According to the Department of Justice, an American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. While the #metoo movement has brought sexual assault into the limelight, these startling statistics reflect an ongoing problem. Although rates of sexual violence have fallen by more than half since 1993, survivors of abuse struggle to cope with the long-term emotional implications of sexual assault. For many survivors, including Sierra Dowd, this struggle has flowered into artistic catharsis.
Sierra Dowd is a polymath in the truest sense of the term. A lifelong entrepreneur and activist, Dowd has culminated her unique background into the world of fashion. Dowd’s label, 98society serves to acknowledge survivors of sexual assault while bringing about tangible action. That’s because 10% of the proceeds are donated to Darkness To Light, an organization which works to end childhood sexual abuse. By providing a nuanced and tasteful method through which to start a conversation about consent, Dowd can effectively spread awareness of her cause.
I recently had the chance to talk with Dowd about her life leading up to 98society, how she plans to grow the brand, and how frankly, condoms can open doors to having a conversation about consent as well.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited
Tell me about your background leading up to the creation 98/Society
I ran an anti-bullying organization called Be More Heroic for five years. In doing this kind of work, I was able to understand the business strategy and development involved in the creation of a non-profit. When I built programming with Be More Heroic, I worked with psychologists, sociologists, and teachers at the ground level to build this very extensive production.
We also found activists from all over the country who could effectively cover the topic of bullying. After telling their stories, they each performed a variety of performance art. Even if the kids in the audience weren’t paying attention to the actual stories, they’d always pay attention to the performance art. We found it to be extremely effective!
What’s the 98 Society, and how did you come up with the idea?
I’ve been an entrepreneur for quite some time. I’ve worked with many businesses, particularly in the world of fashion. 98society has been a perfect blend of my entrepreneurial side and my philanthropic side.
I named the brand the 98society because every 98 seconds, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. This is a really baffling statistic, and it just goes to show the gravity of this issue.
When I was designing the clothes, I wanted to make sure that I was being intentionally ambiguous. As a survivor of sexual abuse, I wouldn’t wear a T-shirt that says “survivor” or #metoo. While I am very outward and open about sharing my story, I didn’t want my brand to be outward in the same way. In each design, the messaging is ambiguous, but it’s still tied to the issue of sexual assault.
Do you find that other survivors can relate to the ambiguity of your messaging?
Thus far, I have. I’ve also found that it’s something that allies are more comfortable wearing. That’s important, because we want to extend the conversation and, above all else, educate people.
If people are able to spread awareness with the clothing they wear by bringing attention to the statistic that every 98 seconds a person in the United States is sexually assaulted, this is a win for me. I’ve found that thus far, survivors are more likely to purchase designs that are more ambiguous.
For example, our crossword puzzle tee appears to be a series of jumbled words, but if you look closely it’s actually a series of words associated with sexual assault. These include “victim, survivor, trust, respect, and consent,” but the one word circled is respect.
How do you get this message out?
The brand awareness has primarily been spread through word of mouth. Over the next year, I really plan on listening. I plan on listening, I plan on attending, and I plan on gathering as much insight as possible from those who have worked in this field for the last several years. The following year, I’d like to begin sharing my story and implementing activations throughout the country. This will ultimately showcase that 98society is challenging the social enterprise business model and hopefully encourage other brands to do the same.
What did you think of frankly, condoms?
I think they’re great! Particularly at the collegiate level, these will be so well-received. In a moment where consent hasn’t been discussed yet, I can absolutely see girls taking the initiative and bringing these out. Or I imagine them being given to a fraternity and inevitably they’re reading what it says before ripping off the packaging forcing them to think twice about consent before having sex.
It’s so important that we keep those lines of communication open and the best way to do that is to keep the conversation light hearted and digestible. It’s a wonderful concept! Everyone should be using condoms, and if they are, frankly, is a wonderful way to open the door for some much needed conversations around consent!