Clothesline project: Silent messages speak out against gender violence in stirring display

September 28, 2013 10:18:53 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


They barely fluttered in a scant breeze Wednesday, as watery sunlight strained to break cloud cover. One thousand T-shirts or more, hanging on clotheslines on Mississippi State's drill field. They were of all colors, covered with messages in turn stark, poignant, angry, hopeful, emancipating -- each silent, but powerfully speaking out against violence, especially sexual violence, against women and men.  


There were the yellow ones, representing those who have been battered or assaulted. The red, pink and orange ones were for those raped or sexually assaulted. Blue and green represented survivors of incest or child sexual abuse; purple stood for anyone attacked because of their sexual orientation. Black was for those attacked for political reasons. And white for those who have died from violence. 


In a teeming rainbow, the Clothesline Project bore witness to survivors as well as victims and, it's hoped, contributed to the healing process for people who have lost a loved one, are survivors of gender violence or care about someone who is. 






The display set up Sept. 24-26 on the university campus by University Health Services invited students to use paints, markers and sponges to express their own thoughts on T-shirts made possible through a grant from the Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women. Each shirt then joined the others, multiplying the message and sharpening awareness of gender violence. 


Every T-shirt told a story: "Use your hands to help, not hurt" -- "I refuse to be your next victim: Stay away!" -- "Created to fly ... can I with broken wings?" -- "Right place, wrong time R.I.P. 1983-2002."  


Samara Toney, 20, stopped by the Clothesline Project to participate Thursday. 


"I took the time because I have a friend who was killed by her boyfriend when she was 16. I wanted to do it in her memory," shared the MSU sophomore from Columbia, who used a line from the song "Love is Blind" by Eve on her shirt. 


"When you walk up to the Clothesline Project and look at the words written on the shirts, it brings you to what that survivor might have been feeling and thinking when they created it," said Leah Pylate, University Health Services' assistant director of health, education and wellness and sexual assault.  


Many shirts, of course, are made by people empathetic with victims; perhaps they knew a friend or relative who struggled. For those personally affected, the act of making a shirt can be an outlet of expression. For some, it may also stir unexpected reactions. 


"It's important that counselors are available on site to talk with anyone who may want that," said Stephanie Cerula of Starkville. She is a member of MSU's Student Counseling Services' Sexual Assault Response Team and was on the drill field. "When someone is creating a shirt, it may bring up emotions based on their past history." The visual impact of the shirts and what's written on them, she said, causes an emotional response. "It takes your breath away, to see the number of students affected by sexual violence."  




Sobering numbers 


The project brings attention to grave facts. In a woman's lifetime, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, one in five women will have been raped and one in six will have been stalked. The same report says one in four women will have experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner.  


The U.S. Department of Justice cites that women aged 16-24 experience the highest per capita rate of intimate partner violence, which puts college students squarely at the heart of the issue. 


It's not only women, of course. And the threat doesn't always come from a stranger. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (2007) figures indicate that 53 percent of victims were abused by a current or former boyfriend or girlfriend. Twenty-one percent of college students report having experienced dating violence by a current partner; the same percentage reported violence by a previous partner.  


Break the Cycle Inc. reveals that 80-90 percent of victims of sexual assaults on campuses know their attacker. And abuse isn't always physical. It can be stalking, verbal or electronic. 


Unfortunately, the crimes can often be silent ones. Silent because they go unreported. Many of college age are still learning how to develop relationships; they may not recognize red flags when they first appear. Home history and a numbing deluge of violence in movies, television and video gaming may even have distorted perceptions of what healthy relationships even look like. 


Some are reluctant to come forward because they feel ashamed or feel isolated from their personal support networks by being away from home. They may fear retaliation from their assailant or feel trapped by the closed environment of many campuses and social networking sites that provide easy access for perpetrators to control their partners.  


Mississippi State maintains a 24-hour hotline students can call to report sexual assault: 662-325-3333.  






Mississippi University for Women in Columbus is also raising awareness about gender violence this fall. On Oct. 10, they will host a Jeans 4 Justice campaign, similar to the Clothesline Project.  


"We'll be allowing students, staff and faculty to write a message on a pair of jeans in memory or honor of someone," said Sirena Cantrell of Caledonia, MUW interim dean of students and director of housing and residence life. The jeans will be displayed throughout the day, followed by a Take Back the Night march on campus. The goal is to "shatter the silence," to be vocal about the issue. 


"We have licensed counselors in the MUW Counseling Center, ready to talk with students at any time," said Cantrell, who previously served on a sexual response team at the University of Wisconsin.  


To learn more about the MUW Counseling Center, or to donate jeans for Jeans 4 Justice, contact Cantrell at the Center, 662-329-7127.  






On Golden Triangle college campuses, as well as around the nation, counseling staff are striving to reach out to the daughters and sons who make up their student populations. In addition to working with student associations to create at atmosphere that's safe for survivors to report incidents or seek services, they also work with Safe Haven, a Columbus-based agency that serves 10 counties and offers shelter and assistance to assault victims. 


Whether on T-shirts or jeans, students are speaking out: "I am a survivor, not a victim" -- "Violence is not the way of life." 


"It's encouraging to read some of the shirts, to see their strength and the words people are putting into creating something for others to view; it can be very inspirational," said Pylate at the Clothesline Project, where every T-shirt was safely stored away Thursday and will be brought back out to hang next year. "For a person to express his or her feelings through the act of creating a message ... it's liberating."  











    Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.