Clothesline Project gives those affected by sexual assault a voice

Since Monday this week, the main concourse of the SUB has been the home and point of information and awareness for UBC Sexual Assault Support Centre’s (SASC) Clothesline Project. Bold, sometimes shocking, and certainly moving, the lines of decorated t-shirts serve to be viewed by others as a testimony to the problem of violence against women.

Ashley Bentley, SASC manager wants to give survivors and those affected by sexual assault a voice through creativity. "The idea is that people can come in and paint shirts, or any type of clothing," said Bentley. "It doesn’t only have to be folk who are survivors, but anybody affected by violence, whether it’s a friend of a friend, a family member or someone who just really cares about this issue."

The Clothesline Project was founded in 1990 by a group of women in Massachusetts. Historically, it has been a vehicle for female survivors of physical or sexual assault to express their emotions through decorating a shirt. The displays, hung on clotheslines are intended to be viewed by others as a testimony of violence against women.

UBC’s SASC, however, is a community intended to support people of all genders, and thus, the clothesline project on campus is not limited to women only. "We’re a centre that serves all genders and we recognize that anyone can be a perpetrator and anyone can be a survivor," said Bentley on the outreach of the Clothesline Project. "We want to give voices to all survivors."

For the past seven years, SASC has hosted a Clothesline project in the SUB. In the past, the displays have been limited to closed rooms due to potential trigger warnings for members of the community.

"We have so many people coming by all day, walking around and reading the shirts, then coming up and talking to staff members or volunteers and just saying that they’re really glad these shirts are being displayed," said Bentley. Aware of the potential controversies surrounding the blatant displays, Bentley is adamant that the most important part of the Clothesline project is to give the survivors and those affected a voice -- something which cannot happen behind closed doors.

Understandably, there has been feedback on the triggering nature of the sometimes-graphic imagery. Signs have been placed around the area to provide advance warning, and care has been taken to ensure that the displays are arranged in a manner more easily digestible.

"We recognize that not everybody is in a place where they want to see that, and we’re not trying to silence anybody’s experiences," said Bentley. "But for some of the shirts that are perhaps more triggering in a place we’ve placed them closer to trigger warning signs."

Taking a different tactic from many other awareness groups, the Clothesline Project does not involve graphic imagery, just personal words and accounts. The physical depiction of a clothesline -- something ordinary and everyday -- is used in juxtaposition with a powerful subject matter. Words are extremely powerful tools, especially when used in conjunction with tangible objects, relatable to each and every passer-by.

While the t-shirts and symbolism can be disturbing and upsetting, SASC staff members and volunteers are positioned around the displays to offer debriefs and information to those affected. The Clothesline Project is intended to give individuals a voice in this issue perpetrating the media today, and to bear witness to the devastating impacts of violence.