Nowadays, people use tee-shirts to proclaim everything from the snarky ("Yoga is for Posers") to the political ("Barack the Vote!") to the totally silly (a baby onesie reads, "I'm told I like golf.") A few years ago, I met and interviewed a trio of young female eating disorder survivors who turned their struggles into a fashion statement with Angel Strength tees -- tops read "I am beautiful" on the front, "no matter what they say" on the back, an homage to their favorite singer's pro-self esteem song. In a market saturated with sometimes vulgar and self-deprecating slogan shirts, these girls were working to make sure there's a positive message on the market, too.
Thirty-seven-year-old Jennifer Baumgardner, a well-known feminist activist and author of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism And The Future has upped the ante considerably with a new wearable multimedia rape awareness project. In line with Sexual Assault Awareness month, her new tops picture an open safe, but instead of money inside, the statement "I was raped" sits on a tiny card. Though she has not been sexually assaulted herself, Baumgardner is intending to pass the shirts out to women across college campuses (you can also get it at sex-ed site Scarleteen.com)
Some of you may recall Baumgardner's name from a similar project three years back, when she produced controversial tees that proclaimed "I Had An Abortion." Singer Ani DiFranco, Gloria Steinem and many, many others wore the shirt, including a slew of young women at Take Back the Nights across the country. According to today's New York Times article, Planned Parenthood sold hundreds of the "abortion" tees within days (they did not renew the order when it sold out, however, as the top sparked too much controversy among chapters).
As for the "I was raped" shirt, Baumgardner told the New York Times, "So many people who've been raped tend to doubt the experience. I do think it's often empowering for women and men to own that experience and divest themselves of some of the shame and secrecy of it -- and realize that they're not the ones that should be ashamed." The intended impact of the shirt is to provide a release for those who wear it -- it's not so much a shouted proclamation as it is a revealing of what, for so many women, is a shackled secret.
Not too long ago, I wrote of my own sexual assault which happened nine years ago. At age 22, sleeping alone in a hotel room following a graduate school dance I had attended with my then-boyfriend, a man I did not know entered my room while everyone else partied into the early morning hours. He woke me by kissing me on the mouth; once he started groping my breasts, I realized something was very, very wrong. I opened my eyes to find a shirtless stranger above me. A quick scan down confirmed his pants were on, belt unbuckled.
Though I was not raped, the assault has left a horrifying indelible imprint on my life. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder set in almost immediately. Two nights post-attack, I wet my bed. I had vivid flashbacks and would shoot high into the air if touched even slightly while sleeping. It took weeks for me to get the feeling of his hand off my right breast, where it remained like the bright flash of a photo being taken.
Nearly a decade later, I still cannot sleep. Blood-curdling nightmares and sheet-soaking sweats wake me nightly. As for the attacker? He received the proverbial wrist slap and within a year, his record was expunged.
I am open about my experience, because, like Baumgardner, I believe that speaking about one's experiences -- particularly the difficult ones -- helps dispel the stigma and encourages others to come forward. I do not have any sort of shirt notifying the world around me of my assault, though I do often wear a silver, rectangular pendant that reads, simply, FEARLESSNESS. It was created by actress Mariska Hargitay and Me&Ro Jewelry as part of Hargitay's Joyful Heart Foundation, which is dedicated to helping survivors of sexual assault in the healing process. After a few weeks of explaining to people what it meant, I simply started saying, "It's for a sexual assault awareness organization founded by the star of Law & Order: SVU." I figured they could infer the rest of the story.
But the mere act of wearing my FEARLESSNESS did more that raise awareness. It made me feel stronger. I would find myself rubbing the pendant absentmindedly, like some people spin their wedding ring or twirl a ringlet or hair. The necklace turned dark and smooth from wear. Proof that I was mastering my fear.
Some people get a tattoo to commemorate a special event; others pen their memoirs. I craved something tangible that would show the world I was moving on. Perhaps some will find the same solace and empowerment in this tee-shirt. Scarleteen.com offers a number of reasons for wearing the "I was raped," including "Because wearing it invites conversation about a silenced experience that so many women and men share," "Because naming what has happened is the first step toward changing the reality of rape," and "Because legal redress is rarely served, so it's crucial to find our own justice and acknowledgment."
But I also fear how others will respond. Will parents cover their childrens' eyes -- the very reaction the shirt rallies against? Will some idiot man make an ugly, ignorant remark? Will the woman wearing it feel so self-conscious that others are staring at such a loaded message -- emblazoned across her chest -- that she folds her arms and prays for a sweater? Part of me wonders if confronting your local barista with a pink "I was raped" tee as your order you morning latte is the way to go.
Then again, if the woman wearing it feels emboldened by it, who cares? If women feel strengthened by their ability to step forward and let others know that they -- we -- have survived an all-too-common occurrence (one out of every six U.S. women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) and are now thriving, then hasn't the goal been accomplished?
If you were raped, would you wear it? Does it encourage a much-needed dialogue or will it simply mark the wearer with a scarlet R?