buildings. Many of us who live in the two houses closest to the Project can see it from our windows, and it's nearly impossible not to walk by it on a daily basis, going to and from classes and the campus center.

Does it make me uncomfortable? Yes. It makes me terribly, gut wrenchingly uncomfortable at times. But that's the point -- to shake people out of their complacency and make the reality of sexual abuse apparent. As much as it makes me uncomfortable, I'm appreciative of the individuals who chose to take part. When I first heard stirrings of controversy around campus, I was skeptical to say the least. Why should survivors be silenced so that others can be comfortable?

It turns out, though, that survivors as well as others have objections. Because of its central location, the Project is unavoidable, and the messages on the shirts (as well perhaps as the quantity of shirts or even just knowing why they're there) could be triggering for some. So, when members of AWARE went to put up the shirts this morning, they were met with several chalkings. I can't quote them verbatim, but there was something along the lines of "shame on the abusers, and shame on AWARE for helping to silence victims." Another chalking said "support survivors" and move the exhibition. None of the chalkings were initialed by those who wrote them, which is Smith's policy, so phys plant has the authority to remove them, although I don't know if they have or will. It's likely that they authors didn't sign their names to protect their anonymity, which seems completely legitimate to me, but it makes it difficult to have a conversation with those people about the Project. In fact, there isn't even a way for them to register a complaint with AWARE or student affairs anonymously (Although it would be pretty easy to create an anonymouse feedback form on a website).

I think that the people who created the chalkings were out of line in equating members of AWARE with abusers. At the same time, I think they have a point. While it's good to rattle people who never have to deal with the fact of sexual assault, is it fair to those who think about it every day, or maybe struggle not to think about it every day, to have it so centrally and prominantly displayed? One post on the Daily Jolt said that the benefits of the Project far outweigh the negative consequences, but that's a lot easier to say when you're not face to face with those consequences. A less central location would be helpful to those survivors who don't want to see it; on the other hand, the people who need to be exposed to the Project the most are not likely to seek it out if it's on some obscure part of campus. Not to mention that no matter where you put it, it's going to be unavoidable for some people.

I decided in conversation with a friend this morning that I think the solution is putting up the display for a shorter amount of time. If you have it up for two days, for example a monday and a tuesday, anyone who passes that way for class will see it. It will still be triggering for those who experience it that way, but at least it won't be for a week.

As for the chalkings... Kristen pointed out that even though they're unsigned, hurtful to members of AWARE, and not entirely constructive, the chalkings encourage dialogue. The whole point of the Clothesline Project is to get people talking and thinking about sexual assault, so I guess it's doing it's job!

Edit, 4/18:

A couple other ideas I heard about the Clothesline Project:
  • don't put them up along the pathway across from the library, just the other three sides of that lawn
  • Give people white tee-shirts and ask them to create positive, empowering messages
  • Only put shirts with positive messages up along the most traveled pathway
Also, over the course of the week I heard a lot of stories about people who started having nightmares a week in advance of the project going up, or who couldn't bring themselves to go to class because it meant walking past it. It's a really complicated issue, and I feel like I might have initially under-represented the adverse reactions people might have. All the same, I believe AWARE had a successful week and hopefully they'll take some of the dialogue that has been created into consideration for next year.

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