I Wore Jennifer Baumgardner's "I Was Raped" Shirt in Public

I felt like Hester Prynne in a food court. But no one pointed. Most people stared, squinted, and looked away.
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Allison McCarthy
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I felt like Hester Prynne in a food court. But no one pointed. Most people stared, squinted, and looked away.

One of the things I've struggled with over the past two years is going public as a rape survivor. As a contributor to the anthology Dear Sister: Letters From Survivors of Sexual Violence, I knew that I would be outing myself as a survivor when the book was published in 2014 by AK Press. 

But when I wrote the essay "The Pearl" back in 2010, that time for its publication in the future seemed far-off and sort of unreal. As the date for the book's launch loomed nearer, I decided to get in front of the inevitable questions from friends and family by writing about my assault

I also participated in the book tour, reading alongside my editor and co-contributors at Penn Book Center in Philadelphia in December 2014. I signed books. I drank wine. I answered questions. I hugged good people. I am so proud and profoundly grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this work.

And still, the "out-ing" process as a survivor seems like it's never really over for me. I feel like I am "going public" every time I write a bio for a new publication, or send clips of my work for consideration. Every time I meet someone who qualifies as a need-to-know, and every time I tell a friend or partner or co-worker, I am out again, exposed, revealed, uncertain, and gauging reactions. Is there ever going to be a way to get around this?

Then I remembered Jennifer Baumgardner’s provocative 2008 T-shirt design: a metal safe with its door ajar to expose a folded note with the words "I was raped." Baumgardner hoped that the shirt would let rape victims "own the experience" and her interviewer claimed the shirt could "help chip away the cone of silence that surrounds a crime with humiliation at its core. A shirt that would start conversations."

The shirt was sold at Scarleteen.com, the comprehensive sex-education site for teens. In another interview, Baumgardner clarified her intentions regarding the shirt's design: "The wearer isn't advertising that he or she was raped … but rather opening up to you, the viewer, and also saying that this is a small part of who he or she is." 

On her website, Baumgardner states that her goal is to "create language and conversation about the common, shared experiences that are sometimes terrible and often taboo to talk about, even in the most intimate settings. Using books, film, activist projects, events, and even T-shirts, I create a culture for people to tell the truth about what has [happened] to them."

Back in 2008, the "I was raped" shirt received a lot of coverage. Actress and rape survivor Christen Clifford wore the shirt as part of an interview with the The New York Times, but only two quotes from her experience made it into the article. Since then — to my knowledge — no one has written about what it was like to actually wear that shirt, as a rape survivor, in public. And the shirts are no longer sold through Scarleteen.

So I emailed Baumgardner and asked if there were any shirts remaining from 2008. Graciously, she responded and said there was one shirt left. A week later, she sent it to me.

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So this is what it's like wearing the shirt. In public. No shame.

I came downstairs for breakfast with my mom on Sunday morning. She frowned when she noticed the shirt. "It’s painful. I don't want someone to say something that would hurt you because most people are not qualified to know the right things to say," she said. "People either know someone who has been assaulted or they've experienced it themselves. After all these years, we are only now getting people to recognize that survivors need help with this, they don’t want to hold it all in."

Then she suggested that I show the shirt online and see what others said. So I did.

"Honestly, I feel like the imagery is unimaginative & dehumanizing. It also ignores the variety of ways that rape occurs," says Aaminah Shakur, the artist and rape survivor activist who also contributed to Dear Sister. "Like the implication that some people have the combination to my sexy bits, but someone else broke in — it ignores that people with the combo are actually more common as rapists. The people who had access think that means 'forever access' and access at their choosing. I am all for having the conversations, and people having to acknowledge that women they know and care about have been raped. I personally don't know that a T-shirt is the best way to open that conversation in any case, but this one – the design is off to me."

When I posted the picture to Twitter, reactions were supportive but also critical. Some people reacted in one tweet, but a lengthy conversation ensued among three of my friends and colleagues. You can take a look at that conversation on Storify. The feedback in the exchange and its nuance of thought is well worth the read.

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But I knew I couldn't leave the project at talking to my mom and writing on Twitter. I would have to go out into the world, alone and among strangers. I would have to pay attention, take notes, remain neutral — even as my body became the self-conscious center.

First, I stopped at a gas station. In contrast to the previous day's blizzard, the weather had softened into a calm and sunny 50°F. I resisted the urge to pull my hoodie around me and let the shirt hang open. No comments or stares from the woman across from me, pumping gas into her Jeep. We made eye contact and gave each other quick smiles.

Of course, the real test would come from walking around the mall. I’m not 16 and in general, I much prefer to shop online than walk around with heavy bags — too many people and unwanted sales pitches from too-eager vendors. I felt like Hester Prynne in a mall food court. But no one pointed. Most people stared, squinted, and looked away.

In stores, the salespeople — if they noticed — made no comment. I'm used to cashiers making remarks about my jewelry, my hair, my clothes. But in that shirt, we stuck to the transaction. And I was grateful for their discretion. My mom and my friends were right. I wasn't sure I was ready to talk to total strangers about sexual assault while buying soap.

I stayed at the mall for an hour, wandering from floor to floor. As I rounded the corner for my favorite beauty chain, two women walked past. They looked at the shirt. They looked me in the eye. One blurted out, "Oh, my God." Then she looked down and walked faster in the other direction.

I kept walking. I texted a friend to meet me for a drink. She showed up a half-hour later. I told her about the pep talk I gave myself before I left the car to go into the mall. "It could have been so much worse," I said. She nodded — and after we finished, she drove me back to my car so that I didn't have to run that particular gauntlet again.

There’s a quote at the end of The Scarlet Letter that always moves me: "The stigma gone, Hester heaved a long, deep sigh, in which the burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit. O exquisite relief! She had not known the weight, until she felt the freedom!"

Hester took off the badge. I took off the shirt. Yet the experience of wearing an "A" for adultery or the image of a safe with an exposed secret — does carrying that weight ever fully go away?