Survivors of abuse air their “dirty” laundry
by Jacqueline Dotzenrod
Women of the Midwest fondly say “farewell” to those bygone days when prairie wives would haul water from the well, heat it over a fire and scrub their knuckles raw over a washboard to clean the laundry. But there is one aspect of this chore coming back into style – the clothesline.
This week at the North Dakota State University campus, the clothesline is serving a new role in giving students and faculty a chance to air out unpleasantness from their past. The Clothesline Project is a nationwide movement that began in 1990 as part of an annual “Take Back the Night” march and rally in Hyannis, Massachusetts. Since then, women have come forward to create shirts and the line continues to grow.
A particular statistic spoke to a small group of women – “According to the Men’s Rape Prevention Project in Washington D.C., 58,000 soldiers died in the Vietnam War. During that same period of time, 51,000 women were killed, mostly by men who supposedly loved them,” states The Clothesline Project’s website, http://www.clotheslineproject.org.
This statistic “became the catalyst for a coalition of women’s groups on Cape Cod, Massachusetts to consciously develop a program that would educate, break the silence and bear witness to one issue – violence against women. This small, core group of women … wanted to find a unique way to take staggering, mind-numbing statistics and turn them into a provocative, ‘in-your-face educational and healing tool.’”
Today, the project has come a long way from Cape Cod, but its mission of healing and education has remained intact on its trek halfway across the country and around the world.
In a small gallery inside Memorial Union on the NDSU campus, a young man and woman sit surrounded by a rainbow of colorful shirts. But a closer look reveals a darker past behind the bright, happy colors.
Krista Padgett, a junior sociology student from Dickinson, speaks with a familiarity of domestic violence that belies her young years.
“Everybody reacts differently to it,” she says. “I’ve seen an array of reactions; complete and total denial of the fact that it happened, I’ve seen people shut down emotionally and can’t function in relationships now, I’ve seen people hit it straight on and get it out in the open and talk about it.”
She won’t say if her insight stems from personal experience or from the experience of standing by a friend; she is too respectful of either herself or a friend to make an example of one or the other. But behind the secrecy, there is a genuine sense that the pain she has felt – either directly or empathetically – that she knows all too well what The Clothesline Project is about.
“It’s a lot to process all at once,” she adds. “The people that I’ve seen come through here… it’s pretty quiet, pretty solemn.”
Each color is representative of a different aspect of domestic violence – verbal degradation, child abuse, even rape. While Padgett isn’t sure which colors are which, she does remember what the white shirts represent.
“Those are in memory of someone who died as a result of domestic violence,” she states solemnly.
But Padgett isn’t alone in her mission to educate her fellow students about the facts of domestic and sexual violence. Josh Boe, a senior in Human Development & Family Science from Fargo, is a fellow member of the violence prevention educators – a group of eleven students at NDSU who were selected to take part in special training on the topic.
“I think it’s time that we, as a society speak out about this issue and do something about it,” Boe said. “And I think men have to get involved. It’s an issue that affects everyone – it’s not just a woman’s issue, it’s a man’s issue as well.”
“Men can be victims as well,” Padgett adds. “And a larger percentage of men are perpetrators and the way to stop that is to end the perpetration through education to get people to understand what sexual assault is and what it isn’t and use that education to put a stop to it and hold people accountable to end that.”
Sexual assault is defined as any unwanted touching, above or below the clothes. NDSU Sexual Assault Prevention Director Sarah Dodd informs students that one in five college women will experience sexual assault in their time on campus. It also happens to about six percent of college men. But perhaps the most shocking statistic is that ninety percent of college students who were victims of sexual assault knew the perpetrator before it happened.
“To understand that really changes how you do prevention and support,” Dodd said.
A large part of those prevention and support efforts include student involvement.
“We’re both violence prevention educators,” Padgett said of herself and Boe. “We do a lot of programming, presentations, different workshops, to provide education on campus for sexual assault prevention and this (The Clothesline Project) is one of the things that we’re helping out with.”
There are a number of myths and misconceptions about sexual assault these students challenge head-on.
“It’s not something that the victim did to deserve,” Padgett says. “You hear a lot of victim-blaming; ‘she was drunk’ or ‘she was asking for it’ – It’s certainly in the mind of the perpetrator. It is – oddly enough – not a crime of passion. It’s a crime of control, which a lot of people don’t understand. When we understand where the perpetrators are coming from and the thought process behind it, we find a good basis to end it.”
“We live in a society that is patriarchal and men are in the “dominant” position,” states Boe. “Sexual assault is a way for men to show that they have power over women and a means to control them and show that power.”
Dodd adds that “sexual assault is the most underreported crime in the United States. There are these myths about false reports of rape, the reality is that most incidents are not even reported to the police and that’s something that it’s really important that we create a safe space where people feel that they can come forward, not just because of the criminal justice system, but so we can make sure that people get the resources and support that they want and need.”
If You Go:
WHAT: The Clothesline Project exhibit
WHERE: NDSU Memorial Union Gallery
WHEN: Exhibit on display through April 14
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