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'He raped me in my school uniform.' Australian women have shared the clothes they were wearing when they were raped. 

Content warning: This story contains descriptions of sexual assault, and may be distressing for some readers. If you need support, please call the sexual assault helpline on 1800 010 120.

When women and girls are raped or sexually assaulted, they’re often asked “what were you wearing?”, “were you drinking?”, “were you flirting with him?”

These questions are definitely not what sexual assault and rape are all about – but they most certainly are some of the reasons that up to 90 per cent of sexual assault victims don’t report.

A confronting exhibition hosted by the Queensland Sexual Assault Network for Sexual Violence Awareness Month in Queensland highlights the issue. It’s titled “What were you wearing?”

The exhibition is based on a concept developed at the University of Kansas in 2013, designed to address this specific myth – that sexual assault is somehow the result of what women were wearing or doing at the time.

The stories are real. They’re donated to the project by survivors. The clothing on display isn’t the actual clothing worn by the survivor when assaulted, but is a representation.

Most of the clothing is clearly women’s and girls’ clothing. Other outfits could have been worn by men or women. That reflects what we know to be the case – that men and women, boys and girls experience sexual violence, but that the vast majority of victims are female.

Seeing these outfits side by side, with their stories pinned beside them, is startlingly powerful. The clothes are ordinary, in stark contrast to the words beside them. 

There aren’t any outfits you might expect to see in a nightclub or at a party, though it would make no difference if there were.

The outfits are pyjamas, and a tracksuit. They are plus size jeans. They are a dress covered by an abaya and a scarf. They are swimming gear – a rashie and togs. A nappy.

They are you and me. Your work colleagues, your elderly neighbour, the kids from down the street.

The words are brief but shocking.

“Pyjamas. I was wearing pyjamas when it happened. I was 11.”

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"As a lady of 47, who knew training a man at work would lead to me being raped."

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"My sexual assaults started when I was about 4 years old by my foster father and his friends and stopped when I ran away from home at 15 years."

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So you can see why questions like “what were you wearing?” miss the point.

Because sexual assault and rape is never about that.

It’s always, and only ever, about the perpetrator.

I launched this exhibition in Parliament House so every Member of Parliament from across Queensland could see it. And then we moved it to the foyer of 1 William Street, where we could be sure the more than 5,000 public servants who work there, could see it.

I saw the shock and horror on their faces when they read the stories. People cried.  

"Baby. They were only just learning to walk, sometimes still crawling when he was sexually assaulting them."

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It’s so important - so important that everyone understands, because the statistics around sexual assault mean we all know someone who’s been a victim. In fact, probably more than one.

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One in five women over the age of 15 and one in twenty men have experienced sexual violence.

If you are a woman with intellectual disability, there is a 90 per cent chance you have been sexually assaulted.

90 percent.

We all have to take responsibility for this.

The term “sexual assault” includes so many behaviours - sexual assault and rape, sexual harassment, child sexual abuse and technology-facilitated sexual violence – so-called ‘revenge porn’.

Earlier this year, the Queensland Government undertook a statewide consultation with victims and survivors of sexual violence, and with people who work with those who’ve experienced sexual assault.  

I attended many of those consultations. Some were open to the public, some were closed sessions specifically for victims and survivors.

Even knowing the statistics around the prevalence of sexual violence, I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming response. So many people had stories to tell, many for the first time. So many had kept their stories locked up for years. So many were brave enough to tell them. We had to schedule extra sessions because so many people were asking for the opportunity to tell their story.

"I call it my 'rape dress'. I bought it myself for my birthday bash, which would be women-only."

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We shouldn’t have been surprised by how many people wanted to talk to us. Because another question women get asked is, “why didn’t you tell someone when it happened?”

There are a lot of reasons. 

A child may not have the words to describe what was done to them, or even fully understand it shouldn’t have happened. 

There’s shame and stigma, even more so for women from some cultural and linguistically diverse backgrounds. 

There’s fear of retribution. Most perpetrators are known to their victims, and there can be a genuine fear of reprisal or further violence.

But sadly, one of the biggest reasons is that people just don’t believe them.

During our consultation, I heard the pain and anguish of so many women who weren’t believed when they spoke up. Even for women who’d been through the entire legal process and secured a conviction – they were still hurting from the many times people hadn’t believed them.

Sometimes it was friends and family who questioned whether they were being truthful.

Often, it was the responses from our justice system that compounded the trauma.

"He raped me in my school uniform. And in my pyjamas. And in my gym clothes. T-shirt and jeans. No clothes at all. It didn’t matter."

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Earlier this month, coming from what we learnt from our consultations, the Queensland Government released the state’s first ever sexual violence prevention framework, called Prevent. Support. Believe.

For the first time, Queensland has a framework that builds on the work that government and non-government agencies are already doing in this space, and brings together the evidence and advice of survivors with the expertise and experience of the people who are there to support them. 

It outlines a raft of actions that government will take to address sexual violence in our communities, and we’ve started implementing many of them already.

We could develop this framework only because of the courage of hundreds of victims and survivors who came and told us their stories, either in person or online. 

People affected by sexual violence told us we need to start by believing and supporting them when they speak up – that’s the first and most important thing.

And while we’re making sure we build this into the way government agencies respond – police, teachers, hospitals – the cultural shift we need to end sexual violence isn’t something we can achieve alone. It needs to be an entire community effort.

Everyone can do something about sexual violence.  And they can start by believing.  

Di Farmer
Queensland Minister for Child Safety, Youth and Women
Minister for the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home. 

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