A Fashion Show With an Unexpected Focus: Sexual Assault Survivors


The dress was a collaboration with the artists Suzanne McClelland and Alix Pearlstein as part of their recent series that places text onto garments. In 2019, they created a trench coat with all the questions that were asked of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, in her Senate testimony. In 2020, the artists printed Anita Hill’s testimony against Justice Clarence Thomas onto a shirt dress.

As for the Survivors’ Bill of Rights, it was inspired by Ms. Nguyen’s own personal experience.

In 2013, in her final year at Harvard, she was raped in her dormitory. After getting a rape kit at the hospital — invasive exams that collect crucial evidence in assault cases — and speaking with legal advice groups, she learned two things: That rape trials often take years, even decades, with low conviction rates, and, unless a survivor presses charges, rape kits are often destroyed before they are even tested, though timelines vary by state.

In Massachusetts, where Ms. Nguyen was living at the time, rape kits were being destroyed within six months, even though the statute of limitations was 15 years. That meant that twice a year, Ms. Nguyen had to apply for an extension to keep her kit in the system, forcing her to relive the traumatic experience over and over.

“I just remember feeling so betrayed. Survivors are told to go to the police and go to the hospital to get a rape kit only to find out that the system is like a Kafkaesque game of ‘Saw,’” she said, referring to the horror movie franchise. “Why is the deck so stacked against survivors?”

Navigating the labyrinthine process spurred Ms. Nguyen to create her organization, Rise, and lobby lawmakers for better protections. The Survivors’ Bill of Rights mandates that rape kits are preserved for a state’s maximum statute of limitations, that victims are not charged a fee for getting rape kits and that victims can access results from the rape kit.

Since then, Rise has helped pass similar protections in 30 states and D.C., and, in 2018, Ms. Nguyen was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her activism.

Over the last two years, Ms. Nguyen has also been spearheading an effort for a global version of the Survivors’ Bill of Rights, in the form of a U.N. resolution that will be introduced by Sierra Leone at the General Assembly later this month.