By now, the offensive question has become so familiar it's basically routine.
A woman is sexually assaulted; her agency, body, and selfhood violated. Yet, time and time again, the response to such an obtrusive act of physical or psychological violence often uttered by friends, family, university administrators or others who should know better, is: "Well, what were you wearing?"
For her thesis project at Arcadia University, photography major Katherine Cambareri decided to challenge the ease with which people resort to victim blaming. "Over the summer I read Missoula written by Jon Krakauer, which really got me heated about how unfairly sexual assault cases are handled," the artist explained to The Huffington Post. "This book really opened my eyes to victim blaming and the questions victims are asked, such as if they were drinking and what they were wearing at the time the assault occurred."
"Questions like this are asked to protect the perpetrator rather than the victim," she continued. "I find it asinine that survivors are sometimes blamed before they even have the chance to tell their stories. I wanted to do something to prove how unnecessary these victim-blaming-type questions are."
For her photo series, Cambareri reached out to survivors of sexual assault on Facebook, asking them to bravely share instances in which they experienced sexual advances without their consent. Only female college students responded to the request, thus narrowing the scope of the project. Cambareri then asked the women if she could photograph the clothes they were wearing when they were assaulted.
The items of clothing Cambareri photographed include a white V-neck T-shirt, grey sweatpants, a plaid button-down, white Converse sneakers, and a floral camisole. Placed eerily against a black backdrop, the lightly rumpled garments scream silently of the injustices approximately 23 percent of female students at American universities are not only forced to endure, but sometimes held accountable for.
"Society assumes that victims wear revealing clothing when they are sexually assaulted," she said. But as her images attempt to show, that's not only an inaccurate assumption, it's a harmful one that downplays the fact that the person at fault is always the perpetrator, and never the victim of assault.
Throughout the process, Cambareri's greatest fear was that she was asking too much of survivors, asking them to relive such painful experiences. But in the end she felt confident the positive impact of the project -- and the consent of her volunteers -- made the photos worthwhile.
"I feel like I have a special connection with each of the volunteers because by participating, they're trusting me with the fact that they have been sexually assaulted," Cambareri explained in an interview with Break the Cycle. "They're trusting me to use their clothing in a positive way. Everyone that's participated so far has been an acquaintance of mine and that goes to show what a large problem this is. As a person, it makes me realize that so much needs to be done in terms of prevention; we need to stop stereotyping and surrounding sexual assault with so many stigmas."
Cambareri hopes to continue her project after graduation, and seeks to include more men in the project as well. For now, however, she simply wants her work to be seen, digested and understood, even if the experience is a painful one.
"I really, really hope to make people uncomfortable looking at these images," she added. "I want people to think about victim blaming and how asking 'What were you wearing?' is not a valid question because victims never 'ask' to be assaulted. Sexual assault occurs because a person decided to assault another person, and for no other reason."
"I hope that viewers are able to trade places and imagine themselves wearing the items of clothing I've photographed," she concluded. "It is important for people to gain new perspectives to end stigmas and break stereotypes."
Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.